Tag: Rubens

Assumption of Mary

Tiziano “Titian” Vecelli (1488 – 1576), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1516), 690x360cm, Oil on Panel, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.

Today August 15 is the official feast day of the “Assumption of Mary”. It’s a holiday in many, mostly Catholic, countries. But what is it about and how has it been depicted in art? This day is to celebrate that the Holy Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, is taken up into Heaven at the end of her earthly life. It’s not so much a historic event, but it’s deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, belief and faith. The historic element is that somewhere around the year 41, Mary passed away. From around the 3rd century the belief was added that the body of Mary was taken up into Heaven and in that sense she followed her son Jesus Christ, who was crucified and subsequently taken into Heaven about 10 years earlier. From the 5th century onwards, it was added that all the apostles were present at this very moment, which is depicted on the many paintings with Mary’s Assumption. They are the group of guys looking up in astonishment when Mary is taken into Heaven, up into the arms of God. On most paintings Mary goes up with the help of angels, like on the gigantic Titian altar piece, almost 7×4 meters, which is still on its original location in the Frari Church in Venice.

Annibale Carracci (1560 – 1609), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1587), 130x97cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

There is still an endless dispute about the moment just before the heavenly Assumption of Mary. Did Mary only fell asleep, the so-called “Dormition”, and then went up? Or did she actually also really die? The official Catholic dogma around the subject is not clarifying this element. Pope Pius XII proclaimed in 1950 that Mary indeed “completed her earthly life” and that her body and soul went up into heavenly glory. The Pope used his Papal authority to declare this dogma and did so with “Papal Infallibility”. He made not clear if Mary just fell asleep and went up, or if she also really died before going up into Heaven. On the Titian painting, Mary goes up into Heaven and no indication of the moment just before the Assumption. On the Carracci painting from the Prado, Madrid, Mary is ascending from a tomb, which would indicate that Mary indeed died. On the Rubens altar piece, still in its original location in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, the tomb is also present.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1626), 490x325cm, Oil on Panel, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp.

I think the Assumption of Mary is a beautiful belief and it’s great to depict this story. Every viewer of a painting with the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Christ, has a mother him- or herself and many viewers are also “mother” themselves. And all those mothers will one day pass away. It must have given – and still gives – a lot of comfort to know or believe that Mary, as the mother of all mothers, was taken up into heaven after her death. It gives hope to everyone, and certainly to our mothers, that one day they will follow Mary up into Heaven. August 15 is a public holiday, but it’s above all the ultimate and sacred Mother’s Day.

Jan Lievens (1607 – 1674)

Jan Lievens (1606 – 1674), “Samson and Delilah” (c. 1632), 131x111cm, Oil on Canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

On the 4th of June 1674, death of Jan Lievens, Dutch Golden Age painter and friend, colleague and rival of Rembrandt. Only a year younger than Rembrandt, they grew up together in Leiden and shared a studio in Amsterdam. Rembrandt became the well known favorite of all times, and Lievens always stayed in his shadow. But let’s look now at Jan Lievens’ “Samson and Delilah” painted around 1632. The story is from the Old Testament (Judges 16: 17-20) and goes as follows. The Israelite Samson is the strong invincible super-hero. Delilah is a treacherous smart woman, bribed by the Philistines, who seduces Samson into telling her the secret of his heroic strength. He tells her that he will lose his strength when his hair will be cut. When Samson falls asleep on her lap, she hands a pair of scissors to a frightened Philistine and in the next scene Samson’s powerful hairlocks will be gone. This is a scene of terror and suspense. On the painting it’s the moment when Samson still has all his strength, and the Philistine guy knows that and looks pretty anxious. But Delilah is determined and Samson’s hair (and strength!) will be gone in a second. This subject appeals to the viewer for a few reasons. It’s about a strong muscled guy, who now sleeps like a baby and will be powerless very soon. It’s also about women being smart and able to seduce men. And there is a moral: strong as you may be as a man, you are weak in the arms of a beautiful woman. And Lievens is depicting the moment when Samson still has all his power and strength. It can all still go wrong! There is suspense in this part of the story!

Here is also a painting that’s actually more a sketch. Over the centuries this small painting has been attributed on and off to Rembrandt or to Lievens. There are endless discussions between historians of art who the artists is behind this painting. Its for sure from the Rembrandt/Lievens studio, from around 1626, and it shows again the terrifying moment just before the cutting of Samson’s hair. Currently this painting is attributed to Rembrandt.

Attributed to Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), “Samson and Delilah” (c. 1626), 28x24cm, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In the days of Rembrandt and Lievens, artists were using prints as source of inspiration. It could very well be that the below print has been seen by Rembrandt and Lievens. It’s a print from 1611 by the Dutch artist Jacob Matham, after a painting by Rubens made in 1609. Most likely Lievens and Rembrandt have never seen the Rubens painting and only know the work through the Matham print. Rubens is depicting the moment of cutting the hair. But Rembrandt and Lievens choose the moment just before that, creating masterly that sense of terror and suspense. It can still go wrong! That’s like a Hitchcock thriller, but painted in the 17th century!

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640)

On the 30th of May, 1640, death of Peter Paul Rubens, the most important Baroque painter from the Flemish Netherlands. Rubens was not only a well-educated scholar and painter, but also businessman and diplomat. He made religious altarpieces, portraits of royalty, mythological paintings and hunting landscapes. All his paintings are impressive big pieces with lots of color and typical Baroque-emphasized movement and sensuality. He run a large studio in Antwerp which is now the Rubenshuis Museum.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “The Descent from the Cross” (1613), 420x320cm, Oil on Panel, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium.

Here are two of his paintings. It’s “The Descent from the Cross” (1613), which is the 4×3 meters magnificent central panel of a triptych, which is still in its original place in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium. The body of Christ is lowered from the cross, with very energetic support of Saint John (in the red mantle). Mary Magdalena is gracefully supporting Christ’ leg and Mary, a mother in despair, is stretching out her arms towards her son. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are placed on both sides of the scenel.

Also here is a 2×3 meters big painting of the legendary hero “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1614). Chief counselor to the Persian king, Daniel fell victim to his jealous co-officials. They plotted against him and threw him into a den of lions. But that plot truly failed! Daniel keeps on staring up and praying towards the light of heaven. And he stayed unharmed! Next day he was freed without a single scratch. A strong moral: look up when things get you down; keep your head up and think positive!

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1614), 224x351cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.