The first of these commissions was The Raising of the Cross for one of the main churches in Antwerp. This
painting is a triptych, a common form in northern art of the time, but its scale is enormous—it is over fifteen
feet tall. The scene was conceived as continuing across the three canvases: the two thieves are being
crucified on the right side, while a group of onlookers on the left canvas react to the main scene.
The central scene is a fine example of Rubens’ style. It shows Christ on the cross being raised by burly men.
The men’s muscular bodies and foreshortened poses are much like Michelangelo’s, while the rich colors,
textures, and lighting effects recall the Venetian painters. The cross is set at a diagonal with its base closest
to us; Rubens used an unstable composition to capture a momentary action, which we as viewers imagine
continuing and resolving in the next moment. Everything about this triptych was conceived with dramatic
effect in mind: the darkening sky, the sharp jump to the background scene on the right, the frantic horse,
the distraught women, and Christ’s agonized look and tensed body.
Although The Raising of the Cross was paid for by a well-to-do member of the merchant class, Rubens was
more often employed by the courts of Europe, including the Hapsburg court in Flanders, and then later the
courts of the kings of Spain, England, and France. His series of twenty-four large paintings for Marie de’
Medici, the queen of France, is one of his greatest accomplishments. Marie, a descendant of the Medici
family famous for its patronage of Renaissance art, was married to Henri IV of France in 1600. The
allegorical cycle that she asked Rubens to paint is a highly idealized version of her life with Henri IV.
In Henri IV Receiving the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici Henri falls in love with his future bride’s portrait (it
was often the case that in arranged marriages like this the man would not have met or even seen his future
wife before their marriage). Above Henri, the Olympian married couple, Jupiter and Juno, looks down while
a personification of France stands behind Henri, as enthralled by the painting as he is.
Rubens, Henri IV Receiving the Portrait of Marie de Medici, and Marie’s Arrival in Marseilles,
from the Marie de’ Medici cycle, 1622-25.
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