Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
St. Norbert Overcoming Tanchelm, ca. 1622-23
Oil on panel, 66.5 x 46 cm
Private collection


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

Tanchelm was an early-twelfth-century critic of the Catholic Church, denying the authority of bishops and the clergy, opposing tithing, and even claiming that the sacrament of the Eucharist was ineffectual for salvation. His heresy was particularly successful in Antwerp and the surrounding countryside. St. Norbert (c. 1080-1134) was the founder of the Premonstratensian (or Norbertine) order that combated Tanchelm's heresy. Traveling to Antwerp with twelve of his order, he took over St. Michael's church and reinstituted the orthodox celebration of the Eucharist. Eventually the heresy was suppressed and St. Michael's became one of the most powerful religious institutions in the city. For his defense of the sacrament of the Eucharist and the offices of the Church, Norbert was canonized in 1582 and became the object of impassioned veneration in Counter-Reformation Antwerp. (For images of St. Norbert and discussion of his struggle with the Tanchelmian heresy, see exh. cat. Averbode, Abdij der Norbertijnen, Sint Nobertus in de Brabantse Kunst, 1971; Held 1980, vol. 1, pp. 577-78; and Wieseman, in Boston/Toledo 1993-94, p. 285 and n. 1).

Rubens has depicted Norbert with his traditional attributes, wearing the white habit of the Premonstratensians and a bishop's miter, while holding a crozier in one hand and a monstrance in the other. He stands victorious atop the fallen and diminutive Tanchelm, who glares up at him with powerless ire. Tanchelm is dressed in "historical" costume, pseudo-Burgundian, sixteenth-century attire with slashed sleeves, puffed-up, knee-length britches, and hose. The majority of the scene is executed in a very limited brunaille palette, but the sky is loosely brushed in blue and there are accents of green in the landscape and in Tanchelm's stockings. Underdrawing is visible through Norbert's costume, and infrared examination reveals that the figures originally stood on a rectangular pedestal that was later painted over with the summary landscape that now appears.

Rubens sketch was for a sculpture by his friend and collaborator, Hans van Mildert (1588-1638), that would become one of the figures flanking Rubens's own altarpiece for the high altar, the Adoration of the Magi of 1624 in the church of the abbey of St. Michael. Rubens was devoted to the abbey. Both his mother and brother Philip were buried there (in 1608 and 1611 respectively), and he had donated a large altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with Saints (the first version of the altarpiece for Chiesa Nuova in Rome) to the church following his return from Italy. He was commissioned to execute the altarpiece for the high altar by the abbot of St. Michael's, Mattheus Yrsselius (Mattheus Gorisson van Eersel, 1514-1629), whose portrait Rubens painted in about 1622 (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, inv. 613) and which also hung in the church. The abbey had been damaged in the recent religious disturbances and also by a major fire in 1620. Yrsselius was dedicated to restoring the former splendor of St. Michael's. Rubens's Adoration of the Magi was surrounded with a tabernacle, crowned by a statue of the Virgin, and flanked by sculptures of St. Norbert and St. Michael, the patron saint of the abbey. The sculptures and tabernacle were removed from St. Michel's when the abbey was secularized during the French occupation (1796-97) and were purchased in 1803 by the church of St. Trudo, in Zundert, Noord Brabants, where they remain today. Van Mildert also collaborated with Rubens in executing the sculpture for the façade and high altar of the Jesuit church in Antwerp in about 1619-22, and on the tomb effigy of the renowned Dominican preacher Michiel Ophovius in the church of St. Paul, Antwerp, about 1638-39.

In translating Rubens's oil sketch, van Mildert made several changes: the saint now wears a pallium over his white gown, has a longer, more elaborate crozier, and holds a chalice instead of a monstrance; however, this last change was probably added by a later hand, since the figure was described in 1629 as carrying a monstrance (Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 578). But van Mildert also made several changes that sap some of the life out of the figures and make them more conventional. For example, rather than looking down at the defeated heretic, Norbert stares straight ahead, and the slight but vitalizing cock of the head in the sketch has been replaced by a more columnar, less graceful pose. Tanchelm's leg also now dangles down at an awkward right angle, rendering the heretic more broken than squirming in impotent rage.

In his design for the high altar of the church of St. Michael, Rubens carefully orchestrated the iconography of the entire ensemble to accord with the Roman Catholic faith of the Premonstratensian order (see Held 1980, vol. 1, pp. 456, 578; and Wieseman in Boston/Toledo 1993-94, p. 287). In recognition of the order's devotion to the celebration of the Eucharist, Rubens's Adoration of the Magi was selected to emphasize the sacramental character of the event, incorporating allusions to the liturgy in ritual objects such as censers, candelabra, and the quasi-ecclesiastical garments of the Magi (see also Adoration of the Magi). The three sculptures atop the altar surround—St. Michael conquering Lucifer, St. Norbert defending the sacraments and the authority of the Church, and the Virgin and Child triumphant over sin—were clearly designed as extensions and complements of the symbolism of the painting itself. Even the portrait of Yrsselius in prayer was turned in three-quarter profile in the traditional posture of a donor's portrait to direct his worshipful gaze toward the Christ Child in this carefully choreographed ensemble.


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