Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1617-18
Oil on panel, 48.2 x 64.8 cm
Private Collection (Courtesy David Koetser, Zurich)

Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

The subject is based on Matthew 2:1ff. In a horizontal composition composed of full-length figures arrayed friezelike across the panel, the three magnificently attired kings and their entourage approach the Holy Family in the manger. The Madonna in white and golden robes stands holding the Christ Child, whose tiny foot is held and kissed in a tender gesture by the oldest magus, the Assyrian king Caspar, who kneels wearing gold and blue drapery and an ermine stole. The Christ Child raises his hand in a blessing above the king's bare head. Behind the kneeling magus stands the second king viewed in profile with white turban, brown robes, and a brilliant red mantle. The long train of his garment is borne by a page wearing a chasuble. The third, Ethiopian, king, called Balthazar or Melchior, stands with arms akimbo at the back left, wearing a tall white turban and long blue cape over a golden tunic and pink sash. Two soldiers with armor and shields, one wearing a plumed helmet, stand behind the central king, and many bearded men and young boys are among the curious onlookers. In addition to the golden bowl resting on the manger, the magi bring other gifts, including a golden wine cup held by a page at the second king's side and a golden box carried by a bearded servant in a crimson tunic in the crowd at the back left. The stable is adumbrated only in the most cursory fashion, a ramble of planks and earth, with glimpses of slate blue sky in both upper corners and pennants faintly fluttering at the left above the heads of horses.

Long hidden from the public view, the present work was catalogued by Theodor von Frimmel at the end of the nineteenth century but did not surface again until 1980 in Switzerland, where it was examined by Julius Held, but only after he had published his extensive study of the oil sketches. In a letter dated February 22, 1981, Held confirmed the work's attribution to Rubens. The painting subsequently was published by Didier Bodart (1981) as by Rubens, and its attribution has been confirmed by Hans Devisscher (who will include the work in his forthcoming book for the Corpus Rubenianum) in a letter dated January 20, 1997. As Held observed in his correspondence, the sketch is a modello for the large canvas of the Adoration of the Magi in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. He further noted that the sketch outlines much of what would be realized in the final canvas. Although as with most of Rubens's sketches it is not so fully resolved in detail as the larger work, it also reveals some notable changes: among the group of heads seen above the soldier's shield, the callow youth farthest on the right is changed to a bearded older man; Joseph at the far right is deprived of his staff and turned in profile; the black servant bearing the gold box at the extreme left is given a new striped outfit and a more elaborated gift; and the architecture of the stable at the back has been developed and the view at the upper right curtailed. Another noticeable feature of the final composition is its greater compression, with the figures moved closer to the picture plane and made more monumental. The Lyon canvas was also long overlooked as a major work by Rubens until Jacques Foucart resuscitated it in the exhibition Le Siècle de Rubens in Paris in 1977-78 (no. 128). In that catalogue he listed the present work as a copy, but knew it only through Frimmel's 1895 catalogue.

The horizontally disposed design for the Adoration of the Magi was first explored by Rubens in his oil sketch in Groningen for the large version of the theme that he painted in about 1608-9 for the Statenkamer of Antwerp's Town Hall. Hoping to win favors from Spain, the town hall painting was presented by the city magistrates to the powerful Don Roderigo Calderón, conde d'Oliva, Spanish Ambassador Extraordinary, and a resident of Antwerp in 1612. Calderón eventually fell out of favor with the Spanish court and was beheaded in 1621; Philip IV acquired the painting from his estate two years later. Most of the salient features of the present composition are already set out in the Groningen sketch, but in reverse: the Holy Family stands to one side, the first king kneels in profile before the Christ Child in the manger, while the second king in long red drapery stands behind him. Although posed similarly with hands on hips, the black king appeared at the back center, while muscular attendants brought forth treasure to one side where the pages now appear.

Rubens painted the subject of the Adoration of the Magi more frequently than any other subject from the life of Christ. (For all the various paintings of the subject, see M. Jaffé 1989, nos. 21, 96, 98, 476, 482A, 503, 525, 526, 559, 560, 779, 780, 880, 948, 1094; Hans Devisscher, Peter Paul Rubens: Aanbidding der Koningen [1992] listed ten variations on the theme.) However, most of Rubens's designs are upright in format and, like the vast and justifiably famous paintings in the St. Janskerk in Mechelen of 1619, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (painted for the Capuchins in Tournai in c. 1619), the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (painted for the high altar of St. Michael's Abbey in 1624), and the Musée du Louvre, Paris (painted for the Cloister of the Annunciation, Brussels, 1626-27), were designed to be altarpieces. The fact that the present work (like the Groningen sketch for the town hall commission) is of a horizontal format suggests that it and the final canvas in Lyon may have been executed for a secular rather than ecclesiastical destination, although the source of its commission is unknown. Nonetheless, the Lyon canvas had a distinguished early provenance, having been acquired by the Elector of Bavaria in Antwerp in 1698 from Gijsbert van Ceulen, together with twelve other paintings by Rubens that are now among the pride of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

The popularity of the theme of the Adoration of the Magi during the Counter-Reformation in part stemmed from the subject's association—by its magnificent pageantry, luxurious costumes, the retinue of attendants, and many curious onlookers—with the celebration of the Holy Mass. In the present work, as in all of Rubens's other treatments of the theme, the Madonna is not viewed passively holding the Child in her lap but actively standing, presenting the Christ Child to the visitors from the East and their awestruck attendants as they proffer their gifts and prayers. As Held observed in discussing Rubens's various innovative treatments of the Adoration of the Magi (1980, vol. 1, pp. 451, 456), throughout his career the painter represents the Virgin as the symbol of the mother Church and also as Ecclesia, displaying the heavenly infant, not on a lowly manger, but on a straw-covered table resembling an altar, to the representatives of mankind. Thus she is the Virgo Sacerdos, officiating and assisting as a celebrant in the ritual of the Mass, while at the same time presenting him naked to the world as the ultimate sacrificial offering. Illuminated by a miraculously brilliant shaft of light, the Christ Child makes the sign of the blessing, which, as in the Brussels altarpiece, may have been inspired by Pseudo-Bonaventura's Imitatione Vitae Christie.

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