- Hardcover: 312 pages
- Publisher: Getty Research Institute; 1 edition (April 15, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1606062689
- ISBN-13: 978-1606062685
- Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,464,294 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Catholic Rubens: Saints and Martyrs 1st Edition
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That reconstruction makes up the body of the book, and it is wonderfully done. After a "Pagan Prelude" discussing Rubens' painting "The Death of Seneca," which depicts a martyrdom without the promise of redemption, Prof. Sauerländer takes us through various paintings surrounding the Passion, the Virgin, and the several "Christophers," i.e., "Bearers of Christ," and on to a consideration of the many altarpieces that were commissioned from the artist by orders like the Jesuits in Antwerp, the Capuchins in Cologne, the Mendicants, etc.: it was not long before Rubens became the most sought-after painter in the Catholic countries of Northern Europe and the chief supplier of Saints' altarpieces to replace those that had been destroyed by Protestant iconoclasts. Prof. Sauerländer is very well informed on matters of Catholic theology and iconography and provides detailed explications of the paintings, pointing out the significance of objects, actions, and situations that would escape the notice of contemporary viewers. He is particularly meticulous in referring to the Biblical passages that underlie the compositions; these are given both in Latin and English translation. One of his main emphases is on the way Rubens brings the earthly and the heavenly together, depicting martyrdom (the earthly, and usually the lower register of the composition) as a sacred celebration (the heavenly, the upper register); as he comments with reference to "The Martyrdom of Saint Paul," "Only 'The Massacre of the Innocents' exceeds it in its incomprehensible amalgam of terrestrial slaughter and celestial jubilation" (198), and of the "Massacre" itself he says that its "mystery" is at bottom its "transformation of mass murder into Christian sacrifice" (263). The author is also keen to show us how Rubens brings together disparate strands of a Saint's legend into one narrative whole, usually choosing the most excruciating moment of the torment. Thus many layers of legends are pulled together in "The Martyrdom of Saint Thomas" (Prague) into a scene in which the dying Saint grasps the cross while the heathen idol is represented in the background, and the same is true of the model for "The Miracle of Saint Francis of Paola" (Munich), in which the artist has bundled together a succession of miracles almost in the manner of a continuous narration. Another kind of conflation that Rubens excelled at is the union of the pagan and the Christian. Whereas Hippolyte Taine had famously written that Rubens's Christian piety was merely a "varnish" over the essentially pagan nature of his personality and spirit, Sauerländer contends that the relationship goes the other way around: that the pagan element in his paintings melds into their Catholic character; Rubens was, he says, not only the most powerful painter of altarpieces for Catholic Europe in the seventeenth century, but also its greatest painter of classical mythology, "the Homer and Ovid of painting" whose "mythological and ecclesiastical pictures are one" (274). For his "Crucifixion of Saint Peter" (Cologne), for example, Rubens took the counsel of a number of cinquecento writers recommending the Laocoön as a model for the representation of suffering: in his painting the dying Trojan priest is recast as a Christian martyr (231). Prof. Sauerländer points out a number of paintings whose neglected sacral foundations have resulted in trivialized interpretations, such as a recent comment on "The Martyrdom of Saint Livinus," referring to "the total degradation of his body to a piece of flesh," disregarding the miraculous restoration of his tongue (and voice) and thus reducing the mystery to a "homicide" (164).
Many more examples could be given, but the above should be enough to indicate the author's approach to the reinterpretation of Rubens's altarpieces. In contrast to many of Rubens's contemporaries, very few of his paintings have remained in the ecclesiastical sites for which they were intended, and a special effort must be made to visualize them above the altars where they originally hung, rather than on the secular museum walls where we see them today. Prof. Sauerländer's successful reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding their commission and creation, and his detailed discussions of the paintings' themes, motifs, iconographies, etc. makes for a fascinating and very informative look at these works. His erudition is immense but never flaunted, and his straightforward, down-to-earth writing, superbly translated by David Dollenmayer, is the opposite of what we normally think of as the prose of a German academic. The book itself is beautifully designed and produced, with 109 excellent illustrations (it is a Getty publication). The forty or so altarpieces discussed are all reproduced in a fine full-page format, and the printing of the entire volume on glossy paper enables the illustrations to come exactly where they are needed in the text. There is no bibliography, but the meticulous annotation serves to provide suggestions for further reading. A glossary of special art-historical terms, a good index, and especially the quotation of the relevant Biblcal passages make it a fine resource for reference. This is obviously not a book for someone with only a passing interest in Rubens or who simply wants to have a good collection of the artist's religious paintings, but for anyone with a special interest in Rubens, in Counter-Reformation painting, or in Catholic iconography, it's a very strong recommendation.