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Hans Memling (1435–1494) is, after Jan Van Eyck (1390–1441), one of the most famous painters to have worked in Bruges (in present-day Belgium), at that time the flagship town of the Duchy of Burgundy. He represents the most accomplished of the Flemish forms of the early Renaissance. Once a pupil-associate of the famous Rogier van der Weyden (1400–1464), the official painter of the city of Brussels, he gained his independence and settled in Bruges around 1465, after the death of his master. The work that adorns the cover of your Magnificat probably dates from this transitional time in the painter’s life. This Angel with an Olive Branch, Emblem of Divine Peace was one of the side panels of a triptych; the other was an Angel with a Sword, and the central part a Pietà that showed the dead Jesus resting in the arms of Mary, his mother. Now, the inventory of the possessions of Margaret of Austria (1480–1530) lists this triptych, which is attributed to van der Weyden for the central Pietà and to Memling for the angels on the side panels.
Here, then, is the Angel of Peace, recognizable as such because he conspicuously holds up an olive branch bearing fruit. In biblical lands, when sedentary civilizations developed, the first species of olive trees that were cultivated took twenty to thirty years after planting to produce fruit. Now the custom was, during wars, systematically to cut and burn all the olive trees belonging to the enemy. Therefore, if you could produce an olive branch with fruit on it, it was proof that peace had reigned for at least twenty years. Similarly, the reason the dove could bring back to Noah a branch covered with olives was that there were lands that had emerged long before.
When associated with the image of the Pietà—in which we see Jesus, a victim of not having asked his Father to send more than twelve legions of angels to assert his innocence and his rights (Mt 26:53)—this angel signifies that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, that the kingdom of God is the kingdom of peace, and that its citizens are peacemakers. The angel’s hand placed over his breast testifies that the dispositions to peace are quite interior, namely meekness and humility of heart.
“How much more those of his household!”
The counterpart of the Angel of Peace is the angel carrying a sword. His hand is not placed over his heart but is projected forward and deployed as a sign of Jesus’ serious warning: I have not come to bring peace, but a sword! (Mt 10:34). And the picture of the Pietà shows us the first person who was struck by this sword, right in the heart: the Mother of God! A disciple is not above his teacher. If Jesus himself, true man, certainly, yet true God, did not escape the vengeance of the forces of evil and of death, neither did his mother. And it is even more certain that we, his disciples, will not escape it, for if they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household (Mt 10:25). Unless…
Indeed, there are so many ways we could escape this “much more” that is promised to us: by betraying Jesus, by denying him; compartmentalizing our life into a sphere that is piously religious and a sphere that is politically mainstream; or, more comfortably, just by looking the other way when we might be led to choose between the world’s friendship and fidelity to the Gospel.
To see the Pieta, please click here
To see the Angel with a Sword, Hans Memling, Wallace Collectin, Londres, please click here
Angel Holding an Olive Branch, Hans Memling (1435–1494), Louvre Museum, Paris, France. © RMN-GP / Gérard Blot.
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.