Yesterday was the 12th day of Christmas. January 6th is Epiphany and it commemorates the Magi’s visit to the Holy Family. Thankfully for me, there is lots of art on this subject to choose from. In fact we just posted a Giotto version last week, but I meant that to be more about the Arena Chapel than the Adoration piece itself. This week we’re going with the version painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1609 then reworked by him again in 1628.
As with almost any Rubens piece, I have trouble knowing where to begin a discussion. This one in particular is packed. That’s not just an entourage making a dramatic entrance. It’s a human cascade that looks like it’s about to overwhelm Mary and her child. There is pageantry, exquisite detail, theatrically exaggerated motion and saturated colors. Baroque art is known for all of that. And artists of the period also liked diagonals to draw attention to the scene’s main point of emphasis. In this case the entire procession forms such a line which pulls your eye straight to the Christ child; an apparently very well-fed Christ child, at that. He makes a nice complement to those chubby cherubs defying gravity up there. My feeling is that you should just zero in on each figure in the cavalcade and appreciate it individually. Each one has power to pull you in. Then you can zoom out and take in the entire ensemble which really does give you the illusion of a moving procession.
Rubens is fascinating because that guy appreciated a very wide range of artistic influences. And he paid tribute to just about all of them in this painting. I can see his love of ancient bas reliefs, Greek physiques, Roman sculpture, and Renaissance painting. It’s obvious that he loved Michelangelo. He practically copied Titian and Raphael. So the subject of the painting may be the Adoration but the painting itself is an adoration as well. I promise that I’m not saying all this to dish out stuffy high-art talk. I’m saying it because I really love knowing that he wasn’t ashamed to imitate and refashion his artistic heroes. In a world that exerts pressure on everyone to be ‘original’ or ‘authentic,’ (whatever those terms mean), there is something to be said for borrowing from and even imitating the things we love as well. We all learn from those who came before. We stand on their shoulders or build on their foundations. Rubens the master painter did all of that and is still rightfully considered a master in his own right.