Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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History and Politics: Glory to the Hero
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Triumphant Entry of Constantine into Rome, 1622
Oil on panel, 48.6 x 64.5 cm
Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Clowes Collection, inv. IMA2001.237


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

In this sketch from Rubens's designs for tapestries illustrating the life of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor is shown entering the city of Rome after his decisive victory over his brother-in-law and co-emperor Maxentius. (For a brief discussion of the series as a whole, see The Labarum, with further references.) Maxentius's defeat, which took place near the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, rendered Constantine the sole emperor of the Western Roman Empire. Constantine approaches the city on horseback, with one hand raised in greeting. He is accompanied by a lictor on foot, wearing an animal skin and carrying the fasces, symbol of magisterial power and authority, and by several mounted soldiers, one of whom carries the labarum bearing the monogram of Christ. Hovering overhead are the genius of Victory, who holds a wreath above Constantine's head, and Fame, who sounds the trumpet of Truth, having removed from her mouth the trumpet spreading falsehoods (Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 76). Hurrying from the archway at right is a goddess wearing a helmet and a short sword; she represents either Roma, the patroness of the city of Rome, or Minerva, goddess of wisdom and of battle on behalf of just causes. She holds a statuette of Victory in one hand and with the other indicates the two priests standing in the doorway. In the background are several kneeling figures who extend their arms in welcome. The broken column and capital in the foreground at right may refer to the glorious rebirth of a partly ruined city. In Rubens's luminous oil sketch, the stately forward movement of Constantine's procession is subtly enhanced by the sweeping diagonal brushstrokes of the panel's imprimatura, clearly visible through the thinly painted design.

Rubens's primary literary source for this, as most of the scenes from the Constantine series, was the description of Constantine's life contained in Cardinal Cesare Baronio's Annales Ecclesiastici (Rome, 1588-1607; Antwerp, 1597-1609). Baronio's account is in turn drawn from that of Eusebius, who recounted in detail the emperor's procession along the Via Flaminia to the triumphal arch that had been erected in his honor by the Roman Senate (Anno 312.54-63).

As was customary, Rubens's oil sketches for the Constantine series served as the models for the full-scale cartoons in watercolor on paper which the weavers followed in creating the actual tapestry. A letter from Rubens's great friend and fellow scholar of antiquity, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Pieresc (1580-1637), makes it clear that the cartoons were painted by Rubens's studio assistants in Antwerp, then shipped to the tapestry manufactory of Marc Comans and François de la Planche in Paris. Pieresc was among the first to inspect a shipment of four cartoons for the Constantine series (not including the Triumphant Entry) that arrived in Paris in November 1622. He described in detail the reaction of Louis XIII's inspectors to the designs; although many criticized what they felt was an excessive curvature in the legs of several figures, they commended Rubens's "profound knowledge of antique costumes and the exactitude with which you have rendered even the nails of the boots" (letter from Pieresc to Rubens, dated December 1, 1622; Rooses and Ruelens 1887-1909, vol. 3, pp. 83ff., as translated in DuBon 1964, p. 6).

Rubens's wide-ranging knowledge of the arts of Roman antiquity is apparent throughout the Constantine series, deliberately exploited to craft the decorous, even severe ambiance appropriate to his majestic subject. The shallow, relieflike presentation of the Triumphant Entry, for example, consciously echoes the static format of antique triumphal processions such as the Triumphal Entry of the Victorious General on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. More specifically, this relief probably served as the inspiration for the figures of Constantine and the two kneeling men in the background of the scene. Roma/Minerva's gesture of offering a statuette of Victory alludes to a design found on Constantinian coins; her helmet is based on one worn in another frieze on the Arch of Constantine (although Peter Krüger notes that Rubens might also have taken it from a detail in Raphael's Victory at Ostia in the Stanza dell'Incendio in the Vatican; see Krüger 1989, pp. 176-77; further on Rubens's sources, see DuBon 1964, pp. 25-29, and Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 76).

The tapestry woven in the Comans-de la Planche shop of the Triumphal Entry of Constantine into Rome compresses the composition horizontally, eliminating the column at the extreme right in the sketch and, more significantly, closing the distance between Constantine and Roma/Minerva, thereby diminishing the sense of opposing movement that animates the original oil sketch. The architecture is more detailed in the tapestry, and bits of foliage have been added in the foreground.

Another painting depicting Constantine's Triumphant Entry into Rome, noted (erroneously) as formerly in the Orléans collection, was in the sale Thomas Emmerson, Esq., London (Phillips), June 15-16, 1832, lot 70 (67.4, to Marshall). The painting was sold from the Marshall collection in 1881 and was subsequently in the sale Leo Kirch, The Hague (Kleykamp), June 10, 1924, lot 36 (as on canvas, and as attributed); Leo van Puyvelde (1947, p. 29) noted a copy of the composition then on the Brussels art market. In the introduction to the 1924 sale catalogue, C. Hofstede de Groot described the Kleykamp picture as a contemporary replica, probably made under Rubens's direction before the original was sent to the Saint-Marcel tapestry manufactory of Marc Comans and François de la Planche in Paris; there is, however, no firm evidence that such copies were made.


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