Monday, August 13, 2012

Rubens and The Counter-Reformation

Why is Peter Paul Rubens sometimes referred to in association with The Counter-Reformation?  After all, most of the time we refer to Rubens as a Baroque artist and the cultural shifts we associate with that period are The Protestant Reformation, the change in wealth and social status, and the rise of neoclassicism as evidenced by the influence and power of the Academy.  We might tie into The Enlightenment while we are at it.  But the Counter-Reformation is a cultural wave that is more difficult to grasp.

In 1610 when Rubens painted the three tryptichs for Antwerp, Protestantism and the printing press had shifted the dependency of Christian believers away from the altars of cathedrals and more toward their homes and families.  Private interpretations of scripture and a shift away from oral tradition and dogma meant a loss of stability for the Roman Catholic church throughout Europe.  The church turned to the arts to draw attention back to what it had to offer.  One thing was centuries of oral tradition.  The three tryptichs by Rubens actually proclaim to some extent the wealth of the oral traditions and the visual heritage of the church.

The argument between Protestants and Catholics is ironically highlighted by this, because the foundation of the Protestant Reformation is sola scriptura, the Bible's authority alone, something Protestants would say was God-sent and unchanging, and the Counter-Reformation argument is founded on church authority, something that many perceived as ever-changing and a bit questionable, seated as it is amid sinful men.

Look at Rubens' painting.  Anything strike you as odd?  The one thing that I would point to is that leafy green tree.  Why is it there?  The answer is not documented with the painting but I think we can find it in another contemporary source, John Donne's poetry.

In "A Hymn to God in My Sickness" written in 1613, Donne says,
"We know that Christ's cross and Adam's tree were in one place..."

Huh?  The Reformed Protestant studying scripture would ask, "Where did you get that?," because the concept does not occur anywhere in scripture.  I think I could give you a fairly cogent argument for why it wouldn't, but it would take awhile.  The Counter-Reformer would say, "It seems logical and it is in our traditions."

That is why it is the background of Rubens' painting, he practically painted the art as a signboard for returning to the Catholic church.  "We," meaning the church, "know that Christ's cross and Adam's tree were in one place," because we have all the oral traditions and the saints to tell us these things, so come back.

It is the extra-Biblical or apocryphal elements that make Rubens a Counter-Reformation artist.

By the way, painting declarations of the majesty of the powers and authorities of Europe was Rubens' specialty, whether for The Apotheosis of James I in England or The Embarkation of Maria de Medici he was Royal Court Painter to no less than four kingdoms in his lifetime.

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