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November 24, 2005

Christie Davies finds Catholic triumphalism and pagan voluptuousness in the baroque masterpieces of Rubens - Rubens: A Master in the Making at the National Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Rubens: A Master in the Making
National Gallery, London
26th October 2005 – 15th January 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Wednesdays until 9pm)

Sir Peter Paul Rubens was part of the art of the counterreformation, that time of Roman Catholic resurgence after crisis that endowed Spain, Italy, Austria, Bavaria and Flanders with magnificent baroque art and architecture. There is nothing more inspiring than the triumphal western façade of a Jesuit church of this time as they rule you or the tumult of images and pictures, spiralled columns and winding triangles that rise above the altar to the roof and tower over and overwhelm us. They all cry:

surrender, surrender to triumph, let yourself go, succumb to the crushing divine ecstasy pressed upon you. Abandon doubt all ye who enter here.

There is none of this excitement, exuberance and energy in the churches of cold Protestant Britain. Even Sir Christopher Wren in Pembroke College Chapel is boring by comparison; clean lines and fine proportions and nothing else. Who wants it? There is more to life than geometry. Only when Wren had a baroque mood do we see that he was a great architect. Wren's epitaph in St Paul's, London, is:

Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

(Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.)

It is a mark of failure; a baroque architect would already have hit you from all sides and you would not need to look around. No wonder Munich restored its baroque churches with care after they were destroyed by bombing in World War II whereas London left many of its Luftwaffe-smashed Wren churches as ruins disguised as gardens.

When in the nineteenth century the Anglo-Catholics sought to revive the dynamic, colourful aesthetic qualities that made baroque memorable they failed and produced buildings that were epicene tat and kitsch to go with their gin and lace. Look at the ghastly curly blonde Aryan Jesus in Walsingham, which reminds one of Philip Roth's Portnoy complaining mockery of the "Pansy of Palestine". The baroque moment had passed and we have to travel even as far as Noto and Priego de Córdoba to find it, much as we go to the great Counter Reformation cities of Antwerp and Munich to extend and relieve our longing for Rubens.

There is enough magnificence at the Rubens exhibition to have attracted visitors from the nation of Flanders itself; soon hopefully to become a fully independent state, entirely free of godless, arrogant, decaying Wallonia. Was Walsch ist - falsch ist. It is a pleasure to hear the Flemings at the National Gallery gravely discussing the Rubens paintings in their old fashioned Dutch and to see alongside them lean, hungry, intellectual English priests in black with Roman collars.

Where the crudities of Stubbs brought in the tweedy, horsy types of the Countryside Alliance, Rubens' command of colour, light and movement in the service of triumphant religion has attracted ordained men of traditional piety who know a good graven image when they see one. They know, as Rubens knew, that the word is become flesh. Priests and Flemings can't be wrong about Rubens. Even the most desiccated of unbelievers and the most fervent of bright-eyed and georgebushy-tailed evangelical Protestants should go and enjoy this exhibition.

Perhaps they should begin at the end when Rubens, the master, had been made and look at Ecce Homo, 1610, Christ presented to the people by Pilate before being taken away to be crucified. Pilate displays Christ's strong and perfect torso by holding the folds of a red cloth behind him. It is a moment of victory. Christ's face is defiant and it is said that Rubens only added the somewhat faint marks of the flagellation to his body after he had completed it. The triumph of the Resurrection is already prefigured. It is a masterpiece of demonstrated assertion at a time of adversity, the canvas equivalent of a baroque church.

It is in movement, drama, curve and colour that Rubens excels, as in The Conversion of Saint Paul 1614 with its inter-locking of the blinded Saint Paul on the ground, his massive frightened horse that has lost its rider, the groom struggling to hold it, the scared dog and Saint Paul's companions rushing to his assistance. Behind them God in the dark clouds sends down light to illuminate the foreground and the beams of light in turn point up to God.

Rubens really understood what to do with horses as we can see from Saint George, 1606-7. The Saint's horse rears up, its hoofs high in the air as George strikes with his sword. Its white mane is coarse as is its tail but it is long and flying out to the side as if it were the hair of a woman, matching but diminishing that of the princess he is rescuing and running in parallel with the rising and plunging white plume of St George's helmet. It is a wonder of colour in which a flowing red cloak points towards and points up the shining black of St. George's armour. A fine shell motif stands out on his black breastplate, an oddly prescient reminder that the exhibition is sponsored by Shell, who tried to rescue the Brent Spar from a malignant monster. It is a vigorously human picture that draws us to the intense concentration shown on St. George's face as he prepares to finish off the dragon; his elbow springs out at us as he raises his sword, drawing us into - involving us in - the dramatic spectacle. It is in all senses another triumph.

For sheer composition, though, look at Samson and Delilah 1610. Samson lies asleep, a rippling olive colour, lying obliquely against Delilah's red robed lap, offset in turn by her white sleeve and bodice which fall away to reveal the fairest of Flemish breasts, worth a good lie on. Diana still looks down tenderly at Samson but already the barber is snipping at his black hair in the light of a candle held by an old bawd. Away from this pattern of heads there is darkness but through a doorway we can see light falling on the Philistine soldiers waiting outside to seize him, much as HEFCE has done to our universities.

There are one or two oddities that I assume must be deliberate. In The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth, Saint John the Baptist and a Dove, all the adults are looking affectionately at Saint John. Why? Christ triumphantly takes the Holy Spirit out of Saint John's hands and it loses feathers but, despite this complex play with symbols, our gaze is drawn to St. John. Likewise in Rubens' oil sketches The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, 1613-14 it is the figures on the ground that we notice not the quite unmemorable BVM receiving her crown in heaven. It may well, though, look quite different in the final version, 1625, for the high altar of Antwerp Cathedral, there to be seen from a quite different angle.

There is also much pagan nonsense in the exhibition and Rubens used the same skill in these paintings for rich clients learned in profane myth as he did when working for higher purposes. The Battle of the Amazons, 1598 shows the same mastery of horses and women (Rubens unlike Henry VIII was obsessed with both their beauties). The serried black helmets and lances held upright of the reserve cavalry charging across the bridge and indeed the great forests of lances as the armies clash are as unforgettable as a film by Leni Riefenstahl, another portrayer of the pagan.

The Judgement of Paris 1600 is Rubens at his Flemish-fleshed larger ladies with fewish clothes and obvious charms best. In many cases similar images are moved from pagan sources to enrich his Christian paintings. Rubens was an eclectic thief; a thief but not in any sense a plagiarist for everything he stole he changed and enriched. He was a master indeed.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, Transaction Publishers 2002 and The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction Publishers 2004.

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This is a good article, and for once our tastes agree. The Judgement of Paris is very nice, the ladies are beautiful and not at all porny.

The religious pictures are good too, but the spiritual allusions a bit off. In The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth, Saint John the Baptist and a Dove, I cannot see how it is supposed to be scriptural that Christ takes the Holy Spirit from John the Baptist. Beautiful and engaging though the picture is, it reminds me of a certain cartoon in a Christian magazine. A man is praying for God to give him the Holy Spirit, open his eyes, and sees a pigeon alight on his windowsill. He jumps up and shouts “Hallelujah”, and the startled bird falls off.

The Ecce Homo is a more serious matter. Christ as depicted there does not seem at all like the brutally beaten man of the gospels, nor does he correspond to Isaiah’s prophecy:

...he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

and the defiant attitude does not correspond to what St Peter says of him:

Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.

Spiritually, the picture totally misses the point, for example as related by St Paul to the (second) Corinthians:

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

However, to lighter matters. The Saint George is wonderful. Seeing the Rubens horse makes plain to me why Prof. Davies doesn’t think much of the Stubbs horses, and now I agree with him. But that dragon is a strange species. Not at all related to the Welsh Dragon. It’s just as well that the Welsh kept St George at bay (until Ted One, at least). I doubt if George was much of zoologist, and he would probably have wiped out the Welsh Dragon as well. Fortunately he didn’t, and I hear there are plans to start a breeding programme to re-establish the species with the help of the Chinese, who are sending one or more of their own dragons to broaden the gene pool.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 24, 2005 11:32 PM
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