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 Labarum, 1622
Oil on panel, 35.4 x 27.5 cm
Private collection


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

The Labarum is one of twelve sketches that Rubens executed in 1622 for a cycle of tapestries depicting the life of Constantine the Great (288-337), the first Christian Roman emperor (see also Triumphand Entry of Constantine into Rome). It was the artist's second major foray into tapestry design, following the Decius Mus series (see Decius Mus Relating His Dreams). Unlike any of Rubens's other designs for tapestries, the Constantine tapestries were woven, not in the Southern Netherlands, but at the tapestry manufactory of Marc Comans and François de la Planche (Frans van der Plancken) in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel in Paris.

The circumstances of the series' origin are unclear. In a letter of 1626 Rubens stated that he made the tapestry designs "per servizio di" (in the service of) Louis XIII. David DuBon (1964) suggested that they were commissioned by Comans and de la Planche, while Julius Held (1980) proposed that the designs were a joint venture between Rubens and de la Planche intended to secure Rubens an official appointment from Louis XIII. The twelve sketches are mentioned in a 1627 assessment of de la Planche's possessions after his death; the fact that the modelli were already in the possession of the Saint-Marcel shop by this date strongly suggests that de la Planche played a key role in commissioning the series. Rubens's claim that he made the designs in the service of the king may only reflect the fact that the latter was the de facto patron of the workshop that commissioned them—or, given the fact that Rubens's letter complains of not having received full payment for the series, he may have dangled the phrase to emphasize the seriousness of his claim. Whatever parties were involved in the initial discussions, arrangements for production of the tapestries were undoubtedly negotiated while Rubens was in Paris in 1622 to discuss the paintings commissioned by Marie de Médicis for the Luxembourg Palace.

John Coolidge ("Louis XIII and Rubens: The Story of the Constantine Tapestries," Gazette des Beaux-Arts 67 [1966], pp. 271-92) maintained that Louis XIII devised the program for the series himself, encoding within it both a political allegory and a criticism of the policies of his mother, Marie de Médicis; this proposal has rightly been disputed by Jacques Thuillier and Jacques Foucart (Rubens' Life of Marie de' Medici [New York, 1969], p. 98), Held (1980, vol. 1, pp. 65-70), and Elizabeth McGrath (1997, pp. 87-88). A simpler reading of the series seems more plausible: as the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine was a natural choice for an allegorical glorification of a contemporary Christian monarch—and particularly Louis XIII, whose father, Henry IV, had experienced such a dramatic conversion to Catholicism. Moreover, as the subject was an ideal forum for Rubens to display his understanding of classical literature and the fruits of his passionate and acquisitive study of antiquities, the artist himself may well have had a hand in selecting the theme.

The twelve tapestry designs depict key events from Constantine's life, mostly after his conversion to Christianity (for a complete discussion of the series, see DuBon 1964; Held 1980, vol. 1, pp. 65-85; and Krüger 1989). "Labarum" was the term used in antiquity for the military standard adopted by Constantine after he received his miraculous vision. In the preceding design, The Emblem of Christ Appearing to Constantine), the Chi-Rho monogram of Christ appears in the sky; the vision was subsequently explained to the emperor in a dream, in which Christ instructed him to place the emblem on his banner to ensure victory over his co-emperor Maxentius. In the present sketch, Constantine stands at right, clad in armor with a flowing red cloak around his shoulders and a hero's laurel wreath on his head. He gestures dramatically toward the burst of light streaming from upper right as he entrusts the labarum to two of his centurions, just prior to the decisive battle against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (312). With the action reduced to just three figures, Rubens renders the event in symbolic, rather than realistic, terms.

Like many of the sketches from the series, The Labarum consciously evokes, in DuBon's words, "the calm monumentality of the antique" with measured, deliberate gestures and clear references to the past (1964, p. 25). The domed building with columned portico in the background at right recalls the Pantheon in Rome; Peter Krüger (1989, p. 167) has linked the two centurions holding the labarum to figures raising a tropaion in the Gemma Augustae, a Roman cameo that Rubens had copied in a drawing sometime prior to 1622. Held has also observed that the pose of the standing centurion closely resembles, in reverse, the figure of the Vestal Tuccia in a drawing possibly originally planned as part of the Marie de Médicis cycle (Musée du Louvre, Cabinet des Dessins, Paris; see Held 1959, p. 115. Krüger [1989, pp. 10-12] argues against connecting this drawing with the Médicis commission).

Similarly, Rubens drew from a number of literary sources in developing his designs for the Constantine series. Although he consulted classical accounts by Eusebius (the Vita Constantanti) and Lactantius (De Mortibus Persecutorum), his primary source seems to have been the Annales Ecclesiastici by Cardinal Cesare Baronio (1538-1607). Baronio's book had been recently republished in Antwerp; Rubens is known to have purchased a copy in 1620, shortly before beginning work on the Constantine series.

The back of the panel on which The Labarum is painted is impressed with the monogram of the panel maker Michiel Vrient (fl. 1615-37) and branded with the letter "A." Vrient's is the panel maker's mark found most often on Rubens's oil sketches, including six sketches from the Life of Achilles series, at least sixteen from the Marie de Médicis cycle, the modello for Abraham and Melchizedek from the Eucharist series (The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek), as well as another of the sketches for the Constantine tapestry designs, the Death of Maxentius (Wallace Collection, London, inv. 520; see G. Gepts, "Tafereelmaker Michel Vrient, leverancier van Rubens," Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp [1954-60], pp. 83-87; J. van Damme, "De Antwerpse tafereelmakers en hun merken. Identificatie en betekenis," Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen [1990], pp. 223-22; and Rotterdam/Madrid 2003-4, pp. 17-18). The "A" brand has recently been shown to be a year mark from about 1621-22 (van Damme 1990, p. 198; and J. Wadum, "The Antwerp Brand on Paintings on Panel," Leids Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 1998, pp. 192-94, 198).

The tapestry woven in the Saint-Marcel shop from Rubens's design for The Labarum presents no significant changes from the original modello. The painting of The Labarum that was in the sale Alexander Ludwig Alfred Eberhard, second prince zu Erbach-Schönberg, Frankfurt (Bangel), May 10, 1920, lot 13, ill. (oil on canvas, 40 x 32 cm), identified in the 1992 and 1994 sale catalogues as identical to the present picture, is probably a copy.


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