CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Case Study: The Assumption of the Virgin (1611)

Exhibition: 26 February - 3 April 2016

Information from the organizer, 19 January 2016

Modello submitted by Rubens to the Chapter of Antwerp Cathedral in 1611

An Assumption of the Virgin (1625/26) was painted by Rubens for the High Altar of Antwerp Cathedral. It is considered one of the highlights in a series of Assumptions by Rubens from which the hereby presented panel could be the earliest known version. Rubens’s Assumption of the Virgin in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (about 1611-1613) was the first choice for the High Altar. Indeed: on March 24 1611, Otto Venius submitted a sketch to the Chapter of Antwerp Cathedral, representing Our Lord inviting his Bride from Lebanon to her Coronation. On April 22 1611, Rubens (successfully) submitted two modelli, clearly a result of the negotiations following the meeting with Otto Venius. We may reasonably presume that a combination of elements from both modelli resulted in the creation of the altarpiece now in Vienna.

Today two modelli are taken into consideration for this commission.

First a painting on panel (transferred to canvas, 106 x 78 cm) in the Hermitage Museum in Saint-Petersburg showing a combination of the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin and widely accepted as one of the two modelli Rubens submitted to the canons of Our Ladies Cathedral in Antwerp on 22 April 1611. X-rays reveal that in the final version in Vienna, a group of cypresses may be detected beneath the paint surface in the background of the composition, comparable with those on the Hermitage-modello. The second modello has not been convincingly identified yet. Much discussed is Rubens’s Assumption of the Virgin (panel, 102 x 66 cm) in the Royal Collection in London (about 1613 or later). And on the other hand none of both modelli refer to the final version in Vienna which indeed shows a combination between the upper part of the panel in London and the lower part of the modello in Saint-Petersburg. With clear differences as e.g. two ‘floating’ angels to the left of the Virgin on the Vienna-panel which are e.g. absent on the London-panel.

Therefore, the (never published) panel (105 x 66 cm) that emerged in Antwerp a few years ago is most interesting. Dendro-chronological research pointed out that its wooden panel (consisting of three planks in oak-wood) came from a tree cut down about1590. In 1611 they were in perfect condition to be used. This panel differs from the London-version e.g. in the Virgins right palm (turned upwards) and in two angels holding each other’s arm appearing to the right in a cloud. These angels are only absent in the London-panel but reappear in a similar pose in the in the final version in Vienna. Another angel to the left, at the same level as the Virgin’s floating dress, under the arms of a praying angel, is also missing on the London-version. The backwards leaning angel with raised arm has a wing and therefore is different from its counterpart in London. And last but not least, on stylistic basis, the London-panel was clearly painted later than 1611!

The problem of Rubens’s Assumption of the Virgin of 1611 e.g. took the attention of e.g. Anne-Marie Logan and Michiel C. Plomp in 2005. They eventually accept the Hermitage-modello being submitted to the Chapter of Antwerp Cathedral in 1611, rejecting on the other hand the London-panel (being of a later date).

The hereby studied panel dates from the period in which Rubens presented two modelli to the canons of Antwerp Cathedral (1611). The Virgin, several angels, the women near the tomb, the coats of the apostles …do in no way differ from what one might expect from Rubens. The rendering of Mary’s right hand is interesting. Has this something to do with changes made after a first evaluation by the Chapter ? This detail is certainly not by the same hand responsible for most part of the picture. We also refer to similar changes made in the rendering of Mary’s palm in the Vienna-picture. It is obvious that the hereby studied modello (whatever some adaptations it was subjected to by another hand, especially in the lower part) is to be identified with one of the two modelli presented by Rubens to the Chapter of Antwerp Cathedral on 22 April 1611.

Some final remarks. The comparison of the Hermitage-modello with our picture supplies interesting analogies e.g. the representation of the young women at the left of the tomb; see also the rendering of the hands. Similarities in the faces of the angels carrying the Virgin and the angel with his yellowish hair are striking. Rubens reminds us of a fresco by Giovanni Antonio da Pordenone in the Chapel of the Annunciation in Treviso Cathedral. We know of a sheet attributed to Rubens, representing Our Lord carried by Angels (London, Courtauld Institute of Art) representing the same group of angels. In the overall composition, there are many similarities between our panel and the Hermitage-modello. E.g. in building up the composition in two registers. The rendering of the clouds e.g. is rather similar in both modelli and certainly different from the later version in London. We finally compare with other ‘early works’ by Rubens, e.g. the Circumcision (1605) in the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna (similar characters and poses) and with the Disputa (1609) in the Sint-Pauluskerk (Antwerp) (e.g. a similar angel).

Brochure available.