The art essay of the month

Adoration of the Magi (1609) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

What was going through the mind. of the renowned artist as he looked upon the work of his youth, composed nearly twenty years before?

Much had changed in the life of Peter Paul Rubens since his tour de force of Italy in his late twenties and his return to the north. He had experienced unparalleled success as the premier painter of Europe—and as the official court painter of the archduke and duchess of the Habsburg Netherlands. Moreover, he was as influential in artistic circles as he was distinguished in diplomatic service. Indeed, it was for the cause of diplomacy that Rubens came to the palace of the king of Spain in 1628; and there, in Madrid, he encountered anew his first major commission from the Netherlands—the Adoration of the Magi, painted for the city of Antwerp on the occasion of the signing of the Twelve Years’ Truce. It was an old iconography, which he had replicated a half-dozen times since, yet Rubens found the opportunity to imbue it with a new spiritual significance: and he set about remaking it.

Scenes of prosperity and light

The Twelve Years’ Truce—a peace treaty between Spain and the Dutch Republic—was a source of reprieve in the midst of the brutal war tearing apart the Netherlands. With its ratification in 1609 came hope that the Spanish Lower Netherlands would regain its lost prosperity and rebuild itself—materially and culturally—following the ravages of war, Calvinist iconoclasm, and religious conflict. The treaty was signed in the Antwerp city hall; and in anticipation of this much-sought event, Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned to depict a distinctly religious motif to adorn this otherwise secular space.

The Adoration of the Magi certainly carried overtones of the prosperity that awaited Antwerp and the Southern Netherlands through the truce. Summoning his expertise in the Italian art that he had studied and imbibed, Rubens produced a compelling depiction of the Magi and their train coming to pay homage to the Infant King. Powerful male nudes straining under the burden of their riches evoke the figural beauty of Michelangelo and Annibale Carracci; the sumptuously dressed entourage recalls the festivity of Gentile da Fabriano’s depiction of the Epiphany, while the opulent vestments and textiles hearken to the rich pallet of Veronese and the Venetian school. And then there is the light! Pulling from the playbooks of artists as disparate as Raphael and Caravaggio, Rubens masterfully portrays the Christ Child as divine light incarnate, illuminating the dark with his phosphorescent glow. Surrounded by this redoubtable assortment of royalty and servants, the Infant Jesus playfully grasps at the glittering coins as his contemplative Virgin Mother and Saint Joseph gaze on in wonder.

The master revisits his work

Of course, times change and we are changed in them. The painting changed hands throughout the subsequent years. Given as a political favor to Rodrigo Calderón, the Count of Oliva, it was later acquired by King Philip IV of Spain when the former fell from grace. It was in the king’s collection that it was rediscovered by its maker years later.

Much had changed in Rubens’ own life. In the time since he completed the painting, Rubens lost most of his immediate family: his brother Philip, with whom he had gone to the Jesuit school in Cologne and remained closely associated in Rome, had died young, as had Rubens’ beloved first wife. But with the pain of loss, the master had also grown in ability and grace. His close work with the Society of Jesus in Antwerp and throughout Europe bore more than merely the fruit of desirable commissions. The spirituality of Saint Ignatius and his Society had profoundly influenced the religious outlook of Rubens. His technical mastery came to be matched by a keen spiritual awareness.

Reconsidering this painting from his youth, Rubens began to rework it. He enlarged the canvas—nearly doubling the original surface area—and included an even more varied assortment of characters in the oriental cortege. Cherubs zooming from the heavens add a distinctly Baroque twist to the ensemble, while a fluted pillar looming behind the Virgin anchors the composition on the Infant Child. The rich colors and sfumato texture recall Titian, by whom Rubens was most lately influenced.

And in the midst of the enlarged crowd of onlookers, servants, and royal companions, Rubens inserted a self-portrait. Robed in rich, gleaming porphyry velvet, sporting a rapier at his side, his face fair and spruce, his milk-white steed glistening in the dark, Rubens presents himself as a noble gentleman, an icon of status and achievement. But is this not, perhaps, more than an established man asserting his own success?

To behold the face of God

Unlike in many other self-portraits throughout his career, Rubens appears neither haughty nor intimidating to the viewer. His eyes are fixed on the Infant Jesus, his piercing gaze defining the newfound spiritual tension of this refurbished work. No longer a celebration of prosperity, this is a powerful “composition of place,” a means by which Rubens inserts himself into the great mystery of the Epiphany; and with the Magi and their retinue, he adores the Incarnate Lord made manifest to the nations.

Such unrest! Such violence! Such hardship, political machination, and war in our world! The fleeting peace of the Twelve Years’ Truce ended with only more conflict and strife. Perhaps Rubens was aware of the limitations of human power when he approached this painting in his later years and converted it into a monumental spiritual composition.

This marvelous Epiphany centers not on wealth, power, riches, or might but on the innocent, disarmed, humble Lord Jesus. What else could one aspire to attain if not, with Rubens, to come into the presence of the Lord, the King of Kings, and to contemplate his face?

Father Garrett Ahlers 
Parochial administrator and teacher of Church History.

Adoration of the Magi (1609), Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain. © Dist. RMN-GP / Image du Prado.