Rubens: The Jesuit Church of Antwerp, written by Ria Fabri and Piet Lombaerde

In: Journal of Jesuit Studies

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Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard. Architecture and Sculpture, part 2, 3. Based on a manuscript by Frans Baudouin (1920–2005). Translated by Jantien Black and Ted Alkins. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2018. Pp. 389. Hb, €155.00.

Ria Fabri and Piet Lombaerde accomplish no mean feat in this volume of the Corpus Rubenianum. They attain their clearly stated goal to identify and analyze what Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) contributed to the architectural design and sculptural decoration of the Antwerp Jesuit Church (built 1613–22), a building of revolutionary importance. The extent of Rubens’s participation is a controversial question to answer and enters as the leitmotif of the book. So great an emphasis on Rubens’s authorship agrees with the mandate of the Corpus Rubenianum to publish a complete catalog of all the artist’s vast works. Fabri and Lombaerde could reach their goal paradoxically only by demonstrating that Rubens participated within a fluid collaboration among architects, sculptors, and, one should add, other painters. By meticulously reconstructing this process to the degree that the surviving monuments, documents, and good judgment allow, the authors go beyond the exclusive focus on Rubens set by the Corpus. In their introductory essay, they develop a persuasive force of argument that supports their conclusion: the Antwerp Jesuit Church composed “a harmonious relationship between sculpture, architecture and painting as a Gesamtkunstwerk” (114).

In the first chapter of this essay, Fabri and Lombaerde demonstrate how the church was generated not by one genius, but rather by pooling the complementary talents and skills that each major actor contributed. The Jesuit François de Aguilón (1567–1617), rector of the Antwerp college, used his profound knowledge of optics, mathematics, and architecture to conceive the whole design, which introduced new methods of directing natural light that depended on Aguilón’s theories of optics. His confrère Brother Pieter Huyssens (1577–1637) applied his training as a master mason to the practical execution of the work in drawings and stone. After Aguilón’s death in 1617, Huyssens blossomed as a full-fledged architect and took over the lead. As for Rubens, the authors establish that no direct documentary or material evidence proves he contributed to the architectural design. But they do suggest on the basis of abundant circumstancial evidence, such as the illustrations Rubens designed for Aguilón’s Opticorum libri sex (Antwerp: Plantin-Moretus, 1613), that Rubens conveyed his views on the architecture through unrecorded conversations with Aguilón and Huyssens.

A second part of this first chapter investigates the sources through which Aguilón, Huyssens, and Rubens could have acquired knowledge of the Italian innovations in architecture that they introduced in the Antwerp Jesuit Church. Original research into the collection of architectural drawings, engravings, and books assembled by the Antwerp Jesuits indicates the extent to which the architects of the church learned new ideas from works on paper and in print. It is remarkable that the representation of architectural treatises in Rubens’s own library overlapped with what the Jesuits had acquired. Fabri and Lombaerde try to solve the puzzle posed by this research. Aguilón and Huyssens who had not visited Italy depended on graphic and printed sources for any Italian innovations they might have integrated into the church design. How far would this second-hand knowledge have taken them, was the architectural information conveyed by two-dimensional media inherently limited, to what degree did they depend on Rubens’s communications of his direct experience of the architecture? Fabri and Lombaerde offer as a solution a “new hypothesis which proposes that Rubens, Aguilón and Huyssens all three possessed excellent knowledge of the Baroque style and of Italian examples,” so that working together as equal partners, each made a distinct contribution based on expertise (37).

Through their research into the architectural treatises used by the architects of the Antwerp Jesuit Church, Fabri and Lombaerde raise another lively issue of method. To what extent do the theoretical and critical terms of architecture employed by these treatises, and in particular by Rubens himself in the preface to his Palazzi di Genova (Antwerp: Rubens, 1622), furnish modern historians with a congruent vocabulary to both describe and understand the innovative features of the Antwerp Jesuit Church? Konrad Ottenheym, Krista de Jonge, Joris Snaet, and Valerie Herremans already have applied this method fruitfully (Krista de Jonge and Konrad Ottenheym, eds., Unity and Discontinuity: Architectural Relations between the Southern and Northern Low Countries 1530–1700 [Turnhout: Brepols, 2007]; Krista de Jonge and Joris Snaet, “The Architecture of the Jesuits in the Southern Low Countries: A State of the Art,” in Maria Álvaro Zamora, Javier Ibáñez Fernández, and Jesús Criado Mainar, eds., La arquitectura jesuítica: Actas del Simposio Internacional [Zaragoza: Institución “Fernando el Católico, 2012], 239–76; Valerie Herremans, “Peter Paul Rubens and the Decoration of the Jesuit Church of Antwerp,” in Jaarboek Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten 2013–2014 [Antwerp: 2017], 53–75). At first mention (19), Fabri and Lombaerde concur with it. They apply as well other art theoretical terms used by Rubens, such as the concept of imitation, to historicize Rubens’s appropriation of artistic precedents for his own work. But in their introduction to the catalog of the book, the authors advise caution in applying the concepts and terms of architecture to painting and sculpture (118). This restraint is not prompted by rigidity so much as by agreement with their own historical use of architectural theory that insists on the unity between architecture and ornament: “Only when the sculpture is viewed as part of a larger architectural ensemble can the exercise of seeking concepts from architectural theory of the period be undertaken.” Possible applications to analysis of the Jesuit church are suggested in a footnote (124n17).

Chapters ii and iii document the choice of site, the evolving changes in design, the construction, and the inauguration of Antwerp’s Jesuit church. Rubens makes only a minor appearance in these chapters, which follow the impulse to write a broader history of the church that would bring together the disparate elements the authors argue were designed to harmonize in unity. Fabri and Lombaerde pay attention as well to the ongoing problem of finance in which Rubens served as a creditor by letting stand until 1634 the considerable debt he was owed for all his work (59–60).

The problem of Rubens’s authorship is reprised in Chapter iv, only this time as a detailed historiography of how the question has been answered over a duration of four centuries. Primary and secondary sources are interleaved here to demonstrate the play of competing agendas and changing frameworks in filtering knowledge selectively. For instance, at a certain point, historians diverged in the sources they used to get the answers they wanted. Jesuits and those close to them consulted the Jesuit primary sources that confirmed Aguilón and Huyssens as the architects, while other writers, especially after the fire of 1718 and during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, credited Rubens as the inventor of the church’s design, making him even more a hero of art than he really was. Fabri and Lombaerde bring this historiography up to the last few years so as to situate the positions they take in their own work.

The sequence in which they place their fifth chapter, “Rubens and the Masters behind the Sculptures of the Antwerp Jesuit Church,” follows the conclusions drawn from the historiography. Close study of the primary sources, including drawings identified during the twentieth century, proves that Rubens invented designs for the sculptural ornament of the church, whereas one can only speculate that he offered Aguilón and Huyssens advice on the architecture. This chapter, like those before it, clears the field by testing all opinions against the available evidence. Because their purposes are to reconstruct the process of collaboration and to nail down attributions of the sculptures to one or another sculptor, Fabri and Lombaerde admit from the start that the documentary evidence is scarce and that judgment based on the works themselves is compromised by the fire of 1718 and by successive restoration campaigns that have replaced and altered a great deal of the original material. To compensate for this scarcity they build a framework to understand the theoretical and practical basis of collaboration between Antwerp painters and sculptors and fill in that general outline with better documented examples that involved the same small group of likely participants; Rubens along with the sculptors Hans van Mildert, the multi-generational de Nole workshop, and the architect Huyssens. Once again, this book goes beyond the strictures of an exclusive focus on Rubens to make its broader contribution.

The introductory essay, by virtue of its scrupulous use of evidence, relation of general questions to the particulars, and judicious play with speculation, opens the path to a history of the Antwerp Jesuit Church that would bring together the diverse elements in what Fabri and Lombaerde conclude to be a unified and harmonious enterprise. However, given the rationale of the Corpus Rubenianum to document all of Rubens’s works, it is the catalog that stands at the core of the book. Most of the catalog shares its strengths with the introductory essay. But some questions and tensions do arise, which might point the way to further research in the directions indicated by the authors.

Fabri and Lombaerde identify the publication in 1956 of a group of drawings as a turning point in the historiography of Rubens’s involvement with the sculptural decoration of the church (86). These and other related drawings prove Rubens’s involvement in the designs of ornament for the facade of the church, for the sculptural frame of the high altar, and for the decorated ceiling over the chapel dedicated to Mary. Three of these drawings are of the highest quality and display Rubens’s own hand in finished models for sculptures on the facade of the church. In one, he designed the cartouche lofted by angels on the second story of the church over the central portal (No. 4a, 141–46). The second and third drawings lay out the patterns for the two trumpet-blowing angels in the left and right spandrels of the central portal (No. 2a, 131–37; No. 3a, 138–41). Apart from these three the attributions and functions of the remaining drawings related to decoration of the facade are less certain. For example, by attributing the drawing, Seraph with Foliage unequivocally to Rubens (No. 1a, 127–31) the authors imply that Rubens designed a larger part of the facade ornament than usually is recognized. Relief ornament on the archivolt of the central portal could be based on this and other presumably lost drawings by Rubens. But the quality of execution in the drawing does not equal the subtle integration of outlines, wash, and hatching that distinguishes Rubens’s design for the cartouche mentioned above. If Seraph with Foliage is not by Rubens, then where does it fit in the process of ornamenting the church? Did Rubens involve workshop assistants as he did in executing the thirty-nine large pictures that decorated the aisle and gallery ceilings of the Antwerp Jesuit Church before they were destroyed by fire in 1718?

This uncertainty is built into the catalog by inserting a group of eleven entries designated as Cat. U-numbers, so as to include designs for the Jesuit church ornaments that have been ascribed to Rubens but for which the attribution is uncertain, thus literally a category designated as “U for uncertainty.” It was the editor of the volume, Arnout Balis, who decided to include the U entries. Fabri and Lombaerde, the main authors, distance themselves from these entries (No. U1-Ull, except for No. U10) for which Balis and researcher Brecht Vanoppen largely are responsible (118). Balis’s insistence on including these works is understandable when one takes into account his conviction (following the arguments of Valerie Herremans) that Rubens did design the inventions of these ornaments and when one also considers Balis’s responsibility as editor, charged to include all of Rubens’s works in the Corpus Rubenianum. Indeed, it is consistent with the inclusive approach of Fabri and Lombaerde that these works would be embraced in the catalog and analyzed in the larger context of the facade’s ornament.

In closing a review for The Journal of Jesuit Studies it can be asked whether Fabri and Lombaerde provide a clear account of what makes the Antwerp Jesuit Church distinctively Jesuit, and in this case no answer is to be found. The authors do connect the choice of site for the church with Ignatius of Loyola’s instructions to locate Jesuit churches in the concourse of cities and they cite Thomas Lucas’s, S.J. excellent history of that urban strategy (Thomas M. Lucas, Landmarking: City, Church, and Jesuit Urban Strategy [Chicago: Jesuit Way, 1997]). They follow the negotiations between Antwerp and Rome over the design and cost of the church but do not question how the outcomes might have been influenced by Jesuit organization or missions. Although they recognize the unified structure of the architectural creation, they do not attempt a synthesis of the iconographic program, which is treated more piece by piece for each individual work or group of statues. Right at the start, Fabri and Lombaerde make a disclaimer: “This book is not about the history of the Antwerp Jesuit Church but about the role that Rubens may have played in the conception of its architecture and sculptural decoration. Neither do we discuss here the Counter-Reformation nor the importance of the church for the revival of the Catholic faith in the wake of the Council of Trent” (11).

Given the way in which the Corpus Rubenianum has divided up the Antwerp Jesuit Church into separate and unrelated parts, this self-imposed limitation makes good sense. Indeed, John Rupert Martin’s The Ceiling Paintings for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp was the first volume of the Corpus Rubenianum, copyrighted in 1968, over fifty years ago. Hans Vlieghe’s Saints ii (1973) includes Rubens’s altarpieces of The Miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola and The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier, which alternated on the high altar of the Jesuit church until they along with the other major paintings by Rubens for the church were taken to Vienna where they now hang in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Rubens’s Assumption of the Virgin that once decorated the altar of the chapel dedicated to Mary on the south side of the Jesuit church is entered into the catalog of David Freedberg’s Part vii of the Corpus Rubenianum, The Life of Christ After the Passion (1984). Going outside the church itself to consider the splendid Marian sodality house built opposite the facade of the church to enclose the one true Renaissance square in Antwerp, Rubens’s Annunciation that graced an altar there makes its Corpus appearance in Hans Devisscher’s and Hans Vleghe’s volume of 2014 devoted to The Life of Christ Before the Passion: The Youth of Christ. Now the time is ripe to write a complete account of the church that brings all these elements together in history. Fabri’s and Lombaerde contribution as well as the fine quality of the illustrations in their volume will help open the way.

DOI:10.1163/22141332-00604007-05

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