Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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The Church Triumphant
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Peter Paul Rubens
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 1620-21
Oil on panel, 50.2 x 65.4 cm
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, George B. Matthews Fund, 1952, inv. 1952:14

Catalog Entry by Marjorie e. Wieseman

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-c. 390), one of the four Greek Fathers and a Doctor of the Church, was the son of the bishop of Nazianzus, in Cappadocia. From 379 to 381 Gregory served as bishop of Constantinople. He was one of the most eloquent writers on the doctrine of the Trinity and played a key role in defending the Church against Arianism, a heretical sect that denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Gregory's rhetorical skill earned him the title "the Theologian."

In this dynamic modello for a ceiling painting in the Jesuit church in Antwerp (see The Last Supper for the history of the commission), Gregory—a figure rarely seen in Western art—is cast by Rubens as a powerful and passionate warrior in the Church's battle against heresy. The saint's glittering eyes and the rippling undulations of his voluminous chasuble and wind-tossed pallium convey the violence of his wrath as he plunges his crozier into the mouth of the demon at left. Half-man, half-beast, the demon itself is thinly rendered in dusky shades of brown pigment, with smoke and flames (described by Cesare Ripa as an attribute of Heresy; see J. R. Martin 1968, p. 203) issuing from around his head. Above the saint's head is an angel carrying a banderole inscribed "S. Gregor[ius] Nazianzenus," to announce the saint's victory over the heresies embodied by the vanquished demon.

Rubens first outlined the composition in a black chalk drawing now in the Fogg Art Museum, one of only two surviving preparatory drawings for the Jesuit Ceiling paintings. Rubens carefully established the main elements of the design in this initial drawing, leading Julius Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 34) to suggest very plausibly that the drawing may have been submitted to the Jesuit authorities during the negotiations for the contract signed on March 29, 1620. The drawing presents a more elaborate composition, with two demons and a second, larger angel at left, and the suggestion of an architectural setting at right. In refining the composition for the oil sketch now in Buffalo, Rubens eliminated the more prominent of the two demons and shifted the position of the other to emphasize its awkward backward tumble under the thrust of the bishop's crozier. The architecture at right has been replaced by a bank of clouds; and the larger of the two angels, who in the original drawing assisted the saint in defeating the demons, has been eliminated, presumably to emphasize the magnitude of Gregory's role in defending the orthodox faith against heresy (Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 60). Honed to its essence, the final composition reflects the simplicity and narrative clarity that are consistent features of Rubens's designs for the Jesuit church.

Rubens's full-scale painting of St. Gregory of Nazianzus was part of a series of sixteen images of saints (eight male and eight female), which was installed, together with representations of the Name of Jesus and the Name of Mary, in the side aisles of the Jesuit church in Antwerp. The four Greek Fathers of the Church—including Gregory of Nazianzus—were located along the north side of the church; the four Latin Fathers along the south side, each alternating with female saints and martyrs. Each of the saints represented was chosen by the Jesuit fathers (and specified in the contract of 1620) for their passionate defense of the Church against the incursions of heresy. This was a theme of considerable currency during the period and of particular relevance to the Jesuits, an order noted for their militant defense of the doctrines of the Catholic Church against the threat posed by the Protestant Reformation.

Rubens's design for St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a figure for whom there was no iconographic tradition in Western art, is similar to (if markedly more dramatic than) another scene from the Jesuit Ceiling, St. Athanasius Overcoming Arius. The likeness is appropriate, since the two saints were united in their quest to eradicate the so-called Arian Heresy. Formal parallels can be drawn with other works as well. As John Rupert Martin has noted (1968, p. 140), the pose of the demon, with his right arm lifted in a defensive gesture, is a recurrent one in other paintings of an apocalyptic nature by the artist, such as Rubens's Fall of the Rebel Angels of 1622 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv. 306) or as the personification of Sin in The Crucifixion (engraved by Paulus Pontius), showing Christ triumphant over sin and death.

The verso of the Buffalo panel is marked with arms of the city of Antwerp, and the initials LS in monogram, the mark of the Antwerp panel maker Lambrecht I Steens (see J. van Damme, ̉De Antwerpse tafereelmakers en hun merken. Identificatie en betekenis," Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen [1990], pp. 207-8; and Held 1980, vol. 1, pp. 9, 54, 60). Identical marks appear on the back of Rubens's St. Athanasius in Gotha; the fact that the dimensions of the two panels are virtually identical prompts the suggestion that they were created at precisely the same moment.

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