The Elevation of the Cross, 1610-1611, (Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium)
Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Sir Peter Paul Rubens dominated Flemish art and ranks as one of the archetypal figures of the Baroque style, his work being full of warmth and energy. Baroque art was produced only in Catholic countries, often as part of the decoration of churches. Italy, France, Spain and Flanders, which at this time was ruled by Spain, were the main Catholic countries where art flourished in the 17th century.
Art in Flanders, which is roughly equivalent to modern-day Belgium, and the Dutch Republic, Holland, shared a common heritage, as the two countries had been united in the 16th century. However, while the Dutch broke away from Spanish rule to create an independent, largely Protestant State, Flanders remained loyal to Spain and to the Catholic Church.
On a trip to Belgium Andy and I visited Antwerp where Rubens and his family lived for well over 25 years. It is here that the artist created most of his work. Rubens moved to Antwerp in 1616, after he returned from his stay in Italy. The House of Rubens, now houses the Rubens House Museum. When Rubens lived in the house, he had it embellished and turned into one of the most elegant Renaissance-Baroque Houses of the Low Countries, with a beautiful restyled garden and an impressive entrance. It was here that most of his Baroque paintings were created. Diplomats, artists, art lovers and collectors, scientists and even the Spanish Archdukes Albert and Isabella visited him here. Now the museum includes the charming garden, the creators’ workshop and a fabulous collection of his work.
We also visited the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp which houses many of Rubens’ paintings. The distinctive building holds an impressive collection of art, paintings by Flemish primitives, Jan van eyck and Hans Memling; hang side by side with works by Quetin Massys, the founding father of Antwerp’s painting school, Rubens, Sir Anthony Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens.
Rubens was an extraordinary, widely traveled, gifted man of many talents: painter, diplomat, businessman, and scholar. He was the greatest and most influential figure in Baroque art in northern Europe and had a huge output and a busy studio with many assistants, including Van Dyck.
His large-scale set-piece works, such as altarpieces and ceiling decorations, must be seen in situ in order to experience their full impact and glory. Ruben’s work is always larger than life. He was an enthusiastic and wonderful storyteller.
The triptych painting, The Elevation of the Cross, shows a clear influence of Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Caravaggio, Tintoretto, and Michelangelo. The central panel illustrates a tension between the multitude of finely muscled men attempting to lift the cross and the seemingly unbearable weight of Christ on the cross. Motion, space and time are illustrated along with the struggle to upright the Christ. Rubens uses dynamic color and chiaroscuro boldly, a style that will become more subtle with time.
Rubens’ work typically includes three possible themes – (1) Movement. Inventive compositions with energetic diagonals and viewpoints; color contracts and harmonies that activate the eye; figures at full stretch both physically and emotionally. (2) Muscles. Gods built like Superman, muscular Christianity in which well-developed martyrs suffer and die with enthusiasm. (3) Breasts. Rubens never missed a chance to reveal a choice breast and cleavage. Note also the rosy, blushing cheeks, and the businesslike eye contact in the portraits.
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