CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

The masterpiece of Peter Paul Rubens, The descent from the cross from the collection of the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg

Exhibition: 8 April - 28 May 2000

English translation of texts from exhibition catalogue

One thousand years after the famous convention in Gniezno which definitively affirmed the place of Poland in the Christian Europe, during the special period marked by Lent of the Jubilee Year, the National Museum in Warsaw organised an exhibition which presented the iconography of the Passion of Christ based on chosen examples of Northern European works of art, prints and paintings from its own collections as well as from the Hermitage. The generous loan from the St. Petersburg collections constituted the highlight of the exhibition.

The deliberate restraint of the presentation was determined by the very nature of its theme – its solemnity as well as its theological, religious and emotional import, and also the artistic significance of the works on display. The selection of two artistic media, painting and engraving, set the stage for consideration of two different ways in which the faithful experienced the Passion in art. On the one hand, the smaller forms of the prints, above all the narrative cycles of the historia passionis, recounting the Martyrdom in a more immediate and intimate fashion, refer to their original function, that of individual reflection and prayer. On the other hand, art works such as the central element of the exhibition, The Descent from the Cross from St. Petersburg, and the accompanying paintings from the National Museum in Warsaw recall the manner of experiencing the profound messages of works of art which was typical for the persuasive art of the Baroque. The vast altar paintings, created with psychological verity, inspired contemplation of the mysteries of the faith in a community, among large groups of the faithful gathered in big churches.

A rich tradition of presenting the History of the Redemption, and the Passion of Christ in particular, important in the whole of Christian Europe, found a magnificent expression in all artistic disciplines for centuries. Out of innumerable representations of this theme, which invariably inspired artists and always offered the most comprehensive characteristics of the artistic, emotional and intellectual character of each epoch, a comparatively small fragment of the history of art was chosen and bridged by two great personalities: Albrecht Dürer and Peter Paul Rubens. Some one hundred years before Rubens painted the masterwork exhibited here, Dürer one of the greatest print-makers of all time, had visited Antwerp where he had been given a hearty welcome by the artists of the city and honoured by them. Dürer’s influence in the Netherlands was equal to that in his homeland, and those inspirations were documented in numerous examples of paintings and prints in the exhibition.

The phenomenon of the Antwerp Baroque was preceded by a presentation of some aspects of the Passion iconography. Engraved Passion series were shown alongside individual prints on this subject, created between the early 16th and the late 17th centuries, as well as a selection of paintings which exemplified the influences and artistic affiliations between the two branches of art.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, prints with Passion images had, by reflecting many aspects of theological debates carried on at that time, contributed appreciably to the process of shaping iconographic formulations which, due to the technical possibilities of the medium, were then spread on a large scale. This was a time of great artistic personalities who chose printmaking as their means of expression developing this medium as a whole, perfecting its technique and increasing its potential of expression.

The growing presence of Passion themes in religious art was related to the traditional piety in secular circles, most significantly influenced in the 12th and 13th centuries by the Franciscans who, by referring to the emotions, shaped a type of religiousness close to the widest circles of believers. The lives of the Saviour and the Mother of Christ, and the History of Passion in particular, by stressing the emotional aspects, bringing out human suffering and anguish, patience and humility in the fulfilment of the Sacrifice of the Redemption, showing the Son of God’s love for people, made them feel compassion, repentance for their sins, and moved them to improve their behaviour. The development of this kind of piety was accompanied by literature; the historia passionis soon became the most popular form, presenting the events of the Passion in a narrative way and often combining it with an allegorical or moral interpretation rooted in the Biblical exegesis. The success of this form was also contributed to by the fact that the Passion cycles, especially the Via Crucis, were traditionally regarded as an opportunity for a “spiritual pilgrimage” to the places sanctified by Christ’s blood.

Of inestimable importance was the role of Albrecht Dürer a great creative personality and one of the finest engravers of all time whose genius elevated the graphic medium into the highest realms of art. Dürer’s works were intellectually rich, artistically innovative, and technically perfect. Among them was the Little Passion cycle (cat nos 12-48) which owes its name to the format of the wood blocs. It shows the history of the Redemption from the Original Sin, “constituting the reason of Redemption work undertaken by Christ”, to the Last Judgement. This “visual prayer book” with devotional pictures, didactic in spirit and intended as an aid in the reflection and contemplation of the Martyrdom, had, on account of its extraordinary suggestiveness and the power of its artistic vision rendered with a technical mastery, a great importance in building the imagery of the Passion of Christ, profoundly affecting viewers and artists alike. Due to the preservation of clarity in the small format, the artist reduced the number of figures and relegated the background to a minor importance; thus, he was able to achieve an effect of directness and close contact and to concentrate on the narrative and human dimensions of the Passion. The Little Passion cycle, preserved in its complete form, was among the most important works shown in the exhibition.

Apart from the cycles, individual prints with the Passion scenes were also popular, depicting above all the Crucifixion, the Prayer at Gethsemane (Christ on the Mount of Olives) and the Carrying of the Cross. Woodcuts used to be the most readily available works of art because of their lower price (associated with the fact that this technique was suited for producing a greater number of impressions). The three motifs just mentioned also ranked as the most important ones for the faithful practising the devotio moderna, a type of piety which emerged in the Netherlands during the 14th century, advocating humility and patience in everyday life and adopting Christ as a paradigm. The engraving of the Crucifixion by Dürer (cat no 49), executed in 1508, surprises with its three-dimensionality and the depth of its space; the figures appear within the landscape rather than against its background and are captured from the side, thus shifting the perspective of the viewer.

Dürer’s impact on Northern Renaissance painting, both in Germany and in Antwerp, was immense. The exhibition documented it with several works, among them the Mocking of Christ by the Master of Messkirch (cat no 9) whose composition had been derived from Dürer’s woodcut (Hollstein, German, VII, 138). The painted wings of the polyptych of St. Reinhold by Joos van Cleve, an accomplished painter from Antwerp, include two panels with the Ecce Homo (cat no 2b) and the Crucifixion (cat no 2e), both of them manifesting direct borrowings from the Little Passion woodcuts. The depiction of Mary Magdalene embracing the cross from behind in the Crucifixion by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (cat no 3) is taken from another woodcut series by Dürer the Life of Virgin. In the composition of the Holy Trinity created some one hundred years later (cat no 5), Frans II Francken also availed himself of a print by the Nuremberg Master.

During the 15th century, printmaking in the Netherlands remained under the sway of German artists. Lucas van Leyden, often compared to Dürer was the first Netherlandish artist who, while owing a great deal to the Nuremberg printmaker, created his own original style. The engraving entitled Christ Appearing to St. Mary Magdalene as a Gardener (cat no 54) may have been inspired by one of the Little Passion woodcuts (cat no 43), but Lucas van Leyden reduced the composition, moving the half-figures of Christ and Mary Magdalene into the foreground of the scene, making it possible to concentrate on them and bring out the full emotional intensity of the scene in which Mary Magdalene recognises the Resurrected Christ. Decorative forms of van Leyden’s engravings are reflected in the Carrying of the Cross, with St. Veronica, painted by an anonymous Netherlandish master (cat no 11).

The mannerist period was represented by works such as The Body of Christ Supported by Angels, a Hendrick Goltzius engraving from 1587 based on a Bartholomeus Spranger composition (cat no 74), or the painting of the Resurrection by Johann Rottenhammer (cat no 10). The “S” curve of the body, typical for mannerist representations, unites the figures in both representations of the dead and the Resurrected Christ which are shown with fine musculature, with no signs of suffering and untouched by torture or decay. Goltzius’s prints enjoyed acclaim for their refined technique; thanks to his skill in varying the thickness of a single line along different sections and intersecting slender and bold hatching in the same fields, the artist was able to attain new effects in building forms and rendering textures. The exhibition included also a Passion cycle of twelve engravings (cat nos 61-72) created by Hendrick Goltzius in van Leyden’s manner as a tribute to this famous artist.

Paintings owing something to the graphic art or constituting a supplement, a colour “illustration” to the exhibited prints, were shown separately according to the order of the Passion scenes which, luckily, coincided almost exactly with the stylistic chronology and the time of creation. The selection of the painted Passion scenes was closed by two exquisite works with no direct references to the prints on display, Christ Resurrected with the Cross and Chalice by Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem (cat no 4) and Noli Me Tangere by Denys Clavaert (cat no 1), both representing the transitional period between Mannerism and early Baroque. These two pieces illustrate scenes after the Resurrection, with Christ in the blessed body free of signs of martyrdom holding the symbols of the Sacrifice and the Eucharist in one and the meeting of the Resurrected Master with Mary Magdalene in the other. Thus, the painted iconographic “cycle” of the Passion was closed by the hope-filled visions of triumph over death.

The second room was devoted mostly to Rubens’s works from the Hermitage, exemplifying the prominent and emotional art of the Baroque, the new form of artistic expression which blossomed after the Council of Trent in the first decades of the 17th century. At this time of spiritual renewal in the Church, the importance of monumental altar paintings in facilitating religious practice and experiencing the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption increased. In conformity with the general guidelines of the Council of Trent, those paintings were vast, colourful, legible, and stimulated the piety of the faithful by their deep emotional message. The teachings of the Jesuits placed particular emphasis on emotion, and their fostering of meditation methods was accompanied by encouragement to imagine a contemplated scene so intensely as if it were actually unfolding before the believer’s eyes. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, particularly encouraged such a practice in his Spiritual Exercises, the work which constitutes a prototype for a modern religious retreat. The deeply visual principles on which Loyola’s Exercises were based found full realization in a later Jesuit publication, Evangelicae Historiae Imagines by Hieronymus Nadal which contained proposals for meditation and rich visual material in the form of 153 meticulously prepared prints (ill 2, 12, and 17 in the essay by H. Benesz). Rubens himself made frequent recourse to that iconographic thesaurus in his work.

The subject of the Descent from the Cross was taken up by Rubens’s workshop on several different occasions in the years 1611-1625; the painted realizations of the theme were preceded by a drawing made a few years earlier, the first recording of the artist’s vision of the subject. This important document from the Hermitage was displayed (cat no III) alongside an oil sketch, i.e. a modello (cat no II), and the final altar painting (cat no I) from the same collection. The altar painting is Rubens’s third painted version of the theme, after the famous triptych from the Antwerp cathedral and the painting from Lille. The St. Petersburg composition presents the most severe and monumental treatment of the Descent from the Cross in Rubens’s entire oeuvre. Its austerity results from the reduction of the number of figures to five and the absence of scenery. Rubens painted this masterpiece in ca 1618, probably with the participation of van Dyck and other co-workers.

The Descent from the Cross was a popular theme in the post-tridentine iconography because of its clear Eucharistic symbolism. A concentrated and thoughtful co-operation of the group of persons close to Christ as they take His body down from the Cross after He has fulfilled His Sacrifice was an intelligible image of the Church community engaged in the service of the Corpus Christi. The body of Christ, captured frontally and brightly illuminated, radiating its own brilliance and also reflecting the whiteness of the shroud, constitutes the formal as well as ideological centre of the Rubens composition. The outstretched hands of the persons involved in the action receive His body in solemn communion. The post-tridentine theology, and the teaching of the Jesuits in particular, gave a special place in the community of the Church to a repentant sinner, the one who, having erred, reaches his hands out to the Saviour. In the Ruben work, this special place is given to Mary Magdalene, kneeling at the Saviour’s feet. During the Counter-Reformation period this figure symbolised the entire sin-ridden human race converting itself to God in an act of love-filled repentance. As the visual complement of the sacrament of reconciliation, i.e. penance, and, even more importantly, that of the Eucharist, this theme ranked among the most important subjects showed in the great altar paintings of Baroque times.

To the Polish public, the opportunity of admiring Rubens’s Descent from the Cross must have been a very moving experience because it evoked memories of the irretrievable loss of another painting of the same subject purchased from Rubens’s atelier and brought to Poland in as early as 1621, still during the Master’s life, and destroyed by a fire (?) in the St. Nicholas Church in Kalisz in 1973 (ill. 6 in the essay of J. A. Chrościcki).

Before Rubens returned to Antwerp from Italy in 1608, the leading role among the artists of the cultural capital of Flanders had been held by Abraham Janssens, a painter who developed a sculptural, clearly chiaroscuro style of great expressive power. Two paintings created by this highly interesting artist were also presented in the exhibition. Displaying caravaggesque inspirations which go back to Janssens’s Italian sojourn of 1598-1601, the pictures depict the Passion scenes Ecce Homo (cat no 6) and the Deposition (cat no 7). The latter painting, shown for the first time after conservation work and examination, constitutes another example of a representation imbued with Eucharistic significance. The frontally rendered body of Christ concentrates the light, the stone of unction on which He rests makes a clear allusion to the altar mensa, and the body and the blood of the Saviour eloquently visualize the doctrine of the Transubstantiation (“the entire substance of the bread into the substance of our Lord Jesus Christ, the entire substance of the wine into the substance of His blood”) which received such emphasis in the decrees of the Council of Trent. A painting of such a meaningful subject, placed above the altar, served as a suggestive complement to the celebration of Eucharist.

The paintings of Janssens, displayed at the exhibition next to the Rubens’s works from the Hermitage, and examples of what is known as the Rubens graphic school (cat nos 83, 84, 86, 87, 88, and 89) broadened the documentation of the rich artistic panorama of Antwerp at the beginning of the 17th century.

The isolated example of reproductive printmaking, associated with Rembrandt, refers to Rubens’s Descent from the Cross through the central group of figures holding up the limp body of Christ (cat no 90). Rembrandt, however, depicted the human suffering with greater realism. The exhibition also showed one of the most outstanding graphic masterpieces ever, not only in the total output of Rembrandt but in the history of printmaking as a whole: The Three Crosses (cat no 91). The multiple contour lines, the impression of movement and trembling as well as seemingly spontaneous hatching, all combine a unique, extraordinarily suggestive artistic vision. This touching, deeply emotional masterwork is one of the greatest Passion compositions in the history of this artistic medium and marks one of the highest points of its achievement.

An exhibition conceived and arranged in this way, presenting the masterly skill of the paintings and prints on the one hand and their eloquent iconography on the other, had the objective of encouraging deeper reflection on the subjects taken up in the works and making for a kind of artistic retreat.

Text by Juliusz A. Chrościcki

The Religious Paintings of Peter Paul Rubens

From the website of Polonica

The first indirect contacts between Rubens and the rulers of Poland took place during the years of 1615-1624. As we know, King Sigismund III Vasa employed agents who effected on his behalf artistic purchases in Antwerp. In 1621, this role was filled by Hendrick van Uylenburgh, a merchant from Amsterdam; several years later, art purchases for Sigismund III were made by Joris Deschamps, a commercial man from Antwerp. Prince Ladislaus Sigismund, Sigismund III’s son, relied on another Antwerp merchant, Jan Bierens, and on Mathieu Rouault, a merchant from France; both these men bore the official title of “agent of the Prince”. There was also Piotr Żeroński, secretary to Sigismund III who rose in his court during the years of 1621-1632, travelling to Antwerp as the personal emissary of his King; I will discuss his sojourns in that city in more detail below.

Prince Ladislaus Sigismund Vasa, later to become king Ladislaus IV, arrived in Brussels as the personal guest of the Infanta on September 2, 1624; this was one of the stops on his year-long tour of Europe. The French ambassador noted with a hint of irony that Rubens was busily at work painting a portrait of the Prince prior to September 13, presumably finding this task to be more worthwhile than the negotiations concerning prolongation of the truce between the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic in the north; we read in his letter that “the Infanta ordered him to paint a portrait of the Polish Prince; I think that, this way, he will gain more than from the armistice negotiations which can only be infused with superficial colours and shades but not with content nor with a sound base” (Chrościcki 1981, p. 161). This French diplomat also held the general opinion that Rubens, the court painter and craftsman, should not engage in diplomatic parleying (which, of course, Rubens did, on this occasion as well as many others). As for the Polish Prince, there were plans for making him the admiral of a Spanish fleet which was to ply the Baltic. Ladislaus Sigismund visited the Antwerp residence of Rubens on September 25, 1624; when the Deposition triptych at the Cathedral was shown to him following a Mass which he attended, the interior was illuminated by candles and the proceedings had all the trappings of a major holiday.

The close rapport between the painter-diplomat and the Polish Prince resulted in the acquisition, apart from the portraits of Sigismund III and of Sigismund Ladislaus executed in the master’s studio, of at least three religious pieces by Rubens, as corroborated, among other sources, by papers documenting a debt of 1 800 florins for portraits painted in 1626. The Kunstkammer of the Prince From 1626, painted in Warsaw by Etienne de la Hyre, shows two oval paintings depicting St. Peter and St. Paul and a partially concealed Madonna With Flowery Garland Surrounded by Angels, a huge piece executed by Rubens together with his friend Jan Breughel I. The latter’s writings refer to this composition as being held in the Prince’s collections and his son, Jan Breughel II, even named a price at which the royal patron could have bought this piece – 1 600 guilders. The only mythological piece by Rubens included in the Prince’s collections was the Train of the Drunken Bacchus (a composition containing ten figures), also shown in The Kunstkammer of the Prince From 1626. Four crates containing paintings by Rubens as well as other works purchased and commissioned by Sigismund Ladislaus during his Netherlandish sojourn of 1624 did not arrive in Cracow (via the overland route through Germany) until his coronation as Ladislaus IV, held in January of 1633. This topic has already been elaborated upon by historians, e.g. E. Duverger; more recently, R. Szmydki brought to light some new documents on the value of these acquisitions and their transport.

It should be remembered that the famous Antwerp studio of Rubens was visited, still in its founder’s lifetime, by a number of Polish travellers. These included Albrycht Stanisław Radziwiłł (later the great chancellor of Lithuania) in 1613, Jan Żółkiewski (son of Stanisław Żółkiewski, the grand crown hetman) in 1614, Piotr and Stanisław Daniłłowicz in 1619–1621, the students Krzysztof Mikołaj Sapieha and Kazimierz Leon Sapieha (sons of Leon Sapieha, the chancellor of Lithuania) in circa 1624, Krzysztof Opaliński and Łukasz Opaliński (then students at the University of Louvain) in 1626–1629, Mikołaj Słupecki and Krzysztof Słupecki in 1629, Jerzy Niemirycz in 1632 and, at some point before 1640, Bogusław Radziwiłł.

Over the period of 1614–1621, the most frequent Polish caller at the studio was the nobleman Piotr Żeroński (aka Żeromski); there are in excess of a dozen documents concerning his various financial settlements with Rubens and with Jan Breughel I. In his capacity of secretary to Sigismund III (as of 1606) and then an official at his court, Żeroński took upon himself some of his King’s liabilities vis a vis the painter, likewise those of certain Polish magnates, including Żółkiewski (already mentioned above) and the Sapieha family (please see the next chapter). Funds for these settlements arrived from Poland by way of the banking system, credited to Antwerp banks via Amsterdam.

The Deposition from Kalisz

Some twenty years ago, I have written about the history of the Deposition from the Church of St. Nicholas in Kalisz that “we know nothing certain about it until the visitation of 1639”. In the Latin-language report produced in that visitation’s course, we read that “the great altar painting, the Deposition, was painted in its time in Antwerp by the famous painter Rubens, purchased and bequeathed to this church by Piotr Żeromski [Żeroński], chef to the crown, starosta of Bydgoszcz, for the main altar, likewise donated by him”. It is worth emphasising here that this altar was a privileged one and that there attached to it a duty to celebrate Mass for the soul of the donor; this would mean that it was executed shortly before Żeroński’s death in 1633 or soon thereafter.

The excerpt from the visitation report, already known to researchers in the mid-1800s, has been cited as unequivocal proof of the unsigned altar painting’s authorship.

Jan Białostocki has advanced a theory whereby the painting was brought to Kalisz in 1621; there is no uncontested source evidence which could confirm this belief. I, for my part, have written of the possibility that the Deposition which eventually came to be displayed at the main altar of the Kalisz church (as of 1632–1633) originally came from the collections of King Sigismund III and that only upon his death in 1632 did it find its way (through a gift by Ladislaus IV, son of the late King) to Żeroński, associated more with Bydgoszcz and the royal mint in that city than with Kalisz. In my belief, the comparatively delayed influence of the Kalisz Rubens on other Depositions executed for the altars of Wielkopolska during the 1640s and 1650s lends credibility to this hypothesis.

In the year of 1970, Prof. Eric Duverger unearthed in the archives of Antwerp a here to with unknown document – the second authorisation to collect from Piotr Żeroński 1 125 ducats (in Polish gold coins) for the painters Rubens and Jan Breughel I. The two painters were to receive 750 ducats between them, and a further 375 ducats was for Rubens himself. As of that time, the accepted history of the Kalisz painting came to refer to this document, a position which does not seem tenable in the light of later findings. As a sidenote, the attempt at actually collecting the amount due from Żeroński involved a notary as well as a merchant and a painter on their way to Poland. The first authorisation for collection of this sum was issued to the merchant by the court painters of the Infanta on August 19, 1620; the second, dated September 17, 1621 was for the painter Thomas Tets who was setting out on his return journey to Gdańsk.

The inventory of the estate of Jan Breughel I’s children lists, under the date of 1625, two letters of credit from Piotr Żeroński, the Polish ambassador. The first of these, from August 12, 1621, is made out to the merchant Pieter (Petrus) Philipssen (Philipzon) for the benefit of Jan Breughel and of Peter Paul Rubens; this would be Żeroński’s reply to the first authorisation (of August 19, 1620, already mentioned) for collection of the combined amount of 1 125 ducats.

The second letter of credit made out by Żeroński, undated, is for 3 466 guilders; 466 guilders of the amount due hereunder was paid out to Breughel’s family only in 1641, a time by which Żeroński, Jan Breughel I, and Rubens himself were all dead.

R. Szmydki has recently discovered in the Main Archives of the Kingdom of Belgium two new documents associated with Żeroński and with Rubens. The first of these is a letter of July 16, 1626 addressed to Rubens by Joris Descamps, the royal agent in Antwerp, notifying the painter of the necessity of taking out a large loan in the Dutch Republic, to the tune of 30 000 florins, for the repayment of debts of the following parties: Prince Ladislaus Sigismund, the magnates Krzysztof and Kazimierz Sapieha, and Piotr Żeroński. It appears from this letter that Żeroński had recently corresponded with Descamps regarding his own liabilities to Rubens, totalling 2 000 Flemish florins.

Eight days later, Descamps received the permission of the Infanta, Isabella Clara Eugenia, to take out the loan of 30 000 florins, to be collected in person at the Amsterdam bank of Antoni Morus (as will be recalled, postal services between Flanders and the Northern Netherlands were officially suspended at the time on account of the war). The documents also inform us that Jacob Jacobson forwarded the funds for the debt to Amsterdam by way of Gdańsk in the form of a banker’s draft.

By way of clarification: Jacob Jacobson (born in Emden, circa 1576 – died in Gdańsk, 1639) was a well-known commercial man with extensive interests in the minting industry during the reigns of Sigismund III and Ladislaus IV. While serving as the manager of the royal mint in Bydgoszcz (since 1616), he won the trust of Żeroński, its inspector, and the close co-operation which developed between the two proved to be highly lucrative for them as well as for King Sigismund. Some accusations of graft levied against him notwithstanding, Jacobson went on to head the other royal mints – in Warsaw, Cracow, and in Vilnius – and then the municipal mints of Gdańsk, Toruń, and Elbląg. He had exclusive rights concerning buying up of silver within Poland and abroad as well as permits for minting each and every type of coinage in circulation at that time. In recognition of his services to the crown, Jacobson received from Sigismund III (who was also the titular monarch of Sweden) a hereditary Swedish title, bestowed upon him in 1624. His extraordinary wealth enabled him to take responsibility, in 1626 or thereabouts, for the financial affairs of Prince Ladislaus Sigismund, later to become King Ladislaus IV.

Other documents tell us that Żeroński made repeated trips to the Spanish Netherlands, as I surmised in my article from 1981. The first Netherlandish reference to him is from 1614 and concerns his debt to Bartholomeo Albani of Antwerp (who accepted a deposit of some tapestries as security for its repayment). It is certain that he also visited Antwerp in the spring of 1620, to return in 1621; during the latter sojourn, Żeroński was attending to arms purchases for the crown armies following the defeat at Cecora. At that time, he was the Polish Republic’s envoy to the Spanish monarchy as well as to the Protestant province of The Hague, as mentioned in the two letters of credit issued by him.

Piotr Żeroński bought in the Spanish Netherlands artworks and – on a considerable scale – weaponry; these acquisitions were made on behalf of King Sigismund III as well as of the magnates with whom he travelled around the continent. The exact date on which he may have acquired the Deposition altar painting is not clear, but we can speculate that it must have been sometime between 1616 and 1621. The donor who bequeathed it to the Lateran Canonic Church in Kalisz did not mount it in the mannerist-baroque altar paid for by him until 1632–1633, stipulating that it be a privileged piece and, as such, that it is associated with Mass offerings for souls condemned to purgatory.

The new architectural altar of massive proportions erected at this Church in 1662 contained, apart from our Deposition, a depiction of its patron saint, St. Nicholas (replaced with a 19th century treatment of this theme after sustaining damage). The iconographic programme of this altar, discussed at length elsewhere, was supplemented with figures depicting The Holy Trinity and an assortment of apostles, saints, and angels, all sculpted in circa 1719. In spite of sundry damage, the main painting of the Kalisz church survived until December of 1973.

The Deposition underwent several rather primitive attempts at conservation: in the first quarter of the 18th century, in 1843 (by Feliks Mejbaum of Kalisz), and in 1908 (by Prof. Jerzy Mycielski, an art historian from Cracow – his efforts left the painting without some of its varnish). The Deposition’s first round of conservation in the modern sense of the term was carried out by Jan Rutkowski of Poznań in 1922; it was “reinforced from beneath with new canvas. Varnishes and its underlying layers were removed from the painting […] as were subsequent overpaintings”. Due to the conservation project, the painting was taken to the Wielkopolskie Museum in Poznań. Its director, Nikodem Pajzderski, wrote that “the Kalisz painting was executed by Rubens with the aid of his students […] There thus comes into play […] a different technique in which the individual figures were painted. Once the basic colours had dried, Rubens would cover individual portions of the painting with glazes, thus tuning them into a harmonious whole, glowing with transitions of extraordinary finesse. This was his final proof [of the piece], and it bore out the bold, unhesitating touches of the brush of a true master” (Pajzderski, 1922).

During the war, the painting was taken from its Kalisz home by the Germans. After 1945, it was cleaned and secured with new varnishes by conservation experts at the National Museum in Warsaw. In 1956, the Deposition was again taken to Poznań, this time by the conservator Wilhelm Kuklis; it underwent thorough cleaning and was backed with another layer of canvas. Thus, we must state that, sadly, the painting never underwent conservation in keeping with the latest advances of the art nor technological examinations which could serve as a basis for comparison with other works from the Rubens studio.

The dating of the Kalisz piece is also associated with another painting from the Rubens atelier, the Deposition from the Church of St. John the Baptist in Arras (formerly the Abbey of Sint Vaast). This piece, dating back to circa 1620–1625, is a mirror image of the Kalisz composition and is most closely related to it in all respects. It depicts four people taking Christ’s body off of the cross, detaching one of his hands from the place to which it had been nailed and taking the weight of the corpse onto the shroud. The inclination of Christ’s limp body to the right – as seen in the composition from Kalisz – is more natural than in the Sint Vaast piece, as are the gestures of the different figures.

The most repetitive piece (done by a student) of the more than one dozen Depositions, as Jan Białostocki justly remarked, is the painting from the Cathedral in Saint Omer (circa 1612?). It shows five figures supporting the body of Christ, its feet resting on the ground; the one leaning furthest to the front is Mary Magdalene. The lowering of Christ’s body on the canvas shroud and the slumping of his head and torso are so dramatic as to verge on the caricatural.

The present exhibition provides a fitting opportunity for pointing out that the magnificent and deservedly famous Rubens painting from Kalisz served as inspiration for many other renditions. The Church of St. John in Toruń has a side altar with three paintings; the predella holds an Entombment of Christ, the huge central field – a Deposition which faithfully follows the Kalisz work, and the rhomboid frame above it – an Ecce Homo. The whole is crowned with a figure of the Virgin and Child. Some years ago, I have written that not only the central piece from the Toruń altar, but the entire group constitutes a repetition of the main altar from Kalisz, its predecessor (completed some time between 1632 and 1639); to me, there can be no doubt that the modest Toruń altar is a deferential copy of the Kalisz realisation.

The impact of the Rubens painting was so large that the magnate Krzysztof Opaliński ordered from the Antwerp painter Wollfort a Deposition for the main altar of the Bernardine Church in Sierakowo which served as the mausoleum of this line of the Opalińskis. The other paintings incorporated into this altar – above the Deposition – were an Entombment and an Ecce Homo. This iconographic realisation, traceable through Toruń and back to Kalisz, was installed at Sierakowo sometime after 1642. When did the Wollfort Deposition find its way to Poland? I would suggest some date after 1646. The Deposition done in 1650 for the Bernardine Church in Wschowo (since taken over by the Franciscans) in pursuance of a commission by L. Krzycki incorporates references to the Wollfort piece in Sierakowo (its signature, it might be added, is partially preserved); although it was overpainted by Father Walenty Żebrowski during the mid-1700s, it has retained the hallmarks of 17th century art.

As we admire this fine Deposition from the Hermitage, we would do well to remember that the first Peter Paul Rubens paintings did not make their appearance in Russia until the late 18th century – as a point of difference to Poland, a country which they reached exceptionally early on account of the political and religious alliance cultivated by King Sigismund III with the Habsburgs, ie with the Emperor, the King of Spain, and with the latter’s regent in the Netherlands. The first Rubens paintings appeared in Poland prior to 1620, and a steady flow ensued after the year 1624, a year notable due to the sojourn in the Spanish Netherlands of Prince Ladislaus Sigismund Vasa, bound for Rome and Loretto. The last Rubens works to find their way into our country arrived after the master’s death in 1640.

An Accidental Fire of the Kalisz Altar?

It was with great sadness that I received the news that the Deposition by Rubens perished in a fire which broke out at the Church of St. Nicholas in Kalisz on the night between December 13 and 14, 1974.

It was not until 1991 that I decided to carry out research into the investigation carried out by the public prosecution in connection with this conflagration. I found a wealth of documentation at the Voivodship Public Prosecutor’s Office housed at the Voivodship Court in Poznań; the public prosecution initiated proceedings in this case on December 18, 1973.

The first protocols documenting inspections of the site of the fire were signed by Józef Wilinkiewicz, public prosecutor in Kalisz. On December 16, a series of photographs were taken; they show the main altar and a portion of the painting’s frame (the double canvas is visible). The director of the Museum of the Kalisz Lands purportedly held, as of December 17, 1973, a portion of the frame with a shred of canvas taken from the Church of St. Nicholas immediately after the fire.

According to testimony of the church’s caretakers, the house of worship was equipped with accumulation furnaces which had been switched off for the night; on the evening before the fire, its main doors were locked after the day’s final service, at about 19:40 hours. There were some witnesses who had seen flames through the stained glass windows of the church at about 2:00 at night; the priest, Father Stanisław Lament, was alarmed and the fire brigade was summoned. The fire-fighters arrived at approximately 2:30, and there ensued an operation of some 90 minutes, conducted in billows of stinging smoke and poor visibility. The priest cautioned the fire-fighters about the tabernacle with the Holy Sacrament and the Rubens painting, asking that they be brought to safety in the first order of importance.

On December 15, a commission assembled at the Church in order to examine the aftermath of the fire; it was composed of Jan Pic (then the Historical Heritage Conservator for the Voivodship of Poznań), Józef Wilinkiewicz (the public prosecutor), Leszek Tuczyński and Ziemowit Michałowski (both from the National Museum in Poznań), Captain H. Kozyna (voivodship fire-fighters’ command), Bruno Cynalewski (from the Voivodship Office of Historical Heritage Conservation), and Józef Stępień (a police officer from Kalisz). Also in attendance were Father Stanisław Piotrowski (parish priest) and Father Paweł Grejnert (art conservator of the Włocławek Diocese). The commission found that the fire had spared “a portion of the frame slats with some of the canvas from one of the altar paintings […] and charred portions of slats with marble-effect oil polychromy (architectural portion of the altar)” (files, p. 46). It was established, by way of a preliminary identification of the fire’s cause, that the conflagration had originated “on the right-hand side of the altar, between the mensa, the shelf, and the tabernacle. It is in this area that the greatest damage to the wood occurred” (ibid). The altar’s electrical installation had been fitted over the years of 1940–1950; some modernisation work was carried out prior to 1968 involving, among other improvements, the replacement of traditional light bulbs in the illumination of the Rubens piece with fluorescent fixtures.

A police investigation of the site disqualified the possibility of forced entry into the church – its locks were found to be intact. Stanisław Obniski, technical expert of the court, carried out the first examination of the electrical fixtures on January 11, 1974, with more inspections following in its wake.

Gabriela Lipkowa, painting conservator at the National Museum in Warsaw, accepted delivery of remains from the Kalisz altar on January 14, 1974. Upon completing her examination of them on February 6, she concluded that the samples made available to her did not include “any remains of painterly materials … from the 17th century”; in other words, the debris did not contain a trace of the Deposition. The remains delivered for study in Poznań likewise did not include any pieces of the Rubens painting, a finding which received the preliminary endorsement of Janusz Lehmann, chief conservator at the National Museum in Poznań.

Lack of diligence in the investigations led to the appointment of new experts – some more electricians and, again, the conservator J. Lehmann. The investigation was extended until May 18, 1974 and then until June 10, 1974. The issue of the jacks for the electrical bulbs – which had not been removed but simply unplugged – was taken up again, and higher instances of appeal requested that the case is continued.

In September of 1974, Prof. K. Malinowski and Dr A. Dobrzycka assessed the value of the lost Rubens painting at 6–8 million złoties (as per 1974); a commission convened by the National Museum in Poznań then increased this estimate to 12 million złoties.

After another round of analyses, the chemist conservator Lehmann declared that he has identified remains of the painterly base of two pictures, one from the 17th century (the Deposition) and the other from the middle of the 19th (St. Nicholas).

The final document produced as part of the prosecution’s investigation relates the surmised course of events on the night from December 13 to 14, 1973 and states that, given that the fire was not a result of a prosecutable offence, the proceedings “should be discontinued – with no further legal effect – given the absence of a criminal act”. This motion was endorsed on October 18, 1974 by Hubert Keiling, Deputy Voivodship Prosecutor.

In response to my queries, the Voivodship Police Command in Poznań wrote to me in January of 1991 that its archives hold nothing other than basic files concerning “arson to the main altar in Kalisz”, and it advised me to approach the Voivodship Prosecutor’s Office for the main files.

The Central Archives of the Ministry of the Interior and the Lists Office and Archives of the State Protection Office (writing on behalf of the local office in Poznań) informed me, in late 1991 and early 1992 respectively, that they hold no materials on this matter. According to reminiscences of the Kalisz priests, the Security Service* played a considerable role in the investigations after the fire; there were attempts at implicating the clergymen concerned in some unspecified financial improprieties and at accusing them of gross negligence. In early 1974, the official press aired a concept whereby valuable works of art held by Catholic houses of worship should be taken away from them in that they cannot provide due protection from theft.

In light of my findings in this respect, I am inclined to believe that the Deposition by Rubens was, in the truth of the matter, stolen and that the Church of St. Nicholas fire was set deliberately. A canvas of such vast proportions (320 x 212 cm), were it in its place as the fire started, would surely have survived at least in small traces at the shelves of the architectural altar – merely singed in its central section.

I thus agree with the opinion expressed orally by Prof. Henryk Marconi, in his time the greatest conservator of paintings, whereby the technological examination of the base and canvas remains carried out in Poznań by J. Lehmann in the autumn of 1974 relied on incorrect methods.

The tutor and mentor of my university days, Prof. Jan Białostocki, has also repeated on many occasions that painstaking research has failed to uncover a single trace of 17th century painting materials among the fire’s remains and that the manner in which the altar was secured after the conflagration was hardly a credit to the police and public prosecution authorities involved. The prolonging of the investigation, under the auspices of the voivodship prosecutors and of the Security Service, provides indirect evidence that the proceedings must have been tainted, from their very outset, by significant errors committed in what was indubitably a difficult and unique case.

To put this conclusion in different words, the fire on the night of December 13 to 14, 1974 was set deliberately as part of a ploy to steal the Deposition by Rubens, displayed at the main altar of St. Nicholas in Kalisz since 1632–1633, and to smuggle it abroad. There is, however, the hope that this valuable work can be found and reclaimed; the same holds true of the Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael from the Czartoryski collections in Cracow, now kept – according to Prof. Bruno Zeri – in an Australian safe.

Characteristics of Passion Scenes by Rubens

The Kalisz Deposition, already described in considerable detail, is one of the dozen or so works on this theme produced by the workshop of Rubens.

We could also trace in the oeuvre of Rubens’ workshop the consecutive stages in the iconography of the Passion, as recounted in the Gospel: the road to Golgota, the falls under the cross, the raising of the cross with the crucified Saviour, various versions of Christ Crucified (invariably with strained shoulders and arms), Death on the Cross, the Pieta, and the Entombment. All these themes have been discussed in Part VI of the Corpus Rubenianum by Ludwig Burchard.

As will be recalled, Rubens was a past master of the compositional variation; his individual treatments of Passion scenes were reduced or enriched, all in keeping with the spirit of piety current in his time, so as to adapt them to the specific order, the function and location for which the piece was destined, and – finally – to its price.

The wide array of different ways in which the main characters of Pietas and Depositions by Rubens are portrayed should be explained in these terms. In some, Mary Magdelene – the embodiment of sin-ridden mankind – adores Christ from afar; in others, she receives the dead Christ into her arms, a symbolic taking of the Eucharist after absolution. In the Deposition’s sketch from the Hermitage, Mary – beholding her dead Son and suffering on behalf of all people – faints at the foot of the cross; in the Rubens painting from Kalisz, she holds up the canvas of the shroud beneath His body and grasps his hand – a gesture which helps to keep His shoulders in the outstretched position so as to form a symbolic cross, the symbol of His suffering and redemption.

As the young Rubens drew on the basis of compositions by the great masters, he was hard put to render any religious emotion in his works; in some cases, he even resorted to finishing and retouching Passion compositions by the likes of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, as seen in the Ecce Homo drawing (from a private collection in England). Only upon arriving in Italy did he attain his first successes in this regard, relying on the compositions of other artists and on the spirituality of St. Philip Nereus, following in the footsteps of Caravaggio. The high point of Rubens’ artistic expressiveness was reached after his return to Antwerp, during the years of 1611–1618. One could wonder whether the religious art of Rubens was not painted out of longing for fame and fortune, but there are ample details of his biography to refute any suggestions to this effect, to mention only his intensive correspondence with the Oratorians, Jesuits, and Franciscans.

The sheer multitude of inspirations derived from the diverse religious culture of the Spanish Netherlands, Spain, and France, contacts with new and different religious orders and with their brands of spirituality, and the involvement of studio assistants and the mechanisms of collective labour on projects in which the master’s role was limited to the commencement and the finishing all combined to precipitate, as of approximately 1625–1626, a marked decrease in the expressiveness of Rubens’ religious paintings. The epic came to predominate over the emotional, and the artistic potency of the huge compositions was diluted among the infinity of episodes, details, and the crowds of figures jostling in gigantic paintings, also ones with Passion themes. Rubens continued to grapple with religious subjects until the end of his life, but never again was he able to regain the high standard he himself had set in his prime.

Between the years of 1598 and 1640, the creative inventiveness of Rubens was channelled into hundreds of drawings, sketches, and altar paintings, many of them dealing with the Passion of Christ, a veritable theatre of that which was mystical in his religiousness. These works were expressions of the faith of their creator, and – rather than being addressed to museum goers, to visitors at a gallery – they were intended for display at Catholic churches in their capacity as public religious venues or for private, contemplative devotion in the homes of the pious.

The finest masterpieces of Rubens, closely associated with the Passion of Christ, were painted in the period between 1611 and 1618. Thanks to this exhibition, we have been able to admire two from St. Petersburg, acquired for the tsar’s collections in the late 18th century, as well as remembering the piece from Kalisz, brought to our country still during the lifetime of the master.

Related event

Exhib. The masterpiece of Peter Paul Rubens, The descent from the cross from the collection of the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Warsaw (National Museum in Warsaw)


The exhibition catalogue (eds Hanna Benesz, Joanna A. Tomicka) featured the monumental work by Peter Paul Rubens The Descent from the Cross  accompanied by its modello and a drawing of the same subject from the collection of the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg as well as 80 prints and 11 paintings from the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw.

The essays included:

  1. Natalia Gritsay, Compositions of ‘The Descent from the Cross’ by Rubens in the Painting Gallery of the State Hermitage, pp. 16-22
  2. Alexei Larionov, Rubens’s Drawing of   ‘The Descent from the Cross’, pp. 23-25
  3. Juliusz A. Chrościcki, Religious Paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, pp. 26-40 (see under Joanna A. Tomicka)
  4. Hanna Benesz, Iconography of Passion in paining after the Council of Trent, pp. 41-64
  5. Joanna A. Tomicka, Passion Subjects in Graphic Art of the 16th and 17th Centuries, pp.65-76