Rubens and the Northern Past: The Michielsen Triptych and the Thresholds of Modernity

Article excerpt

Viewing Peter Paul Rubens's Lamentation triptych is a very visceral experience (Fig. 1). This triptych is big - about 54 inches high and 70 wide (138 by 178 centimeters), when open - a scale that is quite substantial for epitaph triptychs, which typically were relatively small, especially compared to altarpiece triptychs.1 The central panel of Rubens's triptych thus provides an unexpectedly large field, of which about half is taken up by the horribly pale body of the dead Christ, placed in a diagonal swath at the front edge of the picture plane. The positioning of Christ's right hand in front of and perpendicular to the stone on which his body rests - along with the projection of his legs forward at the bottom - makes the corpse appear to push out of the picture space uncomfortably toward the space of the viewer. To make the viewing experience even more intense, Rubens depicted Christ with his head tilted backward, so that the viewer looks directly into Christ's bloody nostril. In the nostril, and also in Christ's side wound, Rubens built up the texture of die red paint, giving it the character of congealed blood.2 This gruesome bloodiness of Christ resonates throughout the triptych, with the repetition of the reds in the robe of the Virgin in the left wing (which depicts the Virgin and Child), the sleeve of Mary Magdalen in the central Lamentation scene, and the robe of John the Evangelist, the subject of the right wing.

This work served as an epitaph for Jan Michielsen, an Antwerp merchant who died in 1617. Most likely, Rubens and his workshop - it is generally thought that assistants painted both sides of the wings (Fig. 2, wing exteriors)3 - executed this work in 1617 or 1618, shortly after Michielsen's death, on commission from Michielsen's wife, Maria Maes. In 1771, Jean F. M. Michel recorded that the work was placed in Antwerp Cathedral, opposite the Chapel of Our Lady, on the fourth column in the north nave.4 The epitaph function of the work is confirmed by the Latin inscription originally placed below the triptych. This inscription, as transcribed by an eighteenth-century archivist, reads:

Dedicated to God the most Great and Good. Here lies [but] does not lie in [this] tomb - hidden- [but] not hidden - like John, that which was Michiels, for by the law of fate dead to the world [but] not to his wife Maria, chaste in mind with the countenance of Masia [sic], in whose heart, surviving himself, he lives, and breathes, living in his four children. Stop, rest, o traveler, pray for perpetual rest and long days. Died June 20di, 1617.5

This inscription was first analyzed by Colin Eisler in his 1967 article "Rubens' Uses of the Northern Past: The Michiels Triptych and Its Sources," a seminal article on this triptych - indeed, such a seminal article that few scholars have dared touch the Michielsen Triptych since.8 In this article, Eisler traced the relations between the Michielsen Triptych and Rubens's "northern past" - by which he meant Netherlandish fifteenth- and sixteen di-century art - with particular attention to the influence of Hugo van der Goes's works of the 1470s and 1480s.7 While recognizing that Rubens was "both profoundly traditional and audaciously inventive,"8 Eisler argued that the basic format of the Michielsen Triptych - with its iconlike figures, presented knee-lengdi, and its lack of background - is based on the kinds of emotionally charged devotional imagery developed within certain strands of fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting, especially Hugo's much copied half-length images of the Deposition of Christ.'' Eisler maintained, furthermore, that many of the iconographie elements of Rubens's triptych were also linked to the past: the work's juxtaposition of the baby Christ with the dead Christ reflects a connection between the infancy and the Passion seen in devotional literature and art of the Middle Ages.10 And the placement of Christ's corpse next to and on straw creates a Eucharistie reference similar to that in Hugo's Portinari Altarpiece (Fig. …