The altar pieces of Rubens, Van Dijck and Jordaens
In 1628 three of Antwerp’s foremost painters Pieter Paul Rubens, Antoon Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens got the assignment to embellish the three most important altars. The reason was without a doubt the planned meeting of the heads of the Augustinians in the Antwerp cloister, in June of that year.
The Augustinians must have thought that for this important assignment only Rubens was good enough but he probably delegated the assignments of the side altars to Van Dyck and Jordaens. Not only were they together with Rubens the most important historical painters in Antwerp, but they were also his most gifted assistants.
Rubens had an urgent reason to delegate the side altars to VanDyck and Jordaens. In 1628 he would leave on a diplomatic trip to Spain and England. Undoubtedly, he must have known that he would be going before-hand.
Rubens made the canvas for the main altar and received an exorbitant sum of 3000 guilders, which says a lot about his fame at that time. His two assistants received much more modest sums for their work. Van Dyck received 600 guilders. It’s not known what Jordaens received, but it’s estimated that it would have been similar to Van Dyck’s payment. A sum between 500 and 600 guilders was the average price for an altar piece of those dimensions.
Rubens: The mystery of the wedding of the Holy Catharina
In Rubens’ painting it is immediately clear who this Antwerp Augustinian church was originally dedicated to.
The statue of Mary, dressed in red with a blue cape is adored as mother of God by all the saints.
Baby Jesus sits on her lap and places a golden ring on the finger of the Holy Catharina, who thus becomes Jesus’ bride. Joseph stands behind Mary, and beside him stands John the Baptist. All the way to the left Saint Paul and Saint Peter look on. From the right, beneath John the Baptist we see Saint Nicolas of Tolentino, with the bread that healed Mary. The Holy Laurentius can be recognized from the grid on which he was burned and Saint Augustine is pictured with his bishops’ cape and staff. In his left hand he holds a flaming heart. With his back turned to the viewer is Wilhelmus van Malevale. He started the congregation of the Wilhelmites which helped shape the Order of the Augustinians because of the Magna Unio of 1256. Beside him stands Saint Sebastian with his martyr’s palm. He is speaking to Saint Joris who is killing the dragon. The group of women is made up of the Holy Clara of Montefalco, holding scales and Maria Magdalena.
The two most important secondary themes are the worshipping of the virgin conception and the adoring of the Saints as examples. Both ideas were disputed by the reformists and were therefore all the more promoted by the opposition.
Right away the theme pointed to the ‘immaculate conception’ and also to the cleansing rituals, which the Augustinians and all secular and regular religious practitioners ought to obey.
Professor Hans Vlieghe wrote about this work: “It is remarkable how graceful and dynamic this monumental composition is. A similar type of upholstered mise-en-scene would play an important role in Rubens’ later works. The construction of the composition and rich color gamma are of undeniable Venetian influence. The luxurious architecture of the throne and the background remind the spiritual man of the similarly festive representations of the Madonna by Titian and Veronese. Furthermore, this sort of graceful and lively representation would become particularly characteristic of Flemish baroque. The scenes by Jordaens and Van Dyck are characterized by this dynamic element.”
Van Dyck: The Passion of Saint Augustine
Van Dyck painted the Passion of Saint Augustine for the left side altar.
The Holy Augustine is entranced by a heavenly vision in which he sees the Holy Trinity. As such, this painting refers to the unique mystique of the Augustinians. The painting is divided in two groups: the lower group, on earth, where Augustine stands in the center. On the left he is supported by an angel, beside whom we see his mother the holy Monica kneeling. On his right an angel points to an apparition in the sky. Beside the angel kneels Nicolas of Tolentino.
The transition to the upper group is made by a pillar that fades away into heaven. Countless cherubs surround the Holy Trinity; Christ, a dove as a symbol for the Holy Spirit, and a triangle with the name of God the father: Jehovah
Jordaens: The martyring of the holy Apollonia
Jordaens’ canvas for the right altar depicts the martyring of the holy Apollonia. Part of the churches’ treasure consists of a relic which is said to be a number of Apollonia’s teeth. Considering the circumstances of her death and the ancient time frame, the authenticity of this relic is debatable.
According to Hans Vlieghe this painting shares a similarly dynamic style, mimicry and explicit gesticulation as the other paintings. Content wise the paintings of Van Dyck and Jordaens are at opposite poles. Van Dyck’s work emphasizes the contemplative nature of orders’ spirituality. Whereas Jordaens’ torture scene makes clear that deeds are an important function as well. In this fashion the two paths to perfection are placed against each other. The ‘vita contemplativa’ and the “vita activa’ are two important guidelines for the Augustinians, but also for the laymen of the faith.
In the center under a group of angels we find the holy Apollonia in a less harmonious composition. Underneath the horsemen an executioner prepares the fire on which Apollonia will be burnt to death. Another executioner is pulling out Apollonia’s teeth. An old heathen priest encourages her to offer herself to Jupiter. According to the legend, which took place around 250 BC in Egypt, Apollonia threw herself on the fire to escape the torture of the fire and prevent herself from cursing God. Her suicide was problematic for the church, but no one less than Augustine himself found a proper explanation; these actions were encouraged by the Holy Spirit and consequently, suicide should be considered an offer to meet this inspiration.