THE DESCENT FROM THE CROSS

(RUBENS)

EUGÈNE FROMENTIN

Many people say Antwerp; but many also say the country of Rubens, and this mode of speech more exactly expresses all the things that constitute the magic of the place: a great city, a great personal destiny, a famous school, and ultra-celebrated pictures. All this is imposing, and our imagination becomes excited rather more than usual when, in the centre of the Place Vert, we see the statue of Rubens and, farther on, the old basilica where are preserved the triptychs which, humanly speaking, have consecrated it.

The statue is not a masterpiece; but it is he, in his own home. Under the form of a man, who was nothing but a painter, with the sole attributes of a painter, in perfect truth it personifies the sole Flemish sovereignty which has neither been contested nor menaced, and which certainly never will be.

The Descent from the Cross. Rubens.

The Descent from the Cross.
Rubens.

At the end of the square is seen Notre Dame; it presents itself in profile, being outlined by one of its lateral faces, the darkest one, on account of the rains beating on that side. It is made to look blacker and bigger by being surrounded with light and low buildings. With its carved stonework, its rusty tone, its blue and lustrous roof, its colossal tower where the golden disk and the golden needles of its dial glitter in the stone discoloured by the vapours from the Scheldt and by the winters, it assumes monstrous proportions. When the sky is troubled, as it is to-day, it adds all its own strange caprices to the grandeur of the lines. Imagine then the invention of a Gothic Piranesi, exaggerated by the fancy of the North, wildly illuminated by a stormy day, and standing out in irregular blotches against the scenic background of a sky entirely black or entirely white, and full of tempest. A more original or more striking preliminary stage-setting could not be contrived. Thus it is vain for you to have come from Mechlin or Brussels, to have seen the Magi and the Calvary, to have formed an exact and measured idea of Rubens, or even to have taken familiarities in examining him that have set you at your ease with him, for you cannot enter Notre Dame as you enter a museum.

It is three o'clock; the clock high up has just struck. Scarcely even a sacristan makes a sound in the tranquil, clean and clear naves, as Pieter Neefs has represented them, with an inimitable feeling for their solitude and grandeur. It is raining and the light is fading. Shadows and gleams succeed each other upon the two triptychs in their thin framing of brown wood fastened without any pomp to the cold and smooth walls of the transepts, and this proud painting only stands out the more amid the violent lights and obscurities contending around it. German copyists have placed their easels before the Descent from the Cross; there is nobody before the Elevation to the Cross. This simple fact expresses the world's opinion as to these two works.

They are greatly admired, almost unreservedly so, and the fact is rare in the case of Rubens, but the admiration is divided. The chief renown has fallen upon the Descent from the Cross. The Elevation to the Cross has the gift of touching still more the impassioned, or more deeply convinced, friends of Rubens. No two works, in fact, could resemble each other less than these that were conceived at an interval of two years, that were inspired by the same effort of mind, and that, nevertheless, so plainly bear the marks of two separate tendencies. The date of the Descent from the Cross is 1612; that of the Elevation to the Cross is 1610. I insist upon the date, for it is important. Rubens was returning to Antwerp, and it was on his disembarkation, so to speak, that he painted them. His education was finished. At that moment he had even an excess of studies that were somewhat heavy for him and of which he was going to make free use once for all and then get rid of almost immediately. Of all the Italian masters he had consulted, each one, be it understood, gave him advice of a sufficiently exclusive nature. The hot-headed masters authorized him to dare greatly; the severe masters recommended him to keep himself under strong restraint.