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2004 - Rubens, no stranger to the world

March 6 - September 12, 2004

Saint Paul's Church:
Rubens, colleague

Table of content

1637 > St. Paul’s Church

November 4, 1637. Prior Michael Ophovius, with whom P.P. Rubens had always had a good relationship, will be buried today. As Rubens enters the Dominican church by the great portal on the Cattle Market, the great master of the baroque remembers that he had witnessed most of the con- struction of this gothic church, which was begun in 1512. The choir had only been completed five years earlier, in 1632. In contrast to the architecture, however, the decora- tion of the interior is entirely contemporary. The baroque pulpit is even one of the first examples of its kind, supported by four carved figures. The nave is lined with oak paneling equipped with six confessionals, which are constantly in use. The Dominicans are quite popular as confessors.

The St. Paul’s Church owes its fame not least to the series of paintings devoted to the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary. Rubens assisted in its creation in 1617. The Crowning with Thorns by Antoon de Bruyn and The Bearing of the Cross by Anthony van Dyck flank La Madonna del Rosario by Caravaggio. Between two pillars in the distance, he can just catch a glimpse of The Adoration of the Shepherds, a large canvas that he painted in 1611. It is hung safely behind the high enclosure of the chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary. The succession of paintings, with their bright colors, radiates warmth. The same can be said for the stained-glass windows on the south side, where large scenes designed by his colleague Abraham van Diepenbeeck softly filter the light. Not a single wall is empty, for even between the stainedglass windows there are large paintings.

The main altar, with his Vision of St. Dominic, is hardly visible. An early baroque rood loft with two side altars blocks the view into the choir. Ophovius would soon be carried into the crypt under the choir. May he rest in peace.

Today > The St. Paul’s Church

The fact that most of the original church furnishings were preserved at the end of the 18th century is fairly extraordinary. Under the French administration the paintings were claimed for France in 1794, the cloister was abolished in 1796 and the church was put up for sale. The prior of the Dominicans at that time, Cornelis Jozef Peltiers, succeeded in purchasing the church himself for the sum of 320,000 pounds. In spite of this the Dominicans were driven away and the church was closed. Thanks to the agreement between Napoleon and the pope, the church reopened in 1802 with all solemnity. A year later the St. Paul’s Church assumed the rights of the former parish church of St. Walburga. The city purchased the church from Peltiers. In 1815 all but one of the paintings were returned to the church.

Rubens never saw most of the baroque furniture. Much of it was only created in the second half of the 17th century and early 18th century. The confessionals date from 1660, the majestic main altar from 1670 and the baroque tower from 1680. The same goes for the organ and for the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary, with the work by Caravaggio, and for the altar of the Sweet Name of Jesus, made ca. 1654-58 by Peter I Verbruggen for Rubens’ Glorification of the Eucharist. A number of sculptures also came later: the elegant epitaph of the Sweet Name (1644), the slender statue of St. Rosa of Lima (around 1670), and the apostles on the pillars (ca 1720).

The only things that Rubens would have recognized, besides the work by Caravaggio and two of his own large paintings, are the series of paintings of the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, three monumental tombs in the choir, and come of the Dominican saints between the stained-glass windows and the choir stall. The early baroque pulpit has also been preserved, in a manner of speaking. Eight of its carved panels have been built into the new altar in the crossing.

Theme > P.P. Rubens, colleague

Around 1617, the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary decide to commission an impressive series of fifteen paintings for the northern aisle of the Dominican church. Each panel would be paid for by one or more Brotherhood members. The commission was attributed to eleven of the best Antwerp painters: Hendrik van Balen, Frans II Francken, Cornelis de Vos, Matthys Voet, David I Teniers, Peter Paul Rubens, Antoon de Bruyn, Antoon van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, Aernout Vinckenorgh ans Jan Aertsen. Louis Clariss, one of the members of the Brotherhood, turned to Rubens for the panel that he financed. Rubens was not too proud to participate in such a collaborative project. He even adjusted his price to match those of his colleagues. Just like Jordaens and the 18-year-old Anthony van Dyck, he received 150 guilders for the Flagellation of Christ, in spite of the fact that at that moment he was the already quite famous and earned much more elsewhere. It says a great deal about Rubens that he adopted such a collegial position. The project did not really offer him the chance to display his prowess as a great master. It only gave him the opportunity to appear as one of many talented painters in Antwerp at the time.

A few years later he would once again get the chance to show his collegiality. In 1623, together with Jan I Brueghel, Hendrik van Balen and a few other art lovers, he was able to purchase Caravaggio’s La Madonna del Rosario for 1,800 guilders and donate it to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary ‘out of affection for the chapel’.

P.P. Rubens always maintained positive relations with his colleagues – painters and sculptors – particularly thanks to his well-organized atelier, where he trained a number of upcoming talents. On various occasions he served as a witness to their marriages (Jan Wildens, David II Teniers), as godfather to their children (the sons of Jan Borrekens, Paul de Vos and Hans van Mildert) or as executor of their wills (Jan I Brueghel). Rubens’ collegiality is also demonstrated  by the portraits he painted of his colleagues and their families, such as the intimate Portrait of Jan Brueghel with his Wife and Two Children in the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. In joint commissions executed by various artists, his name occurs frequently. His contribution to the series for the fifteen mysteries of the rosary is therefore no exception.

P.P. Rubens > The Glorification of the Eucharist

The subject of this work is the recognition by theologists of the doctrine of transubstantiation, or the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. A group of saints, monks and high church officials are symmetrically  arranged around an altar, on  which stands a monstrance holding the Sacred Host. God the Father and the Holy Spirit appear above. Seven putti hover around them; in their hands they hold open books with clearly legible texts dealing with transubstantiation.

The four Latin fathers of the church stand in the foreground: on the left, the mitered bishops Augustine and Ambrose, on the right pope Gregory the Great and Jerome.  The man with                                                                          the longer beard is probably St. Paul, patron of the church. The four figures who discuss the eucharist in the middle ground cannot be identified. St. Thomas of Aquinas sits to the left of the altar – with a sun on his chest – and next to him is pope Urban IV, who established the feast of Corpus Christi. Behind the altar stand saints Dominic and Bonaventura, and to the right the evangelists Matthew, Luke, and John. In addition to a few unidentified bishops, we also recognize the saints Juliana of Cornillon and Jean of Liège, who founded Sacrament Day in the 13th century.

The painting was ordered by the Brotherhood of the Sweet Name of Jesus for its altar. One of its most prominent members was Cornelis van der Geest. Perhaps he played a role in awarding the commission to Rubens.

In the years 1654-58 the original appearance of the altar was fundamentally altered when Peter I Verbruggen built a new Venerable altar based on the example of the Altar of the Rosary. The large panel then changed formats. Moreover, the two predellas depicting Moses and Aaron originally placed below the painting disappeared. The choice of these two figures was based on Exodus 16:32-34: Moses asks Aaron to keep the surplus of manna, the bread that fell from heaven, in the tabernacle, which is considered a prefiguration of the eucharist.

In 1794 the painting was removed from the church by the French and taken to Paris; after an absence of 21 years it was returned in 1815.

P.P. Rubens > The Adoration of the Shepherds

Mary lifts the tips of the swaddling cloth to show the newborn Christ-child to the shepherds who have rushed to the scene.

Rubens painted this large canvas shortly after his return to Antwerp. The exact circumstances of the commission are not known, but in the view of the interior of the Dominican church painted by Peeter I Neefs in 1636, the canvas already hangs in its current position in the chapel of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary.

Rubens took over the composition of the Adoration of the Shepherds that he had painted in 1608 for the church of the Oratorians in Fermo, Italy. Both the painting in the St. Paul’s Church and that in Fermo are indebted to Correggio’s La Notte, an altarpiece that was in Reggio Emilia in the early 17th century and that Rubens may have seen during his stay in Italy. In both cases we qz a nocturnal scene in which the divine Child radiates light, such that specific parts of the figures, especially their faces and hands, are brightly lit while others are shrouded in darkness. The shepherd leaning on his staff who shields his eyes from the light also appears to have been inspired by Correggio. The old, toothless shepherdess is a type that Rubens also used in other works, for example in the left wing of The Raising of the Cross, now in the Cathedral of Our Lady, and in the Samson and Delilah in the collection of Nicolaas Rockox.

In 1794 the painting was removed from the church by the French and taken to the basilica of Our Lady in Saint-Cloud, Versailles. It was returned in 1815.

P.P. Rubens > The Flagellation of Christ

The Flagellation of Christ is the seventh painting in the series of the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, a cycle that was commissioned around 1617 for the north nave of the Dominican church. From west to east, the fifteen mysteries appear in succession.

  • First the five joyful mysteries:
    • the annunciation,
    • Mary’s visit to Elizabeth,
    • the birth of Jesus,
    • the presentation of Jesus in the temple,
    • the finding of Jesus in Jerusalem.
  • then the five sorrowful mysteries:
    • the agony in the olive garden,
    • the flagellation,
    • the crowning with thorns,
    • the bearing of the cross,
    • the crucifixion of Christ;
  • and finally the five glorious mysteries:
    • the resurrection of Christ,
    • the ascension of Christ to heaven,
    • the descent of the Holy Spirit on Mary and the apostles,
    • the assumption of the Virgin
    • the coronation of the Virgin.

Bound to column, Christ is beaten by three tormentors until he is bleeding. A Moor sets his foot against Christ’s calf to make him stumble. A fourth man looks on with a sinister grin.

Eleven of the best painters were involved in the production of the series, including Jacob Jordaens, Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens. The patrons were members of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary, who paid for each painting either individually or in small groups. Rubens was paid by the merchant Louis Clarisse, who gave 150 guilders for his painting. The inspiration for the cycle probably came from father Joannes Boucquet, then prior of the cloister. It was he who also established new Brotherhoods of the Rosary in Lier (1605) and Mechelen (1616).

The Brotherhood of the Rosary was founded by the Antwerp Dominicans after the naval battle of Lepanto, in which the Catholic Spanish-Venetian fleet scored an important victory against the Turks on October 7, 1571. The victory was attributed to the praying of the rosary prayer, led by the Dominican pope Pius V (1504-1572). The veneration of the Madonna of the Rosary, long propagated by the Dominicans, was used to give new impetus to the Counter-Reformation.

After four centuries the brotherhood still exists and since its foundation has given various works of art to the St. Paul’s Church, including the four canvases by Jan Peeters depicting the battle of Lepanto in 1671 and in 1971 the four stained-glass windows by Marc de Groot.

In 1794 this piece was moved to Paris. In 1816 it was once again hanging in the St. Paul’s Church, which had in the meantime had become a parish church. The fifteen paintings have since been returned to their original location.

P.P. Rubens > The Vision of St. Dominic

According to his life description, St. Dominic once had a vision in which an enraged Christ with three lightning bolts in his hand threatened to strike down all sinners. Mary then fell at his feet and pleaded with him to save the world, appealing to the zeal with which Dominic and Francis converted souls. The story was written down by Gerardus de Fracheto, a Dominican and contemporary of Dominic’s.

Filled with wrath, Christ stands above, ready to hurl his lightning bolts to earth. Mary attempts to avert the catastrophe. At the right, the two other persons of the Holy Trinity are represented: God the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the lower register of the painting the kneeling saints  Dominic and Francis hold their hands protectively above a globe, around which, as a symbol of evil, a snake is entwined. They are accompanied by several other saints. Among them we recognize St. Catherine, kneeling on a wheel, the mitred bishop St. Theodosius, the armoured St. George, a penitent St. Mary Magdalene, with her hand on her breast, St. Sebastian and in the background St. Cecilia, playing an organ.

The painting was originally placed on the main altar of the Antwerp Dominican church. Construction on the choir started in 1618, and the fathers may have commissioned the painting from Rubens that same year. In 1670 a new altar was built by Peter I Verbruggen. On that occasion the rectangular altarpiece was rounded off above by adding a strip of approximately 50 cm in height.

Rubens would later use this same composition for the altarpiece of the Franciscans in Ghent, omitting the figure of St. Dominic. This canvas, made in the 1630s, is now in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.

 In 1794 the painting was removed from the church and taken to Paris; in 1811 it was assigned to the museum in Lyon. The altarpiece was never rendered to the St. Paul’s Church.

P.P. Rubens > His friend-priest Ophovius

Michiel van Ophoven (1571-1637), or Michael Ophovius, was an important advocate of the Counter-Reformation. He was four times prior of the Antwerp Dominican cloister. Through the mediation of archduchess Usabella he was consecrated bishop of ’s-Hertogenbosch in 1626, an office that he would occupy only four years before the city was taken in 1629 by the troops of the Republic of the United Netherlands.

Rubens and Ophovius maintained good relations. That is evident from a letter by the painter and some passages in the diary of the high-placed cleric. From this it is often presumed that Ophovius was Rubens’ confessor; however, there is no conclusive evidence to confirm this. Rubens painted Ophovius’ portrait between 1617 and 1619, as prior of the Dominicans. He looks at the viewer good-naturedly and appears as if he wants to talk to him or her directly. This posture undoubtedly refers to the most important task of the Dominicans or Preachers: namely, preaching. There are various known versions of this portrait. A replica can be admired at the Rubens’ House.

Ophovius’ tomb is erected in the choir above the crypt, to the left of  the main altar. Michael Ophovius kneels before the enthroned Madonna and Child. Mary, seated on a baroque chair, supports the Christ-child, who stands on her knees. The Child blesses Ophovius with his right hand. The group is placed in front of an architectural niche with a broken pediment. The putto above with the inverted torch is a symbol of death.

The design of this monument is usually attributed to Rubens. On February 4, 1631, Ophovius wrote in his diary: ‘I have been at Mr Rubens’ in order to arrange for a funeral’. Whether this actual relates to his own tomb is unclear. What is striking at any rate is the way the facial features of the statue of Ophovius resemble those of Rubens’ drawn portrait of the bishop now in the Louvre in Paris, and how the gesture of his right hand recalls Rubens’ painted portrait of Ophovius as a Dominican.

The execution of the monument was probably entrusted to Hans van Mildert, who around 1620 had made the tomb of bishop Masius, Ophovius’ predecessor in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Van Mildert used this arrangement again. In a monument of 1631 for Waltman in church of the St. Michael’s Abbey in Antwerp, this 12th-century abbot likewise kneels before a seated Madonna and Child.

Caravaggio > La Madonna del Rosario

According to a 15th-century tradition, St. Dominic received the rosary directly from the Virgin. The event was associated with his ongoing battle against heresy, making the subject particularly appropriate for an order like the Dominicans, who preached the principles of the Counter-Reformation.

La Madonna del Rosario was not originally intended for Antwerp. It may have been painted for another Dominican church, probably in Naples, around 1606-07.

The composition is arranged in a stable, ascending hierarchy, something rather unusual for Caravaggio. In the foreground gathers a crowd of supplicants. Amongh them the donor, the gentleman in the white collar on the left. He looks out at the viewer as he reaches up to touch St. Dominic’s cloak. Some identify him as Marzio Colonna, duke of Zagarolo. The column may be a visual allusion to his name. Next come the priests: St. Dominic stands at the left, wearing the black-and-white habit of his order and holding the rosary he has just received from the Virgin. The Dominican on the right is St. Peter Martyr. Finally, there is the Madonna and Child, elevated above priests and crowd. Presumably she is a vision, but there is little to suggest this: there are no clouds, no cherubs, no clear spatial division between the heavenly and earthly realms.

The church acquired the painting when P.P. Rubens, Jan I Breughel, Hendrik van Balen and the art-merchant Jan Baptist Cooymans purchased it between 1617 and 1625 for 1,800 guilder. They donated it to the Brotherhood of the Rosary. Rubens had always been a great admirer of Caravaggio. When the latter’s Death of the Virgin was rejected by the fathers of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, on account of its perceived impropriety, Rubens convinced one of his former patrons, the duke of Mantua, to purchase the picture. It is therefore not surprising that he also lent his collegial assistance in bringing La Madonna del Rosario to Antwerp.

The 1636 view of the church’s interior by Peeter I Neefs shows that the painting was originally hung in the northern aisle within the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary cycle, between the 8th and 9th mysteries. Around 1650, this large painting received a more suitable place above the new rosary altar on the east wall of the northern transept. In 1781 it was offered to emperor Joseph II and subsequently taken to Vienna, where it is still on view today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The present painting is a copy by Andreas Bernard de Quertenmont of ca. 1781-86.

P.P. Rubens > His friend-physician Marcquis

Rubens had to confront sickness and death throughout his life. In October 1623 his oldest child, Clara Serena, died at the age of only 12. Three years later, on June 20, 1626, he lost his beloved wife, Isabella Brant. She probably died of the plague. Of the four doctors who attended her, renowned plague specialist Lazarus Marcquis received the highest fee.

A few months after Isabella Brant’s death, Rubens had his first attack of gout, a condition that would continue to pursue him and would even affect his hands. At the end of 1638 his condition is so bad that he receives the sacraments of the dying. Nonetheless he recovered. A year later, however, death was unavoidable. The paralysis of his hand in April 1640 was a dramatic shadow. His friend and physician Lazarus Marcquis stood him by during the last days of his life. Rubens died on May 30 140 at the age of 63.

Lazarus Marcquis (1574-1647) was born in Antwerp, the son of a Walloon diamond merchant. He studied humanities at the college of the Antwerp Jesuits, and afterward studied medicine at the universities of Leuven and Padua. He would become a professor and famous specialist on the plague. He spoke six languages – Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek – and at the same time had a thorough knowledge of philosophy and history. Together with a few other members of his profession he established the Collegium Medicum, the forerunner of the Order of Physicians. His publications on the plague, written in Dutch and intended for a broad public, were widely circulated. He continually emphasized before the city magistracy the importance of prevention and hygiene in combating the plague. With a few other scholars like Rockox, Gevartius and Nonnius, he regularly engaged in scientific discussions with Rubens at home. In this way he became both physician and friend to the painter.

For thirty years Lazarus Marcquis was the doctor of the Antwerp Dominicans. His son, Godefridus Marcquis (°1610), entered the Antwerp Dominicans, became prior of the cloister and later provincial of the order. Lazarus Marcquis was buried in the Dominican church in 1647 on the northeast side of the choir. His tombstone can still be seen there.