Alte Pinakothek, Munich/Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen/Art Resource

Peter Paul Rubens: The Massacre of the Innocents (detail), 1636–1638

When we visit museums today, not only are the works that we see no longer in settings like those for which they were made, but in many cases the reasons why particular subjects were carved or painted are obscure. The subjects themselves are often unfamiliar, or at least they do not carry for us the kinds of association that they once had for the artists, the patrons, or their contemporaries. This point was tacitly recognized in the development of art history, which began as a process of compiling biographical information about artists and lists of their works. Then, from the middle decades of the nineteenth century, attention was focused on connoisseurship, the attempt to identify the artist or at least the geographical origin of unattributed works.

At about the same time there was an increasing preoccupation with the development of artistic style. The study of subject matter, for example in the work of Émile Mâle, was mainly associated with the art of the Middle Ages, a period for which identifiable artists were relatively uncommon. For later art such research was concerned primarily with a small number of paintings whose subject was particularly hard to identify, such as Botticelli’s so-called Primavera, on which two scholars associated with the Warburg Institute, Edgar Wind and Ernst Gombrich, both published elaborate interpretations.

Although a great deal of erudition has been applied to this type of research, the results have usually been disappointing. The main effect has been to create a widespread belief that works of art of the past were often full of learned allusions that would have been accessible only to a very restricted public. Scholars have in general paid less attention to the broader task of investigating the circumstances in which works of art were made, the implications of the subject matter for the artist and his contemporaries, and the setting in which such works were originally displayed.

Peter Paul Rubens was among the most prolific and was certainly the most successful painter of the seventeenth century. His style is instantly recognizable and he has always been regarded, not least by other painters, as one of the most gifted of all European artists. His family came from Antwerp, but after converting to Calvinism his father moved to Westphalia, where Rubens was born in 1577. Following his father’s death ten years later, his mother returned to Antwerp, where he was trained as a painter. In 1600 he traveled to Italy, where he remained for the next eight years, apart from a trip to Spain. He acquired a deep knowledge of ancient and recent Italian art, notably the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Caravaggio, which served as the basis of his own distinctive style.

Thereafter his social skills and linguistic gifts qualified him to serve on more than one occasion as a diplomat for the Spanish Hapsburgs, who then controlled the Netherlands. No less unusual for someone in his profession was his deep knowledge of and enthusiasm for every aspect of classical antiquity and his wide range of friends in the world of scholarship.

Probably his most popular works today are his portraits, especially of members of his family. These extraordinarily tender, affectionate, and lively pictures reflect feelings that are easy enough for the viewer to share—not least the famous full-length portrait (now in Vienna) of his second wife wrapped only in a fur coat. Rubens’s landscapes too seem to present few problems of interpretation, as do many of his mythological paintings. He certainly knew more about classical mythology than most people today, and his appreciation of classical literature was probably more intense, but in these paintings—The Three Graces in the Prado is a well-known example—he was, at least in theory, taking as his theme a culture that was almost as remote from him as it is for us, and producing paintings of intense sensuality that were usually straightforward in their meaning.

More alien to us are his illustrations of themes from ancient history. Many of the subjects, such as Queen Tomyris plunging the head of Cyrus into a basin filled with blood, which would have been familiar to educated people of Rubens’s day, are now known only to specialists, and few today share the then-prevailing belief that such subjects provided effective lessons in human conduct. Even less relevant to modern spectators are the allegorical compositions that are such an important part of Rubens’s output, paintings in which classical gods and goddesses mingle with usually female figures personifying abstract qualities, and sometimes also with humans. Until well into the nineteenth century personifications of such qualities as liberty and concord were more or less indispensable in public art.


Unfortunately, most of us are unable to identify many of the personified images commonly used by artists. Justice, with sword and scales, does not present a problem, and many people can probably recognize the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. But we are soon reduced to speculation and guesswork. This is not to say that contemporaries of Rubens would necessarily have found his allegorical compositions self-explanatory, let alone have understood all their implications. In a famous letter, he provided a polished and very elaborate explanation of one of his most famous works in this category, The Consequences of War, in Florence, accounting for every detail of the picture:

The principal figure is Mars, who has left open the temple of Janus (which in time of peace, according to Roman custom, remained closed) and rushes forth with shield and blood-stained sword, threatening the people with great disaster. He pays little heed to Venus, his mistress, who, accompanied by her Amors and Cupids, strives with caresses and embraces to hold him. From the other side, Mars is dragged forward by the Fury Alekto, with a torch in her hand. Nearby are monsters personifying Pestilence and Famine, those inseparable partners of War. On the ground, turning her back, lies a woman with a broken lute, representing Harmony, which is incompatible with the discord of War. There is also a mother with her child in her arms, indicating that fecundity, procreation, and charity are thwarted by War, which corrupts and destroys everything.

What is most remarkable is that this picture, which could so easily have become absurd, is dramatic, moving, and convincing.

It is unrealistic to suppose that most pictures of this kind would have been understood without help by their intended audience. In their original settings they were often provided with inscriptions identifying the subjects, or else guides or custodians could give an explanation. Nor were they always straightforward in their meaning. The grandest and most famous example of Rubens’s allegorical paintings is the cycle of twenty-two canvases devoted to Marie de’ Medici, dowager queen of France, that are now in the Louvre. Here he was presented with the problem of glorifying a queen whose career had been less than glorious and who had quarreled bitterly with her son Louis XIII. Rubens understood that it was sometimes appropriate to obscure embarrassing facts with splendid but often generalized allegories. With a lack of political wisdom that was typical of her, Marie wanted to include a fairly literal representation of one episode in her life, showing her expulsion by torchlight from Paris in 1617, on orders from her son.

Predictably, this proposal caused offense to Louis’s supporters. Rubens replaced this scene with a canvas representing what he called The Felicity of the Regency of Marie de’ Medici, adding that “I believe that if the other subjects had been entrusted entirely to us, they would have passed, as far as the Court is concerned, without any scandal or murmur.”

Political allegory is now largely unknown except in the work of some newspaper cartoonists, and this is an obstacle to modern appreciation of Rubens’s works in this genre. At the same time, the events of the reign of Louis XIII will no longer be widely known. Indeed, some of the details depicted by Rubens have been the subject of much scholarly debate, and we will probably never fully understand all the nuances of his paintings for the Marie de’ Medici cycle. But to have some understanding at least of the conventions within which Rubens worked and the limitations of his brief can only enhance admiration for the skill with which he translated something that could have been labored and prosaic into a glorious piece of decoration.

If the Medici cycle needed a guide to explain, or on occasion to conceal, the subtleties of its meaning, Rubens’s many altarpieces on public display in churches were intended instead to be understood by Catholic believers. Although he was much in demand as a religious painter, these works—some of which provide the subject of Willibald Sauerländer’s wonderful and superbly translated book—are often quite difficult for a modern viewer to appreciate, because they reflect circumstances that no longer exist and attitudes that for the most part have been superseded.

It is not just that many of the pictures have been removed from their original setting in churches and are now displayed rather incongruously in museums. Nor is it that many of the admirers of Rubens today are not Catholics, but rather that the Catholicism that informs these pictures belongs to a religious world that is long past. Sauerländer, who describes himself as an agnostic of Protestant background, has set out to explain why the pictures look the way they do and how they fulfill the requirements of Rubens’s patrons. He does so with tact, sympathy, and much scholarly and critical insight. As a result he leaves the reader with a greatly enhanced admiration for Rubens’s genius.


As Sauerländer writes at the outset of his book, Rubens’s own religious beliefs were infused with an enthusiasm for Stoicism, the ancient philosophical system based on an acceptance of suffering and stressing renunciation and moral conduct. It was much admired by intellectuals in early- seventeenth-century Flanders, especially those in the circle of the celebrated scholar and humanist Justus Lipsius, whose favorite pupil was the painter’s brother Philip. This admiration, which is most obviously reflected in a famous painting by Rubens, The Death of Seneca (now in Munich), was certainly a response to the circumstances of the period, especially the religious conflicts and the endemic warfare in the Netherlands, in which the predominantly Protestant northern states sought successfully to win independence from the rule of Catholic Spain. Religious differences had been particularly strong in Rubens’s hometown of Antwerp, where most of the religious works of art in the churches had been destroyed during an outbreak of iconoclasm in the 1570s. After his father died in exile, Rubens was not only brought up as a Catholic but seems to have been an enthusiastic one; he frequently went to morning mass, although this did not prevent him from having Protestant friends.

As Sauerländer shows, Rubens’s altarpieces, some of them for churches in Flanders and some for Germany, where the Thirty Years’ War was still raging, need to be understood against the background of the religious divide between Catholics and various categories of Protestants, and more specifically of the requirements of Catholic authorities for religious art established at and after the Council of Trent. One of the major differences between Catholics and Protestants concerned attitudes toward images, although the term itself is ambiguous. In a wide sense, an image can designate any figurative representation in painting or sculpture; but the term had also been used for more than seven centuries to refer more specifically to nonnarrative representations of individual figures, while by contrast pictures of events were normally called histories or stories.


Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/Art Resource

Peter Paul Rubens: The Miracles of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, circa 1617

Traditionally, altarpieces had almost always been classified as images in this narrower sense. This was so even when they seem to depict narratives, such as the martyrdom of a saint, because their raison d’être was to show the principal figure in a readily identifiable way and to encourage devotion to such figures. And because altarpieces are not stories, even though today they are very often given titles implying that they are, their status as images also explains why they very frequently show saints from different historical periods, often in the company of the Virgin. While Calvinists objected to all types of religious representation, Lutherans were much more tolerant of those showing, for example, Christ on the Cross, or of painted stories, especially from the gospels. But all Protestants were opposed to the idea that the Virgin and saints could act as intermediaries between the faithful and Christ, and for this reason they were deeply opposed to images on altarpieces that could give credence to such an idea.

After the Council of Trent the Catholic authorities, for their part, not only stressed the importance of doctrinal orthodoxy and clarity in religious images, but also favored an emphasis on Christ, the Virgin, and the principal saints at the expense of those, such as Saint Christopher, whose historical status was more questionable. Hardly less important was a stress on martyrdom, especially when it involved acute suffering, on relics, and on the doctrine of Purgatory—all aspects of Catholic belief particularly disliked by Protestants. As Sauerländer writes:

It is the sacramental paradox of [Rubens’s] images of death and dying that precisely through their tempest of emotion—their gruesomeness—they become beacons of the Christian victory over death. Thus the depiction of an agonizing death becomes the image and symbol of a sacred martrydom. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Christian martyrdom was the fundamental theme of Rubens’s altarpieces.

Given the religious climate in which they were produced, Rubens’s altarpieces were necessarily polemical in ways that previous Christian art had not been for centuries. They were designed not just to remind the faithful about the main tenets of Christianity, but to persuade them of the value of the distinctive beliefs of the Catholics. The two most overtly propagandistic altarpieces were made for cities in Germany. One, for the Cathedral of Freising, shows the Virgin in the sky, in the guise of the Woman of the Apocalypse, stepping on a serpent, while beside her the Archangel Michael thrusts demons into hell. The view of Freising in the background makes it clear that the underlying theme was the triumph of true religion over Protestant heresy, a triumph in which the role of the Virgin had supposedly been crucial. A similar idea appears in the other altarpiece, whose original location is not known, showing Saint Michael alone striking down the demons, which again evidently represent heresy.

Two of the most impressive altarpieces examined by Sauerländer were commissioned by the Jesuits for their new church in Antwerp, and show the two leading figures of their order, Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. Both were commissioned before their canonization in 1622, and almost certainly even before Francis Xavier was beatified in 1619. Although they look like narratives, neither picture shows a particular episode from the life of either Jesuit. Instead, in a manner that was appropriate only in an altarpiece, both allude to the achievements and character of the two men. Loyola is shown performing an exorcism, with a reference also to his role in founding the Jesuit order, while Francis Xavier is depicted performing miracles and converting the heathen in India. Sauerländer associates the emphasis on miracles primarily with the campaign for the canonization of the two Jesuits, but I believe that this is not the whole story.

The existence of these two altarpieces in itself is unlikely to have had more than a marginal effect on the canonization process in Rome. Yet the highly unusual decision to devote such huge altarpieces to men who had not been canonized needs to be explained. Perhaps the Jesuits wished to encourage a devotion to Loyola and Francis Xavier in the hope that this would lead to the performance of postmortem miracles, which were normally crucial in a canonization. This was particularly important in the case of Loyola, who was credited with very few miracles. Although Rubens’s altarpiece is generally entitled The Miracles of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, probably in part by analogy with its companion, this seems to be something of a misnomer. Rubens shows Loyola in a church, performing an exorcism after saying mass. The flight of the exorcised demons at the left demonstrates his success, but it does not provide strong evidence of Loyola’s personal ability to work miracles, because the Catholic view was that any priest in good standing could perform an exorcism. It was certainly miraculous, but in the same way as transubstantiation, which takes place whenever a priest says mass, and therefore provided evidence that Catholicism was the true church, rather than that the priest was in any way exceptional.

During this period miracles were central to the controversies between Catholics and Protestants. The latter generally believed that miracles had ceased soon after the time of the Apostles, whereas the Catholics maintained that they still occurred. Lipsius, whom Rubens had so greatly revered, had played an influential part in the controversy, publishing two treatises on miracles of the Virgin after he had been reconciled to Catholicism, not long before his death in 1606. Another proponent of the idea that Catholicism was the true church because of the continuation of miracles was the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine, who cited the “countless miracles” of Francis Xavier in support of the Catholic position. Those miracles, of course, were shown in Rubens’s altarpiece of Francis. As it happens, he was also commissioned at some point to paint yet another altarpiece devoted to a celebrated miracle-working saint, Francis of Paola, who had been mentioned by Bellarmine in the same sentence as Loyola.

Surely the Jesuit altars are mainly to be understood with respect to Catholic–Protestant polemic. Thus the fact that Francis Xavier was able to preach to Indians, as Rubens showed him doing, was cited by defenders of Catholicism as evidence for the persistence of the miraculous gift of tongues, as were other examples of Catholic missionary activity, for which Protestantism then had no counterpart. And the Catholic practice of exorcism was also often cited as evidence for the validity of transubstantiation.

Rubens also produced altarpieces for the Franciscans and Capuchins, who attracted, in general, a less sophisticated public than the Jesuits, and accordingly he adjusted his approach to the different requirements of these mendicant orders. Whereas he had stressed the public achievements of the Jesuits, in his works for the Franciscans Rubens chose instead to show the intensity of Francis’s personal identification with Christ. More striking, and certainly less palatable to modern viewers, are his paintings of martyrs. In these pictures he stressed the intensity of the saint’s suffering and the violence to which he was subjected. Sauerländer shows how such works conform to Catholic ideals in Rubens’s own day, citing for example a book by the Spanish Jesuit Petrus Biverus, published in Antwerp in 1634, describing martyrdom by crucifixion from the earliest times until his own day and illustrated with engravings.

A widespread modern view of the paintings discussed in the book, which include many more than I have mentioned here, is that they do not represent the real Rubens, in the way that his depictions of themes from pagan mythology and antiquity do. This view, as Sauerländer points out, reflects values that belong to a different era from that of Rubens. Lipsius was able to combine an intense admiration for ancient Stoicism with a convinced Catholicism; there is no reason to suppose that Rubens could not do so as well. Even his religious paintings, in fact, are marked by his enthusiasm for the classical world, because again and again he used details from ancient art, and especially from celebrated statues such as the Laocoön, for his representations of saints. He must have done so because of his belief that the ancient sculptors had achieved an unsurpassed mastery in the representation of strong emotions.

Against this one might argue that Rubens was above all a supreme professional, with a unique ability to give effective visual form to the aspirations of his patrons. The Medici cycle provides some support for this, because it is hard to believe that Rubens could have wholeheartedly admired the queen. But just because he was not necessarily entirely sincere in this commission, it does not follow that the same was true of many of his religious works. Sauerländer eloquently demonstrates how much thought went into their design, how carefully the artist explored the implications of the subjects, and how effectively he proclaimed the values of reformed Catholicism.

Sauerländer ends with a discussion of a late and horrifying painting by Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents (now in Munich), a subject particularly difficult for modern viewers to countenance. This picture, which we now know was made for a clerical friend, is close in date and style to The Consequences of War. And given the care and thought that Rubens devoted to the composition, the intensity with which he depicts the slaughter of the children and the despair of their mothers, there is no reason to doubt that the subject meant at least as much to him as its secular counterpart on the consequences of war. Sauerländer reminds us that if we judge Rubens as a man of his times, his work acquires a consistency and depth that it lacks when we choose instead to single out those aspects of his output most accessible to modern sensibility.