Each artist has his own system of ideas, views, principles, and he has an intention of expressing these thoughts in his masterpieces. The painters can present their ideas by meaning and symbols of pictures, by specific artistic methods, by concealed sense of painting. The spectator understands the masterpiece in a way he wants, but we must admit, that the painter introduced his ideas in picture with intention of showing them to public and persuading the public in rightness of his ideas[i]. That’s why the specialists – artistic critics – must analyse all the elements of picture for understanding its genuine sense, meaning. Among the proper artistic methods we must also take into account the biography of painter, the social conditions of his life, the political and economical system of his time, the dominating religion (it especially concerns the works of IX – XVI centuries, when the religious authority dominated in Europe).
The masterpiece “The Miracles of Saint Francis of Paola” by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens was created in 1627-1628. Now this cloth is situated in J. Paul Getty Museum. As almost all the paintings of this time, it has a religious meaning – the plot from Bible (about Saint Francis) was taken as a base of the picture. However Rubens present his own understanding of religion generally and wonder, miracles particularly. The faith on the faces of people demonstrate that they don’t adopt this Francis as a superior substance[ii]. And the absence of nimbi on his head persuades us in the idea, that all the saints are simply of human origin, and each person can become the saint, if he will believe in God so as Saint Francis believes[iii]. Of course, Rubens wasn’t atheist, these were times of total religion, and everyone was the Christian. But there were some tendencies in the proper Christianity, when heretics and icon-fighters affirmed, than in their times the church is highly corrupted, the religious superiors understand the norms of Precepts in wrong way, the church doesn’t complete its assignment as follows.
According to their positions, the believe is highly intimate matter, the role of church is to help believing but not to manage the state. The church apparatus is so bloated[iv], that it needs reforming. As we know, in the second half of XVI century the Reformation in Germany and Holland struggled against Catholic Church. The reasons for it were described higher. In Germany Tomas Luther has won, but in Holland, where this process wasn’t led by him (in fact, these two struggles has less similar features, except the same time, but it was an accident), the Catholic troops of Spanish king Philip II suppressed the rebellion and Protestantism, the new religion, was almost expelled from Flemish lands. These were the conditions of Rubens’s life and activity; this was a role of religion, what made Rubens to create in such style and on such matters. For better understanding of the painting’s meaning it will be useful to investigate such realms: the plot, which was taken as a base of this painting, the symbols of the painting, the way of space organising, the lines and shapes, the colours dominating in picture. The time and culture period is already described in the introductory part, it will be expanded in future passages.
Actually, all the painting’s elements (even the lines, colour etc) are symbols, because by their specificity the artist expressed his understanding of world order, his ideas, he put some meaning in his picture. Although the majority of painters (except modernists and postmodernists) try to use the artistic methods in accordance with theory of painting, that’s why more symbolical are the subjects, painted on the cloth or some particularities of space organising. The subjects and people are presented in natural sizes and forms, the lines are soft, natural, in majority they are usual, traditional. The columns are strict and the lines of columns are strict, but it may be explained by the statement, that almost all the architectural forms and elements are strict and right. Some suspects are called by the relative ideal strictness of arc – there are no broken off parts, stones etc, although the building seems to be old. The washed out lines are on the back phone, it is difficult to define, whether it is the picture on the wall or simply the sky. But we can easily notice the image of some magical person, who looks on Saint Francis. The washing out of the lines allows us to think of the nature of this substance. We can affirm only that his body is unsymmetrical, for example, we see only the right leg; the right hand is situated lower than it must be.
The play of colours and shadows in the painting has a big role and presents many symbols and ideas. The colours are bright and warm, especially on the right side, but it is linked to the shadow – the light falls from right. There is another source of the light – it is the strange object behind Saint Francis – it is the picture on the wall or clouds on the sky. The presence of human (angel’s) figure doesn’t define its nature, because logically this object can only be an image, a picture, but the name of painting (“The miracles…”) persuades that this phenomenon may be in reality. Rubens’s energetic Baroque style blends his northern European sense of realism with the grandeur and monumentality he saw in Italian art. His characteristic free, expressive technique also captured “joie de vivre”[v]. From his workshop, with its many assistants, came quantities of book illustrations, tapestry designs, festival decorations, and paintings on every subject, which his engravers reproduced. In fact, the colours are full of life, because they are close to the real colours, they are vivid and lively simple. The conception of “joie de vivre” (happiness to live) is the another significant meaning of the painting. The miracles of the life, which occur every day, especially in XVII century, are more important for people than the religious miracles.
Concerning the symbols, it must be said, that there are many of them. Firstly, we see the corners of arc, but we don’t see its up – but we can imagine, that it is situated “out of frameworks” of picture. Exactly under the arc Saint Francis is flying, and the absence of arc makes an impression, that there is nothing higher than his head, and the arc “loses its up” when Saint Francis appears under it. Another symbol is that more rich and famous (estimating the clothes) are in the balcony, and poor people (almost without clothes are on the staircase). It is also symbolically, that the action (the miracles) has place in some strange building, but not in church, although Saint Francis is a religious character. The canapé in right low corner, the balcony, the bear (the very right corner) are the subjects, which can’t be situated in church. This symbol shows us, that the miracles are not simply religious matters, that the believe don’t require the church etc. it is strange that the columns in left up corner are different: one is round, and another is square. We don’t understand the reason for their difference, we can only suspect, that it is simply a description of some place, where the architect created such a strange image of different columns. What is also important, it is the strange surprise on the faces of people – of course, they aren’t glad with the miracle they see. This fly has highly interested them – some of them have aroused their hands, and some variant of faith is written on their faces. Probably, it may be explained by unreality of this fly – this old man, Saint Francis, doesn’t looks like Saint – he has no nimbi around his head, the event hasn’t place in the church etc. People are afraid of the person, who can fly.
The painting “The miracles of Saint Francis of Paola” is the cloth on religious matter, but the artist interprets the religion in his own way and tries to persuade the spectators in his ideas. From another hand, this picture is closely linked to average life of average people of XVII century in Europe with their joys and pains, believes and problems. We must admit, that the religion was the dominating matter in Europe of this time, that’s why the Rubens’s turn to this issue is understood, and his ideas to show the imperfection of modern church and his ideas concerning the believe.
[i] “A Guide to Cultural Landscape Reports: Contents, Process, and Techniques” – by Robert R. Page, Cathy G. Gilbert, Susan A. Dolan, 1998.
[ii] “Religious Paintings of XVI-XVII centuries” – by Zhumenko K., 1995.
[iii] The same source.
[iv] “Heretics and inquisition” – by Martin Fox, 1986.
[v] “Peter Paul Rubens” – from the page of J. Paul Getty Museum about P. P. Rubens: www.getty.edu/art/collections/objects/oz960.html