The Wall Street Journal reviews this new book on the Catholic art Peter Paul Rubens created in Flanders as part of the Catholic Church's famous effort to revive religious art in the service of reviving religious devotion and doctrine. The cover of the book is well chosen, as it presents an obviously Catholic and Marian interpretation of St. John's vision of the Woman Clothed with the Sun, fleeing the dragon that threatens to devour her and her baby, Jesus Christ (Mary, the Mother of God!). But according the WSJ reviewer, the author of The Catholic Rubens begins with Ruben's famous Deposition from the Cross in Antwerp Cathedral, because Sauerländer wants to emphasize Rubens' work in situ, not in a museum:
Today most of the significant altar paintings by Rubens (1577-1640) have been transplanted to art museums. There, scholars have concentrated on their formal qualities and more overt religious subjects. Often overlooked are the additional meanings tied to the pictures' original ecclesiastical settings.
This lacuna has now been brilliantly filled by Willibald Sauerländer in "The Catholic Rubens: Saints and Martyrs." An esteemed historian of medieval Christian art, Mr. Sauerländer follows the ways in which Rubens's pictorial inventions accorded with the doctrinal changes set in motion by the Council of Trent (1545–63).
"The Catholic Rubens" begins with the artist's most famous altarpiece, "The Deposition" (1611-14), still at the Antwerp Cathedral. Since it serves as a model for understanding Rubens's religious genius, it is considered at length. . . .
In keeping with ecclesiastical tradition, the center panel offers a major episode from the Passion, the crucified Christ's lifeless body being taken down from the cross. Clearly working in concert with Rome's goal of the renewed veneration of holy persons, Rubens portrays differing figures beginning the process of carrying Jesus' body to the tomb. The Virgin Mary too is present, standing on the left. Rubens's innovations are seen here in the way he brings the scene toward the viewer and sets the body on a bold corner-to-corner diagonal, with the participants gathered around to receive it.
"The Deposition" is only one of 20-some altarpieces of saints and martyrs discussed by Mr. Sauerländer in this amazing book. These include Rubens's church commissions for pictures about the Disciples, early Christians St. Paul and St. Stephen (the first martyr). His lingering caveat is that Rubens's narratives "belong to an order of terrestrial and celestial things that is deeply foreign . . . to us." To the secular world, perhaps, but the import of Rubens's "Deposition" is still familiar to many of the faithful.
I visited Antwerp Cathedral during a trip to Belgium when my husband went there for business. I went on a bus tour which included a stop at a diamond store! and then dropped us off at the Grand Place. Great as the Deposition is, I was most inspired by the Resurrection of Christ, with Our Lord striding forth from the tomb, with the soldiers huddling in darkness while He is radiant!
Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! Happy Third Sunday of Easter!