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    rubensbulletinK O N I N K L I J K M U S E U M V O O R S C H O N E K U N S T E N A N T W E R P E N

    aanbidding door de koningenJrg. 2, 2008

  • 86



    Rubens and his black kings

    Elizabeth McGrath

    When, during his stay in France in 1665, Gianlorenzo Bernini was taken to see Poussins Adoration of the Magi in the house of financier Cotteblanche (ill. 1), the great sculptor pronounced, in the words of his chronicler, Frart de Chantelou, that he was astonished that Signor Poussin, who was so knowledgeable in the matter of decorum, had given these kings the expressions and attitudes of ordinary people as if they were apostles; that one of them looked like a St Joseph, indeed that if he had not seen a moor there, he would have wondered if this really was an Adoration. Frart tells us he then remarked that a number of people considered the kings were really learned men and great astrologers, and the painter Le Brun pronounced that Poussin would have depicted them as he had heard tell, having duly considered the matter. Bernini responded, evidently with some irritation, that what mattered was keeping to the biblical text which says that they were kings, something which Le Brun promptly corrected, observing that the Bible simply calls them magi. The silence that ensued was, perhaps fortunately, ended by dinner.1

    1) Revenus lhtel Mazarin, le signor Paul et M. Coffier lont appel pour lui faire voir, dans une maison vis--vis, des tableaux de Poussin. Il est entr et a vu une Adoration des trois rois (cest celle quavait le sieur Charmois) le Cavalier a dit en le revoyant quil stonnait que le signor Poussin, qui tait si savant dans le costume, net donn ces rois que des airs de tte et des manires de personnes ordinaires come des aptres; quil en avait un qui ressemblait un saint Joseph: que sil navait vu l un More, il aurait dout que ce ft une adoration. Jai dit quils navaient pass, suivant lavis de plusiers, que pour des savants et grands astrologues. M. Le Brun a dit que M. Poussin navait eu lintention que de les reprsenter tels quil lui en avait entendu parler et de son opinion sur ce sujet. Le Cavalier a dit quil fallait sattacher lEcriture, qui dit que ctaient des rois. M. Le Brun

    ill. 1 Nicolas Poussin, Adoration of the Magi, oil on canvas. Dresden, Gemldegalerie.





    more olive brown rather than truly dark in complexion, his impressive costume derived from that of a real near-eastern model, a Turkish outfit owned by the merchant Nicolaas de Respaigne2, and his facial features based freely on a character Rubens knew as a King of Tunis (ill. 3) - the sixteenth-century Berber prince, and sometime ally of Emperor Charles V, Mulay Ahmad.3

    That one of the Wise Men was African or black is not stated in the biblical account of the Adoration of the Magi, any more than that they were kings - or indeed that they were three in number. Matthew 2.1-12 is the scriptural text, and it is also the gospel of the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, one of the greatest feasts of the Catholic Church; in this text we read simply of magi (a term most naturally interpreted as applying to members of the Persian priestly class) who came from the east (ab oriente; apo anatoln in the Greek) led by a star. However, Matthew goes on to say and entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him. And opening their treasures they presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense and myrrh (Et intrantes domum, invenerunt puerum cum Maria matre eius, et procidentes adoraverunt eum: et apertis thesauris suis obtulerunt ei munera, aurum, thus, et myrrham); it was the triplicity of these gifts that encouraged the idea that the Wise Men were

    2) See Van Mulderss contribution to this Rubensbulletin, Rubens Antwerpse Aanbidding, p. 74. Respaigne was painted wearing this costume by Rubens shortly after his return from the Levant in 1619. He called the portrait syn turcks contrefeytsel gemaeckt van Rubbens: Vlieghe (1972), pp. 145-47, no. 129.3) Rubenss copy of a portrait of Mulay Ahmad by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (but attributed by him to Antonis Mor) is now in Boston, Museum of Fine Arts. It was made in 1613-14, but was kept with him throughout his life in his house. See notably Held (1940), pp. 177-179 and 176, fig. 2; K. L. Belkin in Belkin and Healy (2004), pp. 137-39, no. 17.

    Le Brun was right about the scriptural reference, even if he was wrong to suppose it was relevant to the picture, since Poussin in fact indicated the royal status of the visitors by including three crowns - simple and unshowy, but still gold crowns - laid aside before the infant Christ. At the same time Berninis comments, which equally ignore the crowns, are perfectly understandable. Poussins painting, made in Rome in 1633, is one of the most low-key pictures of the Adoration of the Magi produced in the seventeenth century. In it the artist consciously rejected the devices of worldly splendour that are so characteristic of representations of the subject and are wonderfully exemplified in Rubenss great altarpiece created almost a decade earlier for St Michaels Abbey and now in the Koninklijk Museum (ill. 2). It is notable too that even the noise and bustle which usually seems to surround an Adoration of the Magi, with the exotic invasion of the stable at Bethlehem, is banished from Poussins picture, or at least kept far in the

    background: witness the figure with finger to lips, enjoining silence. But one thing common to both pictures is the black king, even if he is totally different in appearance and character. Poussins lithe and youthful black African, bending in profile, is very plainly dressed; moreover, his short white tunic, perhaps uniquely in an image of the Magi, reveals a pair of long, bare legs. Indeed, his attendant, carrying the crown and pointing, seems to have been designed to help the onlookers, within as well as outside the painting, to understand that his master really was a king. Rubenss figure by contrast is a stout oriental potentate,

    a rpliqu quelle disait des mages. Il na plus rien dit et sen est venu dner. Frart de Chantelou (1885), p. 227. For Poussins painting (Dresden, Gemldegalerie), see Blunt (1966), pp. 34-35, no. 44; Thuillier (1994), p. 252, no. and fig. 93. It is signed in an usually elaborate way: Accad. Rom. Nicolaus Poussin faciebat Romae 1633.

    ill. 2 Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Magi, oil on panel. Antwerp, KMSKA.

    ill. 3 Peter Paul Rubens, after Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, Mulay Ahmad,

    oil on panel. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts.





    epitomise pagan wisdom, combined with elevated status: they are rich and mighty kings come from afar to humble themselves before the true king, the prince of peace. But the feast of the Epiphany is above all the celebration of Christs manifestation to and recognition by the Gentiles, the nations of the world that were to prove themselves open to the Christian message, and are represented by these men from the east.

    In Rubenss time the great Jesuit commentator Cornelius a Lapide (Cornelis van der Steen) summed it up thus, citing the authority of SS. Leo and Augustine: Hence the Church celebrates with so great solemnity the Feast of the Epiphany, in which the Magi were called to adore Christ, because in them and by them was begun the calling and salvation of the Gentiles. Wherefore S. Leo (in his second sermon on the Epiphany) says - Let us, brethren beloved, recognize in the Magi, who worshipped Christ, the first-fruits of our vocation and faith, and with exulting minds let us celebrate the beginnings of blessed hope. From this time forth we began to enter into our eternal inheritance. And S. Augustine (in his second sermon on the Epiphany) says - This day, on which we keep the anniversary of our festival, first shone upon the Magi. They were the first-fruits of the Gentiles (primitiae Gentium), and we are the people of the Gentiles. To us has the tongue of Apostles announced it; but to them, the star, as though the tongue of heaven. And the same Apostles, as though they were other heavens, have declared unto us the glory of God.9

    That the revelation to the Gentiles was seen as the primary meaning of the subject of Rubenss St Michael altarpiece (ill. 2) is clear enough from the account given in 1629 by Abbot Van der Sterre of his churchs splendid picture exceedingly praised by great art lovers: which vividly represents the sacred Theophany, or manifestation of God-made-man to

    9) Cornelius a Lapide (1864), p. 65: unde Ecclesia tanta solemnitate celebrat festum Epiphaniae, quo Magi vocati Christum adorarunt, quia in ipsis et per ispos coepit Gentium vocatio et salus. Quocirco S. Leo serm. 2, de Epiphan.: Agnoscamus, ait, dilectissimi, in Magis adoratoribus Christi, vo-cationis nostrae fideique primitias, et exultantibus animis beata spei initia celebremus. Exinde enim in aeternam haereditatem coepimus introire. Et S. Aug. serm. 30 de Tempore: Illis (Magis), inquit, dies iste primus illuxit, anniversaria nobis festivitate rediit. Illi erant primitiae Gentium, nos populi Gentium. Nobis hoc lingua nuntiavit Apostolorum, stella istis tamquam lingua coelorum, et nobis iidem Apostoli tamquam alii coeli enarraverunt gloriam Dei.

    three in number (an idea which starts with Origen and was reinforced by St Augustine).4 Moreover, a verse of Psalm 71 (72) was long associated with the event and included in the Catholic liturgy of the Epiphany: the kings of Tharsis and of the islands shall offer presents, the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts (reges Tharsis et insulae munera offerent reges Arabiae et Saba tributum conferent). This, seen in conjunction with other Old Testament references to