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The Our Lady’s Cathedral of Antwerp, a revelation.

Our Lady’s Assumption
(Pieter Paul Rubens)

Frans Floris’s triptych (1560) for the high altar had not survived the Calvinist rule. After the restoration of Catholic worship this void was temporarily filled up with a work by the same master, The Adoration of the Shepherds from 1568, which is now owned by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. This provisional character however would last longer than had been hoped, since the first initiative for a new altarpiece by the church board in 1611 failed for one reason or the other.

Initially the chapter approved of Otto van Veen’s modello for a Coronation of Mary. But not long after this, one of Rubens’s proposals was preferred: not his modello for a similar subject, but a second design dealing with Mary’s assumption. Anyway, being surpassed by a pupil, and moreover for one of the most prestigious projects in his own city must have been extremely painful for Van Veen. For reasons unknown Rubens’s execution of the painting on panel never ended up in the cathedral. Eventually it was put on the altar of the Our Lady’s chapel that the Jesuits added to their church, the present Charles Borromeo Church, shortly after 1620. There it has been replaced by a copy, whereas the original painting is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

But a second attempt was successful. It may be assumed that of the two modelli Rubens proposed to the chapter in 1618, the one that was selected served for the ‘stone’ altar model that the sculptors, the brothers Robrecht and Jan de Nole, presented three months later. After all the altar framing and the altar piece were thematically concordant. So as to get a reliable impression on the spot of the effect of this far-reaching project in the choir, the altar model was painted on a large panel two years later. From 1621 onwards the stone dressers started working in a shed that was especially constructed for this purpose on the unconsecrated ground of the graveyard. Still it lasted another three years before the foundation stone was laid. The honour for this was given to no less a person than Archduchess Isabella. It took several more years, maybe until ca. 1630, before the final touch was added to this impressive altar.

The expenses for the painting ‘Onse Lieve Vrouwe hemelvaert oft coronatie’ (Our Lady’s assumption or coronation) were covered by Johannes del Rio, the dean of the chapter, as a kind of payment for the tomb that he had been promised at the northern entrance to the sanctuary. In this way in 1619 he assured himself of a permanent memorial to his person in the church to which he had been attached as a canon for more than twenty years. Because he died in the early part of 1624, at the age of nearly 70, he was not offered even a glimpse of the contractual promise by master Rubens: ‘dat ick sal schilderen loffelyck ende tot mynen alderbesten mogelyck synde’ (that I will paint praiseworthily and with all my best abilities). Only in the summer of 1625 – six years after the contract had been concluded – Rubens started working at the painting in his workshop, but he had to interrupt it due to diplomatic missions. Immediately after his return, in February 1626, he asked to clear the choir so that he could finish it on the spot without being disturbed. But once it was in the choir it was clear that the painting was too narrow for the altar framing – apparently wrong dimensions had been given. Back in the workshop a strip of about 20 cm (8 in.) was added to the right of the nearly 5 m (16 ft.) tall painted panel so that the total width now is 3.25 m (10 ft. 8 in.). In the same period the chapter decided to move a medieval stained glass window with a striking ‘lemon yellow’ area two bays at the south side of the choir. This was done in favour of the light effect on the painting and this concern was probably an initiative of the painter. This shows how much ‘modern’– read ‘contemporary’ – art was held in high esteem in the Baroque. Back in the choir the painting was finished at the end of 1626 or at the latest by early 1627.

On the high altar all attention goes to Mary, the patron saint of the church. The theme of Our Lady’s assumption is not Biblical at all, but taken from the medieval Golden Legend. With the exclusive doctrinal point of Mary being ‘assumed body and soul into heavenly glory’ is meant that her body remained intact and was not exposed to earthly transience. Behind this is the conviction that man keeps his unique personality in the hereafter. The Biblical promise from the book of Revelation (2:10) – I will give the crown of life to whom is faithful until death – may well be the starting point of the exclusive scene of Mary’s coronation in Heaven, but it also goes for everyone who lives to let good prevail. This is why this Marian theme offers the hopeful perspective of eternal happiness with God to every believing mortal. This interest in Mary’s glorification is characteristic of Counter Reformation, as a reaction against Protestants, who estimate her role far less.

The magnificent coloration of Rubens’s palette strikes first, starting with the three primary colours – here deep red, golden yellow and warm ultramarine – which blossom open to twinkling tints thanks to the lively lighting. Besides there is the extraordinarily light pastel pink: in the dress of the woman that is kneeling down in the foreground and in the lining of Mary’s white satin outer garment, which has slightly been turned back. This is a clever trick Rubens has used to give to Mary her three symbolic colours, provided that next to pure white and heavenly blue, human blood red has been replaced by a more rarefied variant. The upper part of the painting, Heaven, is mainly distinguished by the soft pink winged putti, which are absorbed in Mary’s  white satin dress, on the background of a soft light blue sky, while the brightly white passages make the light glitter. Moreover Rubens has put the passage of Heaven in ingenious contrast with the dark black, deep grey and green earthly hues to the right, which cause Mary’s upward movement to brighten even more.

Throughout the colours the spectator also slowly descries the dynamic Baroque composition, which, thanks to the central diamond shape in the lower part of the painting, unobtrusively breaks through the dichotomy between Earth and Heaven, which in other works is often so taut. On the extreme left is the stunned disciple John, who with his outstretched arm constitutes the link between both, because here the diagonal arises that leads directly to Mary and which is the guideline for her upward movement. The central diamond, which frames a view on most of the eye-catching figures in the background, also supports a second, purely visual upward movement. This one starts at the kneeling lady in pastel pink, runs across the rim of the yellow cloak of the standing apostle Peter and his colleague Paul, along the outstretched hands of another apostle, to be absorbed in the angels floating upward on the right in the upper part. A nice iconographic link is also made between terrestrial and heavenly reality: some apostles, such as Peter, are still staring dazed into the empty tomb, while others follow Mary with their eyes, filled with awe or stretching out their hands in complete confusion.

It is as if this assumption were a live staging. The swirling of the angels makes that the diagonal of the first upward movement is absorbed in a circle around Mary, which causes an effect of turbulence. A somewhat subtler accentuation of dynamism is reached by the double usage of colour. Notice how the primary colours of the group on Earth are mirrored in reverse in the angels and Mary. In this the pastel pink of the woman below and in  Mary’s cape constitute the central axis. Mary wears an extraordinarily brilliant dress of satin and gold brocade, set off with precious stones. After all she is dressed for the heavenly ball, where joy is endless. She is mobbed by countless putti, which enforce the upward movement of her ‘assumption’. As a mark of honour angels with palms come to accompany Mary on her journey to Heaven and offer wreaths of flowers to her. According to the legend the apostles are standing at Mary’s empty tomb, where three young women and an elderly lady are astonished to find nothing but the shroud. Because here Paul takes the place of Thomas, who is still on his way from distant India, the symbolic number of twelve is upheld.

Of the different versions of Mary’s assumption that Rubens worked out in large format, not one is so strongly expressive as this one. Here ‘he renders to the assumption the pace of an ecstatic  apotheosis, which is so typical of his Baroque style’ (Paul Huvenne). With this version Rubens has also created a model for this Marian theme that was frequently imitated in Baroque times at home and abroad, in churches, convents and chapels, as well as in many civil interiors, either painted in a popular, naïve style, or in the form of professional etchings. Thanks to an etching by Adriaan Lommelin (1631) we have a reliable idea of the original Baroque altar concept, which went further than The Raising of the Cross, in which only painting was used. By applying three dimensional sculpture not only the spectator’s distance towards the two dimensional painting is broken: the amalgamation between painting and sculpture must lead to a thematic dialogue. In the central niche of the altar crowning a glorified Christ used to be awaiting His mother to offer her a crown, which was originally gilded. In the bended fronton above it sat God the Father enthroned in bust, with a wide blessing gesture, and there flew the allegoric dove of the Holy Spirit. The flanking angels, who waved palm leaves and offered laurel wreaths, repeated the gestures of the angels top left in the painting. The two large, slender candlesticks, on both ends of the crowning, referred to Heavenly liturgy, which should mirror the liturgy at the altar below.

In 1798 the original altar was sold by the French Revolutionary Rule. After Rubens’s panel had returned from Paris, in 1817 the church council gave city architect Jan Blom the commission to design a new high altar that remained faithful to the Baroque and thematic concept. Now the group of plastered wooden statues representing the triune God by Jan Frans van Geel (1826) shows how God the Father and Christ together offer Mary’s crown as a heavenly reward.

Since the 18th century the story has been going that Rubens, who made the finishing touch to this painting in 1626, added the portrait of his first wife to it, Isabella Brandt, who died in the same year, more specifically the central female figure behind Mary’s tomb and clothed in striking red. The argument for this, namely that this figure’s face shows a different expression from the one in the modello, goes as much for most persons around Mary’s tomb, who seem to be more realistic on the larger format. Further study of the type of female faces in Rubens’s paintings could shed a light here and it would be good if this were supported by the kind of computer simulations that are used in forensic medicine. But the question remains if this specific female head would lead us to the known portraits of Isabella Brandt. That the anecdote on its own is stronger than the possible clue was already shown in 1790, with Georg Forster of all people, one of the most accurate observers of his time. His Reise um die Welt (A journey around the world) had become an example for the new literary genre of the scientifically based travel account. He thought he could recognize Isabella Brandt in Mary. The fact that people seem to recognize Isabella Brandt both in the woman in the front as in Mary illustrates that the women Rubens painted were probably nothing else but the representation of the aesthetic ideal of his time.

The popularity of this work also depends on the ties of the Antwerpian with his historic culture or with Catholicism. On the occasion of the 1930 Universal Exhibition in Antwerp, which also focused on Flemish culture and art, one of the glorious processions showed (a copy of) this painting to indicate how much Rubens’s religiousness and his genius went hand in hand.