Catalogue entry no. 76 by William W. Robinson:
When the new Jesuit church in Antwerp was consecrated in 1621, works by Rubens figured prominently in its sumptuous decoration. In addition to two enormous paintings for the high altar, the artist designed reliefs for the facade and ceiling decorations for the Mary Chapel, where his Assumption, now in Vienna, served as the altarpiece (see 1936.123, Fig. 1). On March 29, 1620, Rubens formally contracted to furnish thirty-nine paintings on canvas to be installed on the ceilings over the aisles and galleries and beneath the organ loft. The contract obligated him to execute an oil sketch of each of the subjects prescribed for the ceilings by the church authorities, further stipulating that Anthony van Dyck and other workshop assistants would paint the full-scale versions of Rubens’s compositions, and that the master would touch them up as necessary and deliver them by the end of 1620 or early in 1621. A fire that consumed the nave of the church in 1718 destroyed all the ceiling paintings. We know them today from copies made by early eighteenth-century draftsmen and from the oil sketches by Rubens that survive.
The colored oil modelli that Rubens turned over to his workshop assistants were preceded, at least in some instances, by smaller, preliminary oil studies (bozzetti) in monochrome tones of brown and gray. That he developed his compositional ideas in these small panels may account in part for the paucity of drawings connected with the project. Only two such drawings have come to light, both related to ceilings in the north aisle, where images of the Greek Fathers alternated with representations of the martyrdoms of female saints. The Harvard study records Rubens’s early ideas for the violent subjugation of a demon by Gregory of Nazianzus, the fourth-century theologian and bishop of Constantinople, thus dramatically invoking the saint’s reputation as a vigorous opponent of heresy. The related oil modello survives (Fig. 1), and the octagonal ceiling painting is documented in copies by Jacob de Wit and Christian Benjamin Müller (Fig. 2). In addition to the Harvard study, there is a black-chalk drawing of Saint Athanasius in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Compared to the Harvard sheet, it is a more resolved composition and corresponds closely to the final painting. Other drawings for the Jesuit church ceilings may have been lost.
Julius Held aptly characterized the hybrid function of the Harvard drawing as “a compositional study which in an unusual way combines the imaginativeness of a first study with the precision and clarity of studies from life.” In the swirl of chalk lines, a few firm, dark strokes define the contours of the saint’s chasuble and settle the position of his legs and feet. At this early stage, Rubens contemplated an architectural setting with a balustrade at the left and a fountain and column at the right. In the oil modello (see Fig. 1), he rejected the architectural trappings in favor of locating the scene on a cloud, where the saint appears in steeper foreshortening than in the drawing. Neither the muscular angel that assists Gregory nor the demon speared by the saint’s crozier figures in the final design. Rubens sketched a second demon near the bottom of the sheet, and in the modello he moved this latter devil up to absorb the crozier’s blow. The demon eliminated from the drawing is virtually identical to an airborne devil in The Miracles of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, one of the two high altarpieces Rubens completed in 1617–18 for the Jesuit church. Finally, he drew the young angel above the saint with one head and one set of arms, but two torsos and two pairs of legs, one extending to the left and one to the right. In the oil sketch, this angel flies with legs and body to the left.