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Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross

Video transcript

we're in the city of Antwerp in northern Belgium this is a city of merchants of trade it was an incredibly prosperous place but it was a place that was wracked by civil war there was tremendous tension in the early 17th century between Protestants and Catholics in this area in fact Antwerp went back and forth between the control of the Hapsburgs in Spain the Catholics and the Protestants in the north who had rebelled against Spanish rule and this wasn't just a tug-of-war over religious ideas there was real violence here and we're looking at a painting by Rubens that dates to just when a truce was signed this is a painting that is made to help cement Catholic ideology during a period that we call the Counter Reformation churches are places that are dense with images in the Reformation and counter-reformation one of the key issues of contention is the use of images during this period there were ways of iconoclasm in this whole region people went into churches and destroyed images that's what iconoclasm means it means to break images and there's very little left in fact from the Northern Renaissance in this area precisely because images were destroyed so Rubens is painting this altarpiece at a moment that is important for two reasons one he's just returned from Italy and so he's absorbed the lessons of the Italian Renaissance the Italian Baroque and classical antiquity the other reason this is key is that there was a truce that had just been signed with the Dutch provinces in the north and so Antwerp was coming into its own again there's a period of about a dozen years of peace and prosperity when churches were being rebuilt and there was a real opportunity for large-scale commissions right by the wealthy merchants of Antwerp so let's take a look at the painting itself because I think within the painting we see these issues played out now this is a triptych a traditional painting that goes back to the medieval and it's probably not what Rubens wanted to paint but this is what his commission called for the triptych is a painting that's divided into three parts one where usually there was madonna and child in the center saints on either side but Rubens wanted to paint one scene the elevation of the cross and we see that in the center panel but we also see continuing out in the side panels it's as if he's painting a single image but he's painting it on three panels the central panel is stunning we see this massive representation of Christ being raised up on the cross by men who are so muscular they remind us of the figures that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but they're almost even more overblown than that they almost look like circus strongmen they do and I think that Rubens is doing that especially with that figure in the center that's lifting up Christ on the cross to suggest the brutality of these figures that all they are is brute physical force but the physicality is also important because one of the main concerns of the Catholics had to do with the ritual of the Eucharist the ritual where the bread and the wine are turned into the actual flesh and blood of Christ according to the Catholic tradition during the sacrament of the Eucharist and certain sects of Protestants denied this and so we have this representation of Christ as this physical present figure this is not a spiritual representation in the medieval sense this man weighs a lot this is the moment of the sacrifice this is the moment that's critical for the Eucharist this is the moment when Christ sheds his blood for the sins of mankind what's important for me is this notion that the physicality of Christ is important to Ruben's and to his culture at this moment during the counter-reformation when the Catholics are responding to the threat of the Protestants this is a little more than half century after the Council of Trent when the Catholic Church in Rome has reaffirmed exactly that doctrine of the Eucharist which had been questioned by the Protestants now we've been talking about Reubens having been influenced by the Italians and that's clear but he's also still a northern painter and you can see that in his attention to detail Italians were creating these brilliant images of the human body in flex poses but it's the northerners coming out of a miniaturist tradition that are really interested in the specificity for instance of the foliage of the tree in the upper right or the code of the dog in the lower left or the brilliant shine of the armor so we have this combination of the northern tradition the tradition coming out of Van Dyck and Roger van der Weiden and the Italian tradition and to be more specific not just Michelangelo but also the Baroque tradition of Caravaggio we see that in the strong contrasts of light and dark we could also say that Rubens is incorporating the ancient Greek and Roman sculpture that he studied when he was in Rome so that sense of the articulation of the muscles that you see in Hellenistic sculptures like faleaka on which Rubens copied or the Farne see Hercules which he also copied the thing that is the most obvious part of this composition that is that diagonal line that recedes back in space and that it is such an exemplar of the Baroque tradition because of the drama that it produces it creates a very active composition or her eye wants to shoot back from the lower right corner into the distant upper-left it almost seems to me like we have this list of verbs because everything is in motion that we have pulling lifting pushing straining everything is in process and in fact we're not even sure of the outcome Christ and the lumber of the cross itself seems so massive and so heavy that even these huge brutish men may not be able to successfully lift him and it's being lifted into our space in typical Baroque fashion everything is happening very close to us we get a landscape just some blue sky on the right but everything is incredibly closest we almost feel like we could reach out and help we're almost complicit here but it's important to remember that the painting wasn't originally here it's a church that was destroyed and it was originally at the top of quite a number of steps and above it was an image of God the Father which is one of the reasons we think that Christ is looking upward according to the Gospels Christ looks up and says forgive them father for they know not what they do along with the image of God the Father at the top were angels and an image of a pelican pelicans going back to the medieval tradition were thought to have pecked at their own breasts in order to draw blood to feed to their young if they were hungry emphasizing this idea of sacrifice so it's important to remember we were intended to look up at this altarpiece well the size that it is now is enormous it's more than 15 feet wide by more than 11 feet high and it would have been over the main altar in the Church of Saint Walpurgis now the wings hold different scenes on the right we see this amazing foreshortened horse written by a Roman authority as well as the two thieves who are being attached to crosses as well and then on the left wing we see Mary with Saint John Mary looking sad obviously grieving but seeming to accept what's happening not weeping as we might see here for example an earlier Renaissance paintings by the reason for this has to do with the Council of Trent and the decision that the mother of God should be represented as a powerful figure as someone who is emotionally strong and resolute on the outer sides of the wings and remember this is a triptych so those wings can close we see four scenes one of whom is associated with the original church Saint well Fergus as well as angels above so this is an incredibly interesting moment in Rubens career he's returned from Italy he's about to embark on so many Commission's that he can't keep up with them himself he settles here in Antwerp he establishes a large studio with numerous assistants and because of the enormous number of commissions he establishes almost a factory that turns out altar pieces mythological paintings and portraits for various patrons that idea of the counter-reformation of the Baroque style involving the viewer getting to us emotionally and physically reawakening spirituality at this time when the church is contested and doing it all on a grand scale you