Many of Rubens’s altarpieces center on subjects that are “deeply foreign – and, in some instances, literally antipathetic” to the modern viewer (270). Spiritual warfare that echoes the European battles of heresy vs. true faith, hagiographic depictions of saints, and scenes of martyrdom all come alive under Rubens’s furia del pennello, or “fury of the brush.” Sauerländer does not try to resolve or reason away these disquieting themes, but he also explains how the violent images functioned within liturgical life. “It is the sacramental paradox of these images of death and dying that precisely through their tempest of emotion – their gruesomeness – they become beacons of the Christian victory over death” (14). For example, in his analysis of The Triptych of Saint Stephen the author notes that the compositional contrast between the forgiving martyr of the early church and his persecutors “has much to tell us about [Ruben’s] Stoic, Christ-inflected and measured relationship to the ‘baroque passion’” (188). Moreover, the painting served as a visual meditation for this oratio read at Mass on the saint’s feast day: “We beseech thee, Lord, let us imitate what we celebrate, so that we learn to love even our enemies…” Together, the painting and the prayer ring with the Counter-Reformation’s reaffirmation of Catholic saints, as well as the contradictory reality of religious intolerance.
Near the end of his book, Sauerländer addresses one of Rubens’s most personal religious works – The Crucifixion of Saint Peter at St. Peter Church in Cologne, Germany. The artist’s family lived in Cologne during the first ten years of his life, and the author surmises that Rubens was baptized at St. Peter as a child. His Calvinist father was buried there. Then, a few years before his own death in 1640, Rubens painted an altarpiece for St. Peter which shows the aged apostle hunched and writhing as he’s nailed to an inverted cross. As with his other pieces, the classical is reworked into the Christian scene; Peter’s anguish harkens back to the sculpture of the Trojan priest Laocoön. Yet rather than fateful, violent death as the final word, heaven descends with a martyr’s crown.
While Rubens’s painting still stands in St. Peter, according to the Cologne city website, the church itself is now an exhibition room. In The Catholic Rubens, Willibald Sauerländer places the Baroque painter’s altarpieces back within their primary context – before they went from church to museum, or the museum came to the church. His thorough re-contextualization reveals the personal, historical, and ethical complexities layered within Rubens’s religious art. Though the Catholicity of Rubens’s work may unsettle the modern viewer, “enlightened posterity” has not outrun the human conditions the Flemish master dealt with in his life and art – religious and political conflict, war and torture, disease and death. By setting the altarpieces once again behind the altar, Willibald Sauerländer presents them as signposts of divine mercy breaking into the physical world. They rejoin a liturgical matrix within which one might wrestle with, reflect upon, and offer up all that is yet unreconciled.