Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Road to Calvary (Christ Carrying the Cross), ca. 1632
Oil, emulsion paint on panel, 59.7 x 45.7 cm
University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, inv. 1966.16


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

Prodded by the butt of a soldier's lance, wrenched forward with a sharp tug on his hair, Christ stumbles beneath the weight of the cross carried to his Crucifixion atop Calvary. At right, the elderly Simon of Cyrene and a heavily muscled young man struggle to relieve Christ of his burden. The placement of a muscular figure viewed from the rear in the foreground of the composition was a device Rubens had already used to great effect in The Elevation of the Cross painted in 1610 for the Antwerp Cathedral. Another conceit borrowed from the earlier painting is the introduction of an anecdotal figure in the immediate foreground: there, a dog, and here, two infants.

Just above and to the right of Christ in Carrying the Cross are the two thieves also bound for crucifixion at Calvary. Farther up the hill, at the head of the procession, are a standard-bearer, a trumpeter, and a man wearing a turban; almost hidden behind a turn in the road is a small figure carrying a ladder.

Christ's fall creates a brief caesura in a march that otherwise winds slowly, inexorably, up the steep and rocky grade. At left, Veronica moves forward to tenderly wipe Christ's face with her veil, which was to become miraculously imprinted with his image: the vera icon. The Virgin and St. John look on from the left, forming a tightly drawn oasis of compassion. Rubens enhances the pathetic impact of the scene by having Christ turn his head to direct a piercing gaze at the viewer, encouraging (in accordance with Counter-Reformation dogma) a more personal identification with Christ's suffering. The emphasis placed on Veronica and her veil similarly reflects the crucial role accorded images as objects of veneration following the Council of Trent.

The meticulous detail and limited palette of the Berkeley sketch (predominantly gray and brown, with a few vibrant touches of color intended to draw attention to Christ's halo or to accentuate the leaden sky) as well as the fact that most figures are acting with their left hands indicate that the sketch was intended as a model for a print. Indeed, Rubens's composition was reproduced, with great fidelity, in an engraving by Paulus Pontius, dated 1632. Although the print has almost exactly the same dimensions as the oil sketch, the power and pathos of Rubens's original are somewhat diluted in the print because the figural elements are pushed back from the picture plane and a comfortable margin of space is introduced at the top of the composition.

The Berkeley sketch is one of several closely related works by Rubens that depict the Bearing of the Cross. Probably the earliest of these is a painting formerly (1763) in the Manfrotti collection, Venice, and now presumably lost; the composition is recorded in a print by Pietro Monaco, and an oil sketch—probably a copy—formerly in the Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw (inv. 35794; see Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 473, and Judson 2000, pp. 73-75, no. 16, with further literature). The composition has been dated to the mid-1610s by Leo van Puyvelde, Egbert Haverkamp Begemann, J. Richard Judson, and others, while Julius Held preferred a date of "not before 1620." Although many key features of the Berkeley composition are already in place in the earliest version, there are significant differences. The movement of the figures up and back into space is much more gradual than the precipitous climb presented in the Berkeley sketch and subsequent versions of the theme, and, as in the Antwerp Raising of the Cross, there is an inquisitive dog in the foreground, rather than the two infants.

A considerably repainted sketch of The Bearing of the Cross in the Gemäldegalerie der bildenden Künste in Vienna has most often been described as either a copy after a design by Rubens (Judson 2000, pp. 75-76, no. 17, with further references) or an unfinished sketch by Rubens subsequently completed by another (workshop?) hand (Held 1980, vol. 1, pp. 474-76, no. 344). This sketch is also generally dated to about 1614-16. In the Vienna composition, the massive cross has been completely lifted from the fallen Christ; Veronica has already wiped Christ's brow and now displays the miraculously imprinted veil to the wonderment of the two women beside her. The two thieves and their captors have been relocated to the immediate foreground, where they are seen at half-length, as if on a proscenium. This detail, which has its roots in Italian Mannerist art, is not featured in the Berkeley sketch of about 1632 but is otherwise retained by Rubens in his subsequent development of the theme.

In 1634 Rubens was commissioned by Jacob Boonen, archbishop of Mechelen and abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Sts. Peter and Paul at Afflighem, to paint for the abbey church an altarpiece representing Christ Carrying the Cross. The massive painting, now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, was installed over the church's high altar on April 8, 1637 (on the history of the commission, see most recently Ulrich Heinen, "Meliori forma. Quellenstudien zum Auftrage für Rubens' Afflighemer Kreuztragung," Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, 1993, pp. 135-63, and Judson 2000, pp. 79-83).

While obviously indebted to the Berkeley Carrying the Cross—indeed, it has been conjectured that Pontius's engraving was created with the intent of publicizing Rubens's composition and thus tipping the balance in favor of his winning the commission (Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 476)—the Afflighem composition was nonetheless preceded by at least one drawing and a series of oil sketches that document progressive adjustments to the composition. A largely monochrome sketch in Brussels (c. 1634, oil on panel, 58.2 x 46.4 cm; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, inv. 5057; Held 1980, vol. 1, no. 346, Judson 2000, no. 19b) reverses the movement from left to right (thus echoing the orientation of Pontius's print); the upward sweep so marked in both the Berkeley sketch and the Afflighem altarpiece is here less unified, more confused. A highly finished modello in Amsterdam (c. 1634, oil on panel, 74 x 55 cm, Rijksmuseum, inv. A344; Held 1980, vol. 1, no. 347, Judson 2000, no. 19c) reverts to many of the design elements present in the Berkeley grisaille, with a greater emphasis on Veronica's compassionate and reverential ministrations. The precise function of a large oil sketch in Copenhagen (c. 1634-37, oil on panel, 104.5 x 74.2 cm; Statens Museum for Kunst, inv. 1856; Held 1980, vol. 1, no. 348, Judson 2000, no. 19d) in relation to the Afflighem altarpiece is not entirely clear. Thinly drawn in shades of gray, brown, and vermilion, it records further refinements to the Amsterdam sketch and compresses the composition into a more vertical format. It seems likely that the Copenhagen sketch may have been painted in response to the patrons' desire, documented in a meeting with Rubens in November 1634, for a painting of a "better shape [meliori forma]." In part because of its large size, Held ventured that the Copenhagen sketch might also be regarded independently as an unfinished small painting (compare The Elevation of the Cross).


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