The Catholic Rubens: Saints and Martyrs.
David Dollenmayer, Trans.
Getty Research Institute, 2014.
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Reviewed by Sarah Jane Holsteen
For a book examining the Counter-Reformation altarpieces of a Baroque artist, Willibald Sauerländer begins in an unexpected spot: with the painting of a pagan suicide. Peter Paul Rubens’s The Death of Seneca (circa 1612), depicts the Stoic philosopher fulfilling Emperor Nero’s order of death, his (likely wrongful) punishment for plotting against the Roman ruler. Sauerländer commits the whole first chapter of The Catholic Rubens to a discussion of this painting. Why? Stoicism’s exhortation to self-control and reason run counter to the heightened emotions and tumultuous narratives of the Baroque art which Rubens helped define. And why begin a consideration of Rubens’s artistic service to the Catholic Church with this “Pagan Prelude” (the title of Chapter One)?