Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Last Supper, 1620-21
Oil on panel, 43.8 x 44.1 cm
Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, acc. no. 61.166

Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

In 1615 the Jesuit community in Antwerp began construction of a magnificent new church, a sumptuous "Marble Temple" that was to function as both a calculated expression of the power of the Catholic faith in Antwerp, the northern bastion of Counter-Reformatory zeal; and a monument to the wealth and influence of the Jesuit order. Although it now bears the name of St. Carlo Borromeo, the Antwerp church (completed in 1621) was the first dedicated to St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, who was canonized only in 1622. Rubens was involved in this project almost from its inception: he designed decorative elements for the façade of the building and painted two major altarpieces for the church, which depicted the key Jesuit saints—Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier—performing miracles (both Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Rubens's most extensive involvement with the church, however, was in the form of thirty-nine ceiling paintings commissioned to decorate the sanctuary's side aisles and galleries, and the underside of the organ loft.

On March 29, 1620, Rubens signed a contract with Jacobus Tirinus, the superior of the Professed House of the Society of Jesus in Antwerp, which specified the terms of the commission. (The history and development of Rubens's ceiling paintings for the Jesuit church in Antwerp are thoroughly analyzed by John Rupert Martin [1968] and Julius Held [1980, vol. 1, pp. 33-62]; the text of the contract is published by Martin [pp. 213-19].) Within a year of the signing, Rubens was to supply small sketches (kleyne afteekeningen, or "small drawings") of the designs for the paintings; the large finished paintings were to be executed by Rubens's chief assistant Anthony van Dyck and other artists in his atelier and touched up as necessary by the master himself. Rubens was to be paid seven thousand guilders for the thirty-nine paintings, each measuring approximately 210 by 280 centimeters. The contract further stipulated that the artist had the option of handing the preliminary oil sketches over to the Jesuit fathers once the commission was completed, or else providing another painting for one of the side altars of the church. (Tellingly, Rubens chose to retain his sketches.)

The complex theological program for the ceiling decorations was worked out by the Jesuit fathers, and a partial list of subjects was appended to the contract. Paintings in each of the eighteen bays in the upper-level galleries (representing a theologically "higher plane") depicted the mysteries of salvation through a series of typological comparisons between Old and New Testament scenes. In the side aisles were depictions of male and female saints (see St. Gregory of Nazianzus), their more "terrestrial" placement in accordance with their humbler and more accessible roles as intercessors. Three paintings under the organ loft at the entrance to the church were to depict the patron saints of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella. Taken as a whole, the cycle emphasized the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy and defended the sacraments of the Catholic Church, an unassailable statement of Counter-Reformatory values.

On July 18, 1718, less than a hundred years after its dedication, the Jesuit church was struck by lightning and Rubens's ceiling paintings were destroyed in a disastrous fire. Our knowledge of the original placement of the paintings and their theological program depends on a handful of written descriptions and depictions of the interior of the church. Rubens's original compositions survive in two preliminary drawings and twenty-nine oil sketches by his hand: five grisailles and twenty-four colored modelli, the more finished designs that would have been shown to the Jesuit fathers for approval. (Four additional sketches record designs for paintings not included in the final series.) Later copies after the ceiling paintings augment our understanding of their final appearance. In 1711-12, the Dutch painter Jacob de Wit (1695-1754) made drawings (now lost) after thirty-six of the thirty-nine ceiling paintings; following the fire of 1718, he produced a set of larger drawings in red chalk (see J. R. Martin 1968, pp. 47-51 on the copies produced by de Wit). As an aspiring decorative painter, de Wit was much more concerned with Rubens's approach to solving the technical problems of foreshortening in illusionistic ceiling paintings than with details of iconography. More accurate records of Rubens's finished paintings are the series of drawings made by Christian Benjamin Müller (1690-1758) a mere six months before the fire (now Stedelijk Prentenkabinet, Antwerp).

In the Seattle Last Supper, Jesus, clad in a blue robe and a vibrant coral mantle, offers bread and wine to the disciples gathered closely around him. The urgency of his pose is matched by that of the gray-bearded apostle Peter seated opposite. Although Rubens originally blocked out a rectangular design for the scene, the composition is tightly focused within an octagonal format (the ceiling paintings alternated oval and octagonal compositions). This evidence led Held to conclude that the Last Supper was one of the first designs executed for the commission (Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 35). As with all of Rubens's designs for ceiling paintings in the Jesuit church, the Last Supper is rendered di sotto in sú, creating the illusion of a room extending beyond the structural confines of the church. A series of steps and a basket of bread and ewer of wine perched at the edge of the composition enhance the conceit. Partly masked by the billowing red curtain, an oculus provides not only a dramatic light source but also a suggestion of infinite space.

As originally installed in the north gallery of the Jesuit church, the Last Supper was flanked by the Old Testament subjects of Abraham and Melchizedek, traditionally interpreted as a prefiguration of the Eucharist; and Moses in Prayer between Aaron and Hur, a less common subject also symbolically associated with the rituals of the Catholic mass (see J. R. Martin 1968, pp. 198-99, and Held 1980, pp. 36-37). In his final rendering of the scene, Rubens reduced the number of disciples from seven to four. This change permitted him to isolate Christ's right hand, holding the bread, against the background and thus emphasize the initial solemn celebration of the Eucharist, the central sacrament of the Christian church.

A possible copy after the Seattle sketch is mentioned in the posthumous inventory of the painter Victor Wolfvoet, Antwerp (d. 1652; inventory October 24-26, 1652: "Een Avondmaelken op panneel, in binnenlysten, naer Rubens geschildert" [Denucé 1932, p. 141]).

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