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The Irresistible Passion of Peter Paul Rubens

(Peter Paul Rubens’s “The Elevation of the Cross”)

Rubens is my favorite artist, in part, because his paintings capture the totality of the human condition in its fleshy, pathological, and metaphysical realities.”

Peter Paul Rubens is one of the most recognizable names in art. He was one of—if not theleading figures of the Flemish Golden Age and a supreme representative of the broader Baroque artistic tradition taking inspiration from Caravaggio. Rubens is my favorite artist, in part, because his paintings capture the totality of the human condition in its fleshy, pathological, and metaphysical realities. They speak to us, move with us, and inspire us.

The role of art and human life is a long and conflictual one. Plato famously banished the artists from his ideal republic. This was not because he disagreed with art (Plato wanted to be a dramatist before turning to philosophy, and this spirit is still visible in the fact that he chose to write in dramatic form rather than Pythagorean prose common to pre-Socratic philosophy) but because he thought the art espoused by the poets was insufficient for the good life. Luckily for us, Plato lost.

The 20th century saw a renewed struggle over the place and role of art in human life. Conservative humanists, in the tradition of Matthew Arnold—art being part of the humanist experience embodying in painted form “the best which has been thought and said” about the human condition—championed the role of art as part of a whole life. This, in turn, was rooted in the earlier romanticist movements of the 19th century. Avant-garde radicals, best represented by Susan Sontag, also wanted art at the forefront but offered “an erotics of art” in place of the supposedly static humanism of the conservative humanists. It is safe to say the Susan Sontag and the avant-garde butchers have won, at least for the moment, much to our broader cultural impoverishment; only a handful of largely classical and humanist preparatory schools and liberal arts universities retain that spirit of aesthetic humanism begun by Augustine and developed over the centuries after him and reaching a certain acme in the Council of Trent.

Rubens grew up in the aftermath of Trent’s declaration that artists offer spiritual meditation and theological allegory in their paintings. He was, from this historical context, one of the finest artists who sought to realize this essential spiritual component to art: teaching and touching the human soul through paintings. They continue to teach and touch us long after his death.

One of the most iconic of Rubens’s artworks is his 1604-5 work The Fall of Phaeton. Rubens, part of the sublime Baroque tradition, took up the mantle of infusing allegory and theology in classical mythology or biblical and religious stories. Phaeton, as we know, was not part of the biblical or religious inheritance. It was, however, part of the Greek inheritance that was slowly married into Christianity over millennia of theological innovation and synthesis. In the aftermath of the Renaissance and the humanism that sprang from the universities and church support—continued even in the various Reformed traditions of Europe best exemplified by Peter Vermigli—the familiarity with the high culture of Greece was part and parcel of the culture of the educated elite in a fractured and warring Christendom.

Catholics, especially, took the declaration of Trent’s artistic imperative to include the sanctification of classical mythology in their paintings. Phaeton’s pride, arrogance, and destruction offered an opportunity to embrace the creative freedom of a non-biblical story and infuse it with those spiritual and theological meditations and truths that the Church was now pushing through its patronage of the arts.

We are familiar with the story, but Rubens’s art tells an even more captivating one. Phaeton steals his father’s chariot. Phaeton’s father is the sun god Helios. Helios rides the chariots through the sky to bring the rise of the sun and bring life to the world. Phaeton seizes the chariot without proper prudence or authority. He flies into the air, uncontrollably, bringing death and destruction over the earth. The gods must make a split-second decision to save the world from the destruction wrought by Phaeton, so Zeus throws his thunderbolt and kills him.

In the painting, the moment of this decisive encounter is captured. Phaeton is overturned, inverted, falling headfirst into the abyss below (i.e., death). The Horae, the winged butterfly creatures off to the side of the painting, shriek in terror. The solar bands in the skies have been disrupted by the incident. Taken together, the terror of the Horae and the breaking of the solar bands bring the disharmony of the seasons and the end of the harmony of the cosmos. The light of heaven, where the gods (God) sit, is the only section of sublime light representing the light and power of the heavens where the thunderbolts of salvation came. The winged horses are now broken free of their reins and bolt in a myriad of different directions.

What strikes us in the painting is the pathological beauty of it. We see Phaeton falling headfirst, face covered while being disrobed, to his death in shame. Chaos reigns supreme. But there is also a paradoxical orderliness to it. It reminds us that despite the chaos and destruction around us, there is a divine providence over the cosmos. Chaos and disruption do not necessarily entail absolute chaos and a lack of cosmic control; there remains order and proportionality to the world, thanks to the heavens. Hence the only light and the Neoplatonic “point of infinity,” which draw our gaze into the heavens, attract our attention as we scan the painting. Life is found in the light and heavens, which slowly lead our eyes away from the central chaos of the chariot and the dark destruction of the world below (symbolized by its covering darkness in coloring).

The Fall of Phaeton is not just a rendering of the story of Phaeton’s pride and arrogance, which led to his downfall. It is also an allegory of the Fall of Man in the Christian tradition. Phaeton, like Adam and Eve, brings death and destruction onto the world through an act of usurpation and pride. This death and destruction from usurping pride, rebellion (carrying implicit political connotations that are otherwise hidden in the painting), destroys the original harmony of the world, and this permits chaos and death to enter. Yet, despite this tragedy, the light from heaven implies that there remains an order to it all: We are not doomed to eternal shrieking and grief (as the Horae are). What flows from pride and usurpation, a false enlightenment (represented by the color red in the cloak that is falling off of Phaeton revealing his false enlightenment)? Chaos, death, destruction. In theological language: sin.

Even so, the majesty of the painting in its carnal depiction of the cosmos and the pathologies it can inspire—the grief for Phaeton and the Horae, sympathy for the mythical flying horses, an unadulterated sense of sublime beauty, meditation and contemplation over its signification, the drawing of our eyes to the point of infinity which is the domain of the gods—seems to strike out at us and grab the very heart of our soul as we look it. We are not disinterested observers per Schopenhauer. Rather, we are fully immersed in the drama that the painting represents. We ourselves are part of it. We encounter beauty in the painting. We are overcome with the emotions of grief, horror, and pity. In a word, Rubens painted the totality of the human condition.

From classical mythology to a Christian one, another one of Rubens’s great paintings is his 1606-8 work Saint George and the Dragon. Many of us are familiar with this story as well. Saint George, a Christian soldier and member of Emperor Diocletian’s Praetorian Guard, was martyred for his faith. The stories surrounding his life and legacy are numerous. Romance, soldiery, martyrdom—he was the closest thing to a Christian Hercules or Jason. His most famous myth is slaying the dragon on horseback, a testament to his military bravado and faith in God, which emerged in the age of knighthood and crusades in 11th century Europe. It has stuck ever since.

Rubens’s grandiose painting is rich in biblical allusions. The dragon is representative of the serpent from the Garden of Eden and evokes the demonic darkness of Lucifer. The princess, beyond being a cultural contextual manifestation of the early Troubadour romantic heritage of medieval Europe, is also the imagistic manifestation and symbol of the Christian Church (the “Bride of Christ”). The lamb that she clings to is innocence (thus making the association of princess as church more concrete: the bride is clutching the “Lamb of God”). Of course, the great saint himself seated on his brilliant and beautiful white stallion (the color of goodness and purity) strikes at the dragon from on high as if heaven sent into the world to save the earthly bride from being consumed by this terrible monster (God/Christ coming to slay the forces of sin and darkness and death is, therefore, represented symbolically in the form of Saint George). The painting, then, is also a retelling of the typological allegory of Christian theology and the cosmic struggle between good and evil.

What captivates the eyes is the action and passion that the painting contains. We see human and animal emotions rushing across the painting. It fills us, moves our own hearts and soul, and nearly overwhelms us in a moment of sublimity. We also are drawn to the color contrast between the light (princess/Church and Saint George/Christ) and darkness that divide the painting (the division of the two worlds of heaven and hell, city of God and city of man, purity and sin). Our combatants are locked in cosmic battle, but we also know from the painting that good will triumph over evil; light will expel the darkness. Saint George is about to deliver the culling blow against the dragon though we are not privy to that decisive blow just yet. Rubens, therefore, is reminding us that our lives are like that of Saint George in the painting: In the midst of combat, we are locked in this active struggle even if we, as goodness, will triumph in the end (triumph, though, only through the active struggle).

Turning, now, to the grandest and most sublime of Rubens’s specifically biblical art, his 1610-11 work The Elevation of the Cross, we are met with a three-part triptych depicting the culmination of the “Passion of Christ.”

During the height of the Counter-Reformation when the doctrines of the eucharist were being questioned by Reformed Protestants and the eucharistic wars being waged, Rubens’s painting is a powerful reminder that Christ is not some spiritual entity but that his bodily sacrifice is the moment of salvation and, echoing the Gospel of John, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Christ’s bodily sacrifice as he is raised up on the Cross is the center of the painting, a subtle but powerful reminder that it was Christ’s physical presence that wrought salvation. The physicality of Christ is the heart of the painting and the heart of the Christian (Catholic) doctrine of soteriology. God came and dwelt among humans in the flesh, joining us in our weakness and frailty so as to beautify us and grant us the path toward divinization. In Christ’s physicality on the cross, Rubens is making a statement amid the eucharist wars: “This is my body which is broken for you!”

In the lifting of Christ on the cross, we are also struck by the strongmen and soldiers that surround him and aid in raising the cross to its place. Rubens, here, is trying to communicate to us the brutality of the event. Weaklings did not put Christ to death. It was the forceful strength of the fallen world: soldiers, armies, and the brutish force (libido dominandi—the lust to dominate) that brought about this desecration and death of the holy innocent. Off to the right-hand side of the painting is the mocking power of the Roman Empire, which is also preparing the crucifixion of the two thieves.

Like the best of Rubens’s painting, the Elevation of Christ on the Cross is filled with action. The painted figures are not moving as we move, yet we cannot help but feel the movement of the piece. The passion it induces. The physicality of the transitions of light and darkness. The weeping and gleeful laments and mocking of those witnessing the event. The painting is alive. Moreover, the empty cross loses all the passion and pathology that the crucifixion of Christ entails. Against this stripping of the human heart and its passions relating to the most central event in Christian consciousness and identity, Rubens’s painting restores the heart of the human condition and the heart of Jesus Christ as the central message of the painting. This was not some passionless, “spiritual” event. It was a physical, brutal, and passionate occurrence for all involved. It happened in the flesh where skin can be bruised, mangled, and sliced open with all that pain felt by the human body of the Lord.

In the bottom left-hand corner we encounter a lamenting Mary Magdalene who keeps her eyes focused on Christ. Christ, however, is gazing upward in that powerful moment captured in the gospel of Luke when Christ, being crucified, pleads to God the Father: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Originally, the triptych included additional pieces above it with an image of God the Father. Taken in totality, then, Mary Magdalene (symbolizing the faithful), Christ, and the God the Father are one—united—in this horrific and brutal moment of sacrificial salvation. We, too, are drawn into that unity not as disinterested observers but, rather, as participants in the drama unfolding before our very eyes. United in this dramatic event beside Mary Magdalene are Saint John and the Virgin Mary. Saint John comforts Mary, “behold your mother,” as they lock hands together in a moment of grieving comfort and Mary looks on with strength and acceptance of the sacrifice as her son is lifted into the skies. Their eyes also lock with Christ’s, and therefore like Mary Magdalene, symbolize unity with Christ who is united with the Father.

Here, too, is a great moment of symbolism. Christ is being raised into the sky. Rubens is also informing us of the transformative event that the crucifixion was. Christ is being elevated to the heavens which he will soon return to as the first fruit of heavenly ascent that the rest of us will soon join him on. So this is not just Christ on the cross like earlier Renaissance paintings, such as Matthias Grünewald’s sublimely magisterial 1523-4 work Christus am Kreuz zwischen Maria und Johannes. The fact that Rubens is depicting the elevation of Christ captures both aspects of the crucifixion: Christ’s death and his eventual ascension into heaven (thus, the elevation of Christ into the sky is also foreshadowing his resurrection and ascension as a continuous event).

Gazing upon the crucifying of Christ, as he is lifted on the cross and soaring into the air, the full realization of the world in its terror, beauty, passion, and emotion is revealed. The Roman soldiers mock Christ in their haughtiness. The strongmen placing the cross in the ground and hoisting the “King of the Jews” into the sky reveals the lust to dominate that so plagues our world. We see youth and frailty, multiple generations, the old woman and the babe sucking Mary Magdalene’s breast, reminding us of the lineage of life and that Christ came for old, young, and middle-aged. Mary and John embrace each other in grieving comfort, emotionally disturbed but remaining steadfastly strong because of their faith: a grieving sorrow that reveals their love. Meanwhile, Christ himself looks up—reminding us, per Saint Paul, that our home is in the heavens and not the earth.

This returns us to what I have been speaking of concerning the activity of Rubens’s paintings. Rubens’s paintings capture not a static understanding of humanity but the activity and pulsating desire and pathology of our nature. Rubens’s paintings embody the reality of an active spirit of life that is central to human existence. Passion, Rubens is telling us, is the essence of human life (and even Divine life). It can lead to death and destruction (as it did to Phaeton), it can lead to struggle and combat (Saint George), and it can lead to our salvation (Christ on the cross). That is why Rubens is irresistible and why few, if any, have been able to match his greatness after 400 years. The human condition really does pulsate through his paintings, and it invites us to rediscover our own humanity. His paintings are alive, alive with the heart, soul, and blood that move our own lives and invite us to rediscover who we are.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

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