Rubens’ Catholic Canvas


Robert Kiely praises Willibald Sauerländer’s The Catholic Rubens: Saints and Martyrs for reminding us that the painter’s “baroque passions” should not become “an excuse for ignoring his expression of religious and ethical sentiments and ideals”:

Many of his paintings are of religious subjects. Yet they are so bright and cheerful, so crowded with buxom women and muscular men caught in swirls of light and color, that his work, even his religious paintings, must be considered baroque (in the dismissive sense of the term)—decorative, theatrical, busy, pagan, and only superficially Christian. But, in the arts, as in life, simplistic classification gets in the way of actually paying attention. How refreshing it is, then, to read this scholarly, accessible, and beautifully illustrated book by the German art historian Willibald Sauerländer. …

According to Sauerländer, calling Rubens a master of “baroque passions” is not altogether wrong unless—as too often is the case—it becomes an excuse for ignoring his expression of religious and ethical sentiments and ideals. “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that art history has appropriated Rubens as one of its greatest figures by wresting his art free from the church”—that is, from theology, liturgy, history, and his own faith. Sauerländer’s project is to put the seventeenth-century church back into the picture by giving particular attention to Rubens’s paintings of subjects—the Eucharist, saints, and martyrs—that were criticized by Reformers and intentionally reemphasized by the church.

(Image: The Judgement of Solomon by Peter Paul Rubens, 1617, via Wikimedia Commons)