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A Feature Review of
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)?
Yet Sauerländer finds this exact contrast crucial to a proper understanding of the religious Rubens. The Death of Seneca recalls that Rubens was both a Christian and a humanist. The author warns against equating Seneca’s stoic end to the redemptive hope found in Rubens’s portrayal of martyred apostles and saints, but he establishes here an interpretive thread that will weave throughout the book: Rubens’s fusion of the pagan images of antiquity with Christian themes and narratives.
The art historian also uses the painting to demonstrate Rubens’s tie to Neostoicism, a late sixteenth century movement which sought to syncretize Stoic philosophy and Christian belief. Rubens’s brother Philippe studied under Justus Lipsius, the founder of Neostoicism. According to Sauerländer, this connection provides useful keys for analyzing Rubens’s Catholic altarpieces. It affirms the author’s mission to rescue Rubens’s religious subjects from the simplistic label of “Baroque passions” and to highlight the ways in which the Flemish painter brings ethical and philosophical proportion to scenes of shocking violence, torture, and death.
First published by Munich-based C.H. Beck in 2011, The Catholic Rubens comes to art lovers in English thanks to The Getty Research Institute and David Dollenmayer’s translation. Sauerländer, an eminent German art historian, writes with the “enlightened” modern viewer in mind, someone who is more likely to encounter Rubens in a museum than a church (and more likely to set foot in the former than the latter, as well). For such a person, Sauerländer suggests the question raised at the beginning of his book might not be “Why start with dying Seneca?” but “Why even consider what is Catholic about Rubens?”
The author admits the peculiarity of his chosen project, not simply because he himself is an agnostic of Protestant extraction, but because, for contemporary art critics, “to ask about the religious affiliation of one of the greatest masters in the history of European painting must seem narrow, even injurious to the point of amputation” (9). Sauerländer submits that, possibly, it is the other way around. To relegate Rubens to the category of “autonomous art” and approach the emotion of his paintings as “mere blind tumult” overlooks how his religious art reconciles human experience with divine mercy. It also neglects the historic moment to which his work bears witness. In The Catholic Rubens, Sauerländer brilliantly re-contextualizes Rubens’s altarpieces within their ecclesiastical origin and function.
Rubens painted in the first half of the seventeenth century, and Sauerländer focuses in large part on altarpieces that ended up in the artist’s native Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium). Where possible, Sauerländer delves into the backstory of each piece, tracing their commissioning, whether the direct request by an ecclesiastical council or a donation to churches and religious orders by devout and well-off patrons. The historic tensions of Rubens’s Europe come alive in the recounting. Local cult traditions grapple with the post-Tridentine (Council of Trent) guidelines for proper worship and religious iconography. Power shifts along geopolitical and religious fault lines, Europe tearing itself down and building itself back up in the wake of Calvinist iconoclasm and the continuing confessional wars.
These tensions come to bear on the paintings themselves. Sauerländer’s proficient analysis considers the composition of each altarpiece, compares it to Rubens’s stylistic sources and contemporaries, and reveals how the Flemish Baroque artist’s treatment of the subject material is as complex as it is unique. (Over 100 illustrations throughout the book complement this endeavor.) For example, the well-known Descent from the Cross is the main panel of an altar polyptych commissioned by the Antwerp Civic Guard in 1611 for the city’s Cathedral of our Lady. One of the altar’s outer panels depicts a herculean Saint Christopher, the Civic Guard’s patron saint. Through his analysis of the polyptych’s images, Sauerländer demonstrates how each panel, including the main image of the deposition, all portray “Christophers” (meaning “bearer of Christ”) and together affirm the Catholic theology of eucharistic transubstantiation. Thus, Rubens’s work mediates local veneration of saints with the post-Tridentine call for devout and persuasive images of the Passion and eucharistic sacrament.