Like many artists from the Netherlands, Rubens left for Italy after finishing his early training. His years there (1600–08) had a profound effect on the young, ambitious painter, now able to experience the art of Antiquity and the Renaissance first hand. In 1606 he was chosen to paint the high altarpiece of the Chiesa Nuova in Rome, a remarkably prestigious commission for a foreign artist. Caravaggio had earlier painted his monumental Entombment for the same church in 1602–031 ( illus. 1). It stood in a side chapel, and Rubens would have had ample opportunity to study it. Historically, it was unclear if Rubens painted this work in Rome, or, as first suggested in the later nineteenth century, he painted it later, after his return to Antwerp. Considering the materials and techniques, it seems improbable Rubens made it in Rome: The Entombment is painted on an expensive oak panel, commonly used in the North and unlikely to have been available in Italy. Technique and style are also more typical of Rubens’ work in Flanders: in Italy, he adopted local materials and emulated local techniques, with a very different result from the luminosity of this painting. It is now recognized as having been painted after Rubens’ return in late 1608 to Antwerp. Scholars tend to date it to c. 1612–14, making it a less immediate response to Caravaggio’s work.
Rubens has changed key elements of the composition, including details of dress, physiognomy, colour and setting. However, in many respects the artist follows his model closely, allowing us to infer something of the study he drew upon: it must have captured tonal values and volume in addition to accurately copying the composition. A chalk drawing on coloured paper, perhaps with wash, could have been used.
While the painting deviates from its model, it may, at the start, have been intended as a more faithful rendering. Caravaggio’s monumental canvas is proportionately taller than Rubens’ panel. In relation to the width of the painting, Rubens’ Christ is smaller than its model and is placed relatively lower on the panel – likely a deliberate modification that would have allowed space for the outstretched arms of Mary Cleophas above the group. Under infrared reflectography, little of the underdrawing can be detected, and none is visible within the figures of Christ and Nicodemus, who supports his legs. Yet the accurate copying of the model would have required some guide; it is likely that the underdrawing for these central figures was minimal, executed precisely and followed faithfully in the painting, and therefore masked by the overlying paint. While Rubens made slight modifications – for instance, he removed Nicodemus’ ungainly hunched back – he closely follows the model. In the other figures, where Rubens deviates more radically from Caravaggio’s model, the underdrawing is visible in areas where the upper paint layers do not precisely follow it, or where he was faced with a particular difficulty – for instance, the Madonna’s interlaced fingers. In these areas, the underdrawing appears to have been made in a fine, dry point. The figure of John, who supports Christ’s upper body, seems to have been critical in the painting’s evolution – the point at which Rubens decided to adapt the composition. Coarser charcoal strokes and some arcs of wash indicate two attempts to place him before Rubens arrived at the final solution. The decision to shift John to the outer edge of the painting led to other changes that further distanced the work from its model. In the space that opened between John and Nicodemus, Rubens placed Mary Cleophas supporting the Madonna. While he was painting, Rubens added John’s proper right leg over the underpainting of the rock slab – an element necessitated by John’s precarious position, and by the need to balance the figural composition. He had not seen the need for this element at the underdrawing stage, and it was only when establishing the relative volumes in the underpaint that it became necessary. As a corresponding counterweight on the far right, Rubens adds the figure of Joseph of Armithea – the owner of the tomb. This figure is painted with no preparatory drawing, directly wet-in-wet into the dark paint of the shadows, and we can presume he was the last added.2
Rubens’ response to Caravaggio’s painting has been much discussed by scholars attuned to the implications of the changes in the context of contemporary debates over religious art, as well as the artists’ differing aesthetics. Caravaggio had conceived his figures as individuals lost in grief. In contrast, Rubens creates a more psychologically coherent group, absorbed in their shared task. His Mary Cleophas holds the Madonna – a more intimate, human interaction. His composition is more dynamic, less planar and less artificial than Caravaggio’s with its overpowering, static theatricality. The differences may be driven by Rubens’ response to Caravaggio’s confrontational approach to gesture and characterization – staged and histrionic, the figures’ expressions of emotion overt. Caravaggio’s Nicodemus, his head turned towards the viewer, creates a troubling link between us and the painting. Rubens’ Nicodemus, together with John, act as if unobserved; the effect is more natural, more human. It appears that in the process of making the copy, Ruben’s focus came to lie in re-imagining the scene and clarifying the story. He gives the group an emotional unity and sets it into motion as John steps one level closer to the void at the bottom of the picture.
Rubens painted copies of other artists’ work – invariably from the previous century – for his personal pleasure and inspiration. These copies are, however, generally more faithful, the transformations more subtle.3 The result here does not fit easily into this or any other category: it is more than a simple copy, yet too closely tied to its model to be considered a truly independent work.4 As such, Rubens’ intention in painting it, and the painting’s consequent function, has puzzled scholars. As argued here, it started as a faithful copy, which Rubens made his own only through the course of painting it; the distance of years and separation from the original object permitted him to see other possibilities within the composition. The essence of these changes is explored further in the Courtauld Entombment (c. 1615–16), where Caravaggio’s influence is all but exorcized (illus. 2). In this painting, there is even more emphasis on movement, on the emotional unity amongst the figures, and on the unfolding drama of the event.
Re-imagining one of Caravaggio’s most famous works seems a personally motivated endeavour, as it is difficult to imagine Rubens making it for anyone other than himself. It is freely painted and sketch-like in places. Yet it was certainly not a casual undertaking: the choice of panel – well-constructed and expensive – and the evident care taken make this clear. Given that the work is unusual in its conception, it is quite possible that it remained with the artist; it has been at times identified with a Dead Christ in his studio sale of 1640. However, there are convincing grounds to reject this. Its seventeenth-century provenance, which might shed light on its destination and so its function, remains unclear.
There are few Rubens panels that have not been compromised by structural intervention, and it is worth providing some detail here: the panel is in excellent condition and has suffered no subtractive or stressful treatment. It comprises two members of high quality oak, of purely radial cut, the grain running vertically. The simple butt join is roughly at centre of the panel, 31.4 cm in from the left edge, and there are two dowels, both set around 18 cm from the top and bottom edges of the panel. After joinery, the front and back were worked, leaving the panel with an average thickness of 7 mm, with a slight chamfer on all verso edges to facilitate framing.
Aside from the quality of the panel, its preservation is undoubtedly due to its collecting history: it was with the Liechtenstein by 1733 at the latest through to its purchase by the Gallery in 1956. Escaping the sale room was beneficial.
It was cleaned and re-varnished in London in spring of 1956, arranged by the agent. Shortly after its arrival in Canada in June, it was exposed deliberately to slightly elevated humidity, then the panel back was coated with a wax-resin mixture and sealed in a micro-climate box where it remained through 2011. It is currently exhibited in a sealed framing unit. No subtractive treatment has been carried out on the surface.
Recto, lower left corner: Liechtenstein seal (black wax); the inscription “i7” (in white paint), now overpainted.
Verso: an unidentified seal (red wax); Liechtenstein seal (red wax); the inscription “64” (in black paint) repeated 3 times.
The Liechtenstein seals were applied in 1733. The last collection inventory number assigned was 64; the inscription “i7” is undoubtedly an earlier, unrecorded inventory number from the same collection. (Compare the inscription “19” on Rubens’ Agrippina and Germanicus, National Gallery of Art, Washington, acc. no. 1963.8.1, also ex-Liechtenstein.)
Unknown collection. The Princes of Liechtenstein, Vienna by 1733; by descent; bought C$150,000 by the Gallery through Agnew, London, 1956.
Sometimes identified with item no. 36 in Rubens’ 1640 studio sale, “Notre Seigneur mort, copie après Coregio,” in a contemporary translation “A Christ in short; a Coppie after Caronagio,” assuming this to be a corruption of Caravaggio. Muller 1989, p. 102 refutes this.
Its history prior to its purchase by the Liechtenstein is unknown: the unidentified seal of a previous owner shows a heart in flames. It may be institutional (religious) rather than personal ( illus. 3). The seal does not seem to be from any Antwerp institution; our thanks to Bert Watteeuw of the Rubenianum.
Sometimes identified with a work by Rubens sold by the Forchondt, a family of dealers in Antwerp, in March 1710 to Prince Johann Adam Andreas I (1657–1712) for 2,500 German Gulden. Neither the Liechtenstein accounts nor the Forchondt correspondence mention the subject of the painting (Denucé 1931, p. 270 for the correspondence and private communication from Dr. Arthur Stögmann, Archivist of the Liechtenstein Princely Collections). The price seems high for a small work like The Entombment and should be compared with other Liechtenstein purchases such as, for example, the 2,733.30 Reichstaler paid in 1702 for Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents, his Pandora’s Box (not listed in the Liechtenstein catalogues under this title, likely the Discovery of Erichthonius) and a work by Teniers, all bought from the Forchondt; see the entry to the Massacre of the Innocents in Sotheby’s, London, 10 July 2002, lot no. 6. (2,550 Gulden = 1,662.5 Reichstaler, assuming 1.5 Gulden to the Taler, see http://pierre-marteau.com/wiki/index.php?title=Holy_Roman_Empire:Money.) Baumstark in New York 1985, p. 318, argues that the 1710 payment refers instead to a large Lamentation by Rubens still in the Liechtenstein collection.
I – Schneevoogt 1873, p. 54, no. 387 in his catalogue of prints after Rubens, gives this to Pieter Soutman (c. 1580–1657), misled by a later state of the engraving with this attribution. Rather, it was engraved by Jonas Suyderhoef (c. 1613–1686). See Hollstein vol. xxviii, Suyderhoef, no. 1. Notably, the inscription credits Caravaggio (“Caravaggio pinxit”), not Rubens, who goes unmentioned. The print is a free and crude interpretation of its model. Suyderhoef’s source is unclear, but, assuming the work remained with Rubens, may have been Soutman, for whom Suyderhoef worked; Soutman in turn would have had access to the painting, having been with Rubens in the 1610s (Antwerp & Amsterdam 1999–2000, pp. 383–384).
II – Schneevoogt 1873, p. 54, no. 388 by Johann Peter Pichler (1765–1807).
Moir 1976, p. 128, note 202 citing seventeenth-century prints after Rubens’ work contains a series of inaccuracies and some misidentifications.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Entombment, c. 1602–04, oil on canvas, 300 × 203 cm. Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican Museums, Vatican State. Photo: Scala / Art Resource, NY
Peter Paul Rubens, The Entombment, c. 1615–16, oil on panel, 83.1 × 65.1 cm. © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Photo: The Bridgeman Art Library