March 2011: Peter Paul Rubens "The Holy Trinity with St. Elisabeth, St. John the Baptist and the Dove"

Published on: 22 / 03 / 2011

Authors of this entry:
  • Magdalena Palica

In 1608, the thirty years old Rubens returned from Rome to his family town Antwerp. The influence of Italian paintings is discernible in his works that he executed in the years following his return. Shortly after leaving the Eternal City, the artist created a canvas painting, titled ”The Holy Trinity with St. Elisabeth, St. John the Baptist and the Dove” which was the pride of the Kospoth family's palace in Brzezinka (Briese in German) for more than one hundred years.

This highly impressive canvas owes quite a lot to the art of Raphael and Giulio Romano. The painting’s composition has patterns depicting the Holy Family with St. Anne, who is replaced in the Rubens’s painting with the figure of St. Elisabeth. Her lively rendered face, tawny and covered with wrinkles, demonstrates the inspiration from the works of contemporary Italian artists, particularly Caravaggio. Rubens surely was well acquainted with canvas paintings from the Barberini collection, depicting Judith cutting off the Holofernes’ head, as well as, with the “Supper of Emaus” from 1606 (currently at the Brera in Milan, formerly in marquis Patrizi's property). St. Elisabeth is a homage rendered by Rubens to the works of Michelangelo Merisi. It is from the latter that Rubens overtook the colour scheme for his composition. Its perspicuity was gained due to the use of basic colours, such as red and blue, on large surfaces of the cloth. The contrast is being strengthened by sharp ray of light retrieving the figures from the dark background. In addition, the pictorial composition by Rubens is very close to the painting of the same theme, by one of the Caravaggio’s followers, Orazio Borgiani. The latter canvas had also formerly belonged to the Barberini collection. This painting depicts the Holy Family accompanied by St. Elisabeth with young St. John the Baptist handing a dove to the Christ Child.

In spite of so many Italian provenance motifs, even at the first glance, one can be sure that the painting’s creator was of Flemish origin. Among its earmarks are children with blonde curly hair and rotund naked bodies. Similar children figures often appeared in the paintings by an artist who himself had been blessed with numerous progeny. Comparing to the canvas painting by Borgiani, the composition by Rubens is more vibrant and natural, which is particularly discernible in the gesture of the children, quarreling about who would be supposed to hold the bird. In the picture by the Italian painter, the dove symbolizing the Christ’s future martyrdom seems to be an attribute adjoined to the whole, whereas in the canvas by Rubens, it plays the key role in determining the poses of all the remaining figures. Simultaneously, the painting demonstrates the artist’s particular capability to build coherent and vibrant compositions, even at the early stage of activity.

This illustrious canvas by Rubens demonstrates particularly high quality of the collection that had been gathered by the Kospoth family, in their palace of Brzezinka (Briese in German). It is worth mentioning that until the World War II several dozens of canvases had been still housed there and among them the paintings by Adriaen van de Velde, Jan Steen, Dirk Maes, Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, Jacob Jordaens, and a portrait attributed to Rembrandt. The Baroque palace where Kospoth family resided is currently dilapidated, and from its French-style garden, which formerly surrounded the palace, only remnants have been preserved. The mythological sculptures, which once stood in the palace garden between the flowerbeds, can currently be admired in the Wilanów park near Warsaw.

Project co-financed by Ministry of Labour and Social Policy under Government Project – Civic Benefit Fund.
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