Peter Paul Rubens
(Siegen, 1577-1640, Antwerpen)
St Augustine, 1620
Oil on panel, 48 x 63.5 cm
Inscribed above the saint's head: S. Augustinus
Held 28
Between 1615 and 1621 the Jesuits of Antwerp had their new church built; it was the most magnificent in the Spanish Netherlands. There were to be in the lateral aisles and galleries 39 three-by-four-meter, alternately square and octagonal ceiling paintings. This cycle was to be completed in less than one year. There was in Antwerp only one qualified artist who could take on this task: Rubens. The contract was concluded on March 29, 1620. It obligated Rubens to paint 39 colour sketches himself, and, after approval, to have them executed on a large scale "by Van Dyck and other assistants". Rubens’ workshop delivered on time, before February 1621. In 1718, the church burned down, and all the ceiling paintings perished. Even so, copies and interior views of the church done before the fire give us some conception of what it looked like. In addition, there survived 22 of the above-mentioned oil sketches, one of which is now in the Bührle Collection picture. It was intended for an octagonal space and shows the Church Father seen from beneath at a steep angle, as required by the contract. He is kneeling on clouds in humility, arms spread in ecstatic surrender, and is gazing up into the open Heavens. In his right hand, he holds his attribute, the heart transfixed by an arrow. He had written in the "Confessions": "Sagittaveras tu cor nostrum caritate tua." Also the Bishop of Hippo wears his pluvial (two angels hold it aloft), but the gold mitre, crozier, book and scroll have been laid aside: the beatific vision takes precedence of mundane glories. Everything sweeps upward as in an Ascension; grey and brown clouds suggest a storm. But the dramatic excitement is subdued and deliberately composed.