Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The Massacre of the Innocents by Sir Peter Paul Rubens is part of the Thomson Collection and now on display at The Art Gallery of Ontario.The Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s new exhibition devoted to the early work of Peter Paul Rubens culminates with that museum’s own big prize, The Massacre of the Innocents, and AGO director Stephan Jost couldn’t conclude a recent media tour without underlining its importance. Based on the biblical story of King Herod’s pre-emptive slaughter of every male child under the age of two, the painting features a seething vortex of naked bodies as desperate mothers fight off the soldiers hurling babies to the ground. Reminding viewers that Rubens had lived through Europe’s religious wars, Jost compared the subject to the gassing of Syrian children last year and pointed out that Mary and Joseph, who fled with the baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous decree, were refugees. This is an anti-war painting, Jost concluded.

Can we really place Rubens’ bleeding Christs and buxom ladies so easily in our own era? Horror and titillation sit side by side in The Massacre of the Innocents. As the cultural sphere busily debates whether Todd Phillips’s Joker is brilliant, offensive or just plain bad, it is that tension that feels particularly contemporary. Rubens’ work as a propagandist for the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation may not speak to many 21st-century viewers, but his melodrama and his darkness just might.

Open this photo in gallery:

Daniel in the Lions’ Den.National Gallery of Art/Handout

The Massacre of the Innocents is the reason the AGO (collaborating with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) has organized this exhibition devoted to Rubens’ work from the period when he returned from studies in Italy to his hometown, Antwerp, in what is now Belgium. The painting, purchased for the AGO by collector Ken Thomson in 2002 and donated as the cornerstone of the Thomson collection expansion that opened in 2008, gives the gallery the curatorial pull to gather the loans that make the exhibition possible.

The Massacre of the Innocents, for example, travelled to Antwerp’s Rubens House last year; now the city returns the favour as Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts lends the Michielsen Triptych, a fragile folding panel that seldom travels. Known as Christ on the Straw, it features a gruesome depiction of the dead Christ after the descent from the cross. Meanwhile, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, has parted with one of its most popular paintings: Daniel in the Lions’ Den, showing the Jewish hero surrounded by a pride of beasts both snarling and sleepy. (Rubens observed them in the Antwerp zoo and the stagey painting is a study in leonine physiognomy.) For their part, San Francisco’s Fine Art Museums bring The Tribute Money, in which Christ faces a gathering of elders both amazed and skeptical, as well as a pair of dark and detailed portraits of a wealthy Antwerp silk merchant and his wife.

Open this photo in gallery:

The Tribute Money.Randy Dodson

All this provides context for The Massacre of the Innocents, in an exhibition curated by Sasha Suda, (the AGO’s former European curator, now director of the National Gallery of Canada), with Kirk Nickel of San Francisco and beautifully executed by interpretive planner Gillian McIntyre. The exhibition argues that, on Rubens’ return to Antwerp, he applied all that he had learned in Italy to his new roles as both court painter to the Archduke Albert in Brussels and church painter in a region where Protestant iconoclasts had actually destroyed religious art. In a section on printing, it demonstrates how he built a personal brand by maintaining a large studio in Antwerp with many assistants, and by establishing relations with publishers who could reproduce his work in books. It offers the Breviarium Romanum prayer book on loan from the New York Public Library as an intriguing example of these engravings. And finally, it demonstrates how he embraced the high style of the Italian Baroque and made it his own with bold colours and dramatic compositions, using as particularly compelling evidence The Annunciation from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, in which a shaken Mary retreats from an erupting angel.

How intensely alive these figures appear. The portraits reach their apogee with a delightfully intimate depiction of Rubens’ first wife, Isabella Brandt. With her saucy smile, deep dimples and the slight cast to one eye, she appears idiosyncratic, energetic and amused. Her rosy cheeks and hint of a bosom prophesize the healthy (and wealthy) corpulence of Rubens’ later figures – of which this show, featuring early work and more biblical than mythical subjects, is mercifully unencumbered. Most of all, Isabella appears as a real individual. So, too do all the figures in The Tribute Money, suggesting a series of specific reactions to Christ’s clever deflection of the question about whether Jews need pay taxes, “Render to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s …”

And yet, how uncomfortable that intensity becomes when applied to less pleasant subjects. Rubens’ father was a Calvinist sympathiser, but his mother returned to Catholicism after her husband’s death, whether for reasons of conviction or convenience is unclear. The artist’s attitude is complex: He is simultaneously a messenger of the Counter-Reformation and a liberal humanist. If his religious art is archetypal, it is partly because of the technical virtuosity with which he handled the theatrical Baroque style: Christ on the Straw, which portrays the dead Christ with mottled skin and gaping wounds, uses an actual three-dimensional crust of paint to represent the blood emitting from his nose. And if his art is unique, it is partly because of the way Rubens tied the bible stories to approachable humanity: On the left panel of the triptych, the Christ Child observing his own future is a chubby little lad of Flanders.

This exhibition talks about Rubens “complicating the narrative” as it examines Lot and his Daughters, perhaps the most politically difficult painting here from a contemporary perspective. In the Bible, Lot and his family are banished from the corrupted Sodom – Rubens’ version of that scene is also included – but his daughters realize their race will die out if their father does not impregnate them. Rubens views that episode, so often the pretext for a senile seduction fantasy, with troubling ambivalence. Lot is supine, drunkenly raising a lecherous eye towards the naked daughter who pours him another draught while the other, still clothed, leans in conspiratorially, the Ghislaine Maxwell of her day. So who is seducing whom?

Open this photo in gallery:

Lott and his Daughters.

In an interesting catalogue essay, Nickel argues that the way these paintings lay a heavy burden of interpretation on the viewer is typical of Rubens. His Annunciation depicts a flushed Mary recoiling rather than submitting; his histrionic Medusa dares to actually imagine the swarm of snakes and arteries that would have exploded from the mythical figure’s decapitation. And finally The Massacre of the Innocents delights in its rendering of male musculature and female flesh even as it forces the images of dead babies with bluing skin and blood-spattered faces on to the viewer. Are we horrified or are we compelled?

Neither Baroque nor Rubenesque are adjectives that I would often deploy as compliments, but even for those allergic to both the fervid religiosity of Counter-Reformation art and to Rubens’ pink-hued eroticism, this exhibition is testament to the painter’s technical virtuosity and thematic complexity, neatly fitting those qualities into the context of his times. Whether a contemporary audience thrills to its lessons, or merely groans, Early Rubens is solid art history.

Early Rubens continues to Jan. 5, 2020, at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe