RUBENS, Peter Paul
(b. 1577, Siegen, d. 1640, Antwerpen)

The Ecstasy of St Gregory the Great

Oil on canvas, 477 x 288 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble

At the end of 1605 Rubens settled in Rome. Of great significance were his commissions for the Oratorians, who were, with the Jesuits, one of the most important new orders of the Counter-Reformation. In these altarpieces of Rubens's later period there is a strong affinity with the work of Correggio, another painter of the High Renaissance, who exercised an important influence on the emergence of the Baroque style through his softer modelling and his emotionally charged expressively. That was particularly the case in contemporary Rome, where the style of the leading painters such as Federico Barocci and Annibale Carracci was based in part on Correggio.

The Ecstasy of St Gregory the Great was commissioned for the high-altar painting of the Oratorians' main church, Santa Maria Vallicella. The compositional structure and the emotionally charged facial expressions and details in movement in Rubens's first 'modello' for this altarpiece (Staatliche Museen, Berlin) is inspired by similar altar compositions by Correggio. In the definitive version the construction, influenced by Raphael and antique sculpture, is stronger and more classicist. This painting is without doubt the zenith of the artistic output of Rubens's Italian years. This majestic veneration of the saints is also one of the most manifest expressions of Counter-Reformation triumphalism in the city of its birth.

Rubens considered this commission as the confirmation of his reputation as a painter in Rome. Yet the picture was not hung in the place for which it was intended, because it reflected the light entering the church too strongly. For this reason the canvas was replaced by a new version on slate. This was quite different from the first painting; its composition was divided over three separate panels. This work, still in its original place in Santa Maria Vallicella, was ready in autumn 1608. Immediately afterwards Rubens returned to Antwerp. He took the rejected canvas with him and placed it above the tomb of his mother, Maria Pijpelinckx, who had died while he was on his way home.

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