Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse, ca. 1623-24
Oil on panel, 63.5 x 49.2 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, acc. no. 85.PB.146

Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

The subject is derived from the Book of Revelation 12:1-10. At the center appears the "woman" of the Apocalypse, an allusion to the Virgin, who is "clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet," protectively holding up the infant Christ Child. (The link between the Woman of the Apocalypse and the Virgin was made at least as early as the thirteenth century by Bonaventura.) She wears a white dress, blue mantle, and ocher shawl. On the orb of the moon on which she stands she crushes a serpent with her right foot, a reference to Genesis 3:15. To the left the archangel Michael, in red with armor and wielding a lightning bolt, and two angels, one with a lance, subdue a hydra-headed, reddish dragon (the "great red dragon, having seven heads") and other demons that tumble into a fiery abyss below (Rev. 12:7-9: "And there was war in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. . . . And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him"). At the right are two other angels, and above, God the Father commands another angel to attach wings to the Virgin's shoulders (Rev. 12:14: "And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness"). Prominent at the upper left are stars (Rev. 12:4: "and his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven and did cast them to earth").

This sketch is the modello for the vast altarpiece that Rubens executed for the high altar of the cathedral at Freising, now preserved in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Prince-Bishop Veit Adam von Gebeck of Freising commissioned the painting. The renovation of the cathedral at Freising was begun in 1621, and its nearly completed high altar was consecrated on January 1, 1624. Initially the commission was awarded to the German painter Hans Rottenhammer (1564-1625). The bishop wrote Rottenhammer on July 11, 1623, that he wanted a subject "applicable to all feast days of the Blessed Virgin [so sich auf alle unser Lieben Frauen Fest applizieren liesse]; in Counter-Reformation iconography, the Apocalyptic Woman was regarded as a reference both to the Assumption of the Virgin (see Speculum Humanae Salvationis) and the Immaculate Conception (see J. J. M. Timmers, Symboliek en Iconographie der christelijke Kunst [Roermond-Maaseik, 1947], p. 483, no. 1082). It is unknown when the commission was transferred from Rottenhammer to Rubens, but it is notable that the former, who worked in a more fastidious and presumably deliberate manner than the swift and painterly Rubens, was at the end of his career; Empress Eleanore complained in a letter to Rottenhammer of March 1625 about the delay in the completion of the painting. From another letter to the Freising chancellor, Dr. Biener, dated December 10, 1624, we know that the altar was almost finished. The first mention, however, of Rubens's painting, identified as Matris Apocalypoticae effigies, dates from 1632, when it was evacuated in advance of invading Swedish troops.

The final altarpiece differs from the sketch in many details. As Julius Held observed (1980, vol. 1, p. 526), some of these changes were probably made to accommodate the fact that the proportions were changed in the final canvas to a more attenuated format, with more height relative to width. Thus a third angel was added on the left to rout the dragon and demons, which now are more prominent, while the Virgin is relatively smaller in the final composition and wears red and blue. Held suggested that Michael's pose was inspired by Raphael's St. Michael (Musée du Louvre, Paris). In the final version it was changed from a frontal to a three-quarter-side view. God the Father's commanding gesture has become more emphatic by additional foreshortening, and the wings that are attached to the Virgin are now more clearly identifiable as "eagle's wings." Finally, the landscape below, attributed to an anonymous follower by Held but "probably by Lucas van Uden" according to Michael Jaffé (1989, p. 284), features a view of the city of Freising in the final altarpiece. Jaffé (ibid.) suggested that the entire composition might owe a debt to Tintoretto's St. Michael and the Devil (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), which Rubens copied when he was in Italy in a drawing now preserved in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Several pentimenti appear in the sketch, especially around the figure of St. Michael. The crescent of the moon was also lowered and moved to the right.

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