Brad Miner: Peter Paul Rubens’ greatest painting calls us to ask ourselves: How weighty are our sins? How backbreakingly heavy are the sins of the world? And how does evil cooperate in our redemption?
Some think of the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) as mostly images of voluptuous (sometimes nude) women. (His The Judgment of Paris is a good example.) If I see a full-figured woman, I reflexively think: Rubenesque. Other artists, Pierre Auguste Renoir is one, painted women who were zaftig (a lovely Yiddish synonym), but nobody says Renoiresque.
But that aspect of Rubens’ work is really the celebration of the human form in the spirit of Michelangelo (1475-1564). And Rubens was probably the greatest Catholic artist of the Baroque period (c. 1600 through 1750), as Michelangelo had been in the Renaissance. In painting, especially, the Baroque style is the artistic manifestation of the Catholic Counter-Revolution, the energetic reassertion of Catholicity against the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation.
Of all the Catholic paintings by Rubens, none stands taller than “The Elevation of the Cross” – literally: the triptych in which “Elevation” is the centerpiece stands more than 11 feet tall and is over 15 feet wide. (The image below, showing a woman standing before it in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, gives some perspective on its size and impact.)
“The Elevation of the Cross” may be the greatest of all Baroque religious paintings. This is not to say that Rubens was the greatest Baroque painter. To my mind, that honor goes to Caravaggio (1571-1610). In his short life, Caravaggio produced fewer than 100 paintings (not counting copies) but many of them masterpieces, whereas a catalog of Rubens’ work lists 1,403. Caravaggio, along with Michelangelo and Titian (c. 1489-1576), strongly influenced Rubens, who studied the Italian painters during extended stays in Venice, Rome, and Florence.
Caravaggio was a quintessential live-hard-die-young artist; Rubens was a live-long-and-prosper one. We don’t think of 62 as particularly long-lived today, but it was a full life in Rubens’ time. He was also well-educated and, in his way, powerful: a diplomat and the friend of kings. The home-and-studio-and-gardens complex he eventually built in Antwerp is a true mansion. All his success, unrivaled at the time by any other living artist, did not spoil him, and that was in large measure because of his grounding in Catholicism.
You’d be surprised to tour a decent art museum anywhere in the world and not find a “Crucifixion” in the collection. More than likely, it will be by a Catholic artist. But not always. Marc Chagall, probably the most celebrated Jewish artist of the 20th century, painted a number of Crucifixion scenes, each an expression of the artist’s conviction that Christ suffered with European Jews as they were suffering under the Nazis.
Most Crucifixion paintings depict Jesus on the Cross, dying or dead. Not Rubens’ The Elevation of the Cross, painted between 1610 and 1611. It witnesses to something not simply representational but also powerfully evangelical.
Sin is about to murder God, but that’s not an easy thing to do. One imagines that the nailing and erecting of the crosses of Dismas and Gestas, the good and bad thieves (depicted in the right panel of the triptych), was a routine thing for Roman soldiers. It’s not personal; it’s just business. But this is not the case with the preacher from Nazareth, “King of the Jews.”
Eight muscular men strain as if the weight of the Cross and the Man is greater than any of them has ever encountered. Perhaps one of them is thinking: Surely this is heavier than anything my ancestors lifted when they built the aqueducts of Rome! . . .How I wish I were back home!
During his stay in Rome, Rubens visited the Sistine Chapel and saw Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings, Raphael’s tapestries, and frescoes by Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and others, nearly all of which showed the pre-Reformation dynamism and color so characteristic of the High Renaissance: human bodies in action.
Of course, Protestants believe in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection no less than do Catholics, but depictions in the late 16th and early 17th centuries had become somewhat static. The body of Christ on the Cross is always shown as stripped down. But other figures in the scenes by Protestant painters (such as there were) tend to be clothed to such an extent that we might call them shrouded. And a painting such as The Elevation of the Cross could never have been placed in a 17th-century Protestant church. For all I know, it wouldn’t be acceptable today – not so much for the triptych’s central panels as for the left side panel in which we see witnesses to the Crucifixion.
Here are our Blessed Mother with the Apostle John comforting her. Below them are six remarkable people: two children and four women, one of whom, a blonde with decorative braids, has been nursing her blonde child, who has pulled away suddenly from the mother’s bare breast as the mother leans back, transfixed by the Cross rising towards its apex. A much older woman – with the other, older child clinging to her – is also reacting to the effort of the elevation. But she leans slightly forward, her hand raised as if she might be instructing the Romans on how to do the job. More likely, she’s about to weep.
The other women, both dark-haired – likely the two Marys – seem already to be mourning. One – to my mind Mary Magdalene – is prayerful. The other Mary, who looks straight at us, may be the wife of Cleopas, the brother of Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. According to art historian Ulrich Heinen, the four women represent “the stages of repentance: fearfulness, contrition, hope, and charity toward the Savior.”
Christ, the man, is accepting the death He was born to achieve. For Rubens, this is the moment in which He asks the Father to forgive his tormentors and killers.
So, we ask ourselves: How weighty are our sins? How backbreakingly heavy are the sins of the world? And how does evil cooperate in our redemption? For the soldiers, this is an end. For us, it’s Creation transformed and reborn.
You may also enjoy:
James Patrick Reid’s Art, Sacred and Profane
Fr. Robert P. Imbelli’s Tintoretto’s Enlightenment
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer).
EDITORS NOTE: This The Catholic Thing column is republished with permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2021 The Catholic Thing. All Rights Reserved.