Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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The Church Triumphant
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Peter Paul Rubens
Christ on the Cross, ca. 1618-20
Oil on panel, 20.3 x 15.3 cm
Otto Naumann, Ltd., New York


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

At the very center of this diminutive sketch is the figure of Christ, nailed to a rough wooden cross and surrounded by a tight cluster of saints. Christ inclines his head to the right and appears to communicate with the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist; the motif recalls a detail of the Crucifixion described in John 19:25-27, in which Christ said to his mother, "Woman behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple [John], Behold thy mother!" The Virgin collapses to the ground, her side pierced by a sword, a reference to the iconography of the Sorrows of the Virgin. Kneeling at the base of the cross, Mary Magdalen embraces Christ's feet, a reminder of the moving episode in which she washed Christ's feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:38). At the far left is St. Peter, identified not only by his usual attribute of the keys but also by the inverted cross of his martyrdom. Just behind and to the left is another bearded figure wearing a pilgrim's hat and carrying a staff, who has been identified either as St. James Major or possibly St. Roch, patron saint of plague victims (Freedberg, in exh. cat. New York 1995, p. 55). Wearing a lemon yellow cloak over a blue robe is St. Philip, carrying the cross on which he, too, was crucified. To the right, behind the figure of St. John, is St. Andrew with his X-shaped cross; St. George in armor with his customary banner of a red cross on a white ground; and a crowned male figure holding a scepter and wearing a purple fur-trimmed robe, possibly representing King David. Tucked neatly into the lower right corner of the composition is the kneeling figure of St. Francis, the stigmata of Christ's wounds prominently displayed on his left hand and foot.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its unusually small scale, this sketch of the Crucifixion has sparked considerable debate as to its iconography, function, dating, and attribution. When the painting first appeared at auction in 1977, all four sides of the composition were covered with repaint (obscuring the framing elements) and the central portion was disfigured by retouches and discolored varnish. Julius Held initially rejected the attribution to Rubens but reversed his opinion after a thorough cleaning revealed not only the framing elements but also the quality of the original brushwork (Held 1987, p. 583). More recently, J. Richard Judson—who illustrates the panel before cleaning—has rejected the painting from Rubens's oeuvre and proposed instead an attribution to a later Antwerp painter, perhaps Abraham van Diepenbeeck (Judson 2000, pp. 135-36, fig. 108). But both the delicate handling of the paint and the remarkably adroit phrasing of the composition, which manages to suggest both spaciousness and monumentality in a small and densely packed scene, strongly support Rubens's authorship.

The original function of the sketch remains in question, however. As Freedberg perceptively noted (exh. cat. New York 1995, pp. 56-57), Rubens has emphasized the relationship between the individual saints represented and the cross on which Christ was crucified, connections that were elaborated on in numerous contemporary treatises on Christ's cross, including one penned by Rubens's good friend Justus Lipsius. Peter, Philip, and Andrew are shown with the crossesof their martyrdom; George with his banner; James (or Roch) with a staff reminding the viewer of the holy wood of Christ's cross; and the Virgin and St. Francis are shown bearing Christ's wounds. Even the Old Testament figure of King David may be interpreted in this context: Psalm 22 refers to the wicked who have "pierced my hands and feet," a typological parallel invoked in the Good Friday liturgy.

Judson nonetheless found it difficult to reconcile the figure of the Virgin as Mater Dolorosa, swooning at the foot of the cross, with Rubens's careful attention to iconographic detail (2000, pp. 135-36): not only is the depiction of the Virgin at the Crucifixion with a sword in her side apparently unprecedented, but the fainting posture was inconsistent with Franciscan ideals and thus unthinkable for Rubens to include in a painting that also featured St. Francis. (For the suggestion that this Crucifixion might have been commissioned by a Franciscan monastery, see Diaz Padrón, in Madrid 1977-78, p. 99.) But these calculated adjustments offered Rubens skillful and pragmatic solutions to the formal requirements of presenting a rich iconographic program within a confined space. Thus, situating the Virgin's figure rather lower than the standing saints expands the perception of space, and the sword piercing her heart enhances the affective impact of Christ's Crucifixion.

The persistent emphasis on the cross suggests that this sketch might have been a study for a work commissioned by a confraternity devoted to the Holy Cross (Freedberg, in exh. cat. New York 1995, p. 56) or an individual for whom the subject held personal significance. But what sort of work? The two painted frames surrounding the scene present the potential patron with several possibilities for finishing the composition, a technique that Rubens used on numerous other occasions (for example, the Glorification of the Eucharist sketch in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). The present design shows a more elongated frame on the left than on the right, different options for the lower corners, different capitals on the outer frames, plain or carved moldings, a keystone or scrollwork at top, and a putto at upper right. Although we cannot be certain—lacking any finished work based on this sketch or any information about a commission—the relative scale of the framing elements seems to suggest that the sketch might have been a design for a small altarpiece or devotional picture, or perhaps a painted epitaph or funerary monument (Freedberg, in exh. cat. New York 1995, p. 56). Stylistically, the sketch fits comfortably among works painted toward the end of the 1610s, when Rubens was composing similarly crowded altarpieces such as the monumental Crucifixion ("Le Coup de Lance") of 1620, or The Last Communion of St. Francis of 1618-19, both painted for the Franciscan church of the Minorites in Antwerp (both now Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp). The present sketch might also be compared with a larger sketch for a Crucifixion probably dating to about 1627 and now in the Rockoxhuis, Antwerp (Held 1980, vol. 1, no. 353).


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