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Head of Christ



Peter Paul Rubens and Studio (1577-1640)
Head of Christ
oil on panel
AGLC 404 @ A.G Leventis Gallery

In one of his ledgers for the years 1624-1655, Balthasar Moretus (1574-1641), the Antwerp printer and publisher, noted that he had acquired from his friend Peter Paul Rubens two heads of Christ and Mary on panel: ‘deux visages sur paneel [sic] de Christus et Maria’. These two works cost him 24 florins a piece, so 48 in total. Rubens probably painted these panels between 1616 and 1620, for the very same ledger mentions the frontispiece designs that he had made for Moretus’ publishing house during those years. In any event, the type of Christ represented in this Head of Christ corresponds with those that Rubens painted in the period between 1615 and 1620. The two originals by Rubens’ own hand are no longer known; moreover, the A. G. Leventis Collection’s Head of Christ is not the painting which Moretus recorded in his ledger. What survive are four copies from Rubens’ studio, of which the panel under discussion here constitutes a fifth addition to this small body of work. In only one instance is the painting of Christ still together with its pendant, The Holy Virgin, though several studio versions of this composition are known.    

The panel shows a bust of Christ, in three-quarter profile, with a halo visible behind his handsome head. He is looking to the viewer’s right with a serene expression. Just like his contemporaries, Rubens believed in the moral resonances of physiognomy, meaning, for example, that ugly facial features could be considered a sign of dissoluteness. This also implies that Christ, the only one truly without sin, never had to suffer from the imperfections of Nature and that therefore his likeness recalls an Apollonian ideal of beauty. Rubens based his figure of Christ on a known model, as it reflects a devotional archetype of the vera effigies, the true image of Christ as recorded in the so-called Lentulus letter. Rubens was very fond of an old painting with a head of Christ that was once venerated by St Ignatius of Loyola. It had been brought to Flanders in 1554 and by Rubens’ time was owned by Jan van den Wouwere, an alderman of Antwerp, until he gave it to the church at Halle in 1633. Rubens made a drawing or sketch after it which no longer exists, but Paulus Pontius made an engraving after it, so at least that image survives in print.    

Among the aforementioned versions of this subject, the A. G. Leventis Collection painting is remarkable for its quality. Rubens allowed his assistants to work on the paintings in his studio after he had made preliminary drawings in chalk, along with some rudimentary touches of colour. The master himself retouched everything in the final stages. The Head of Christ exemplifies this working method. The painting was begun by one of Rubens’ assistants, perhaps copying Rubens’ original. The way in which Christ’s garments are painted, for example, does not reveal the typical handling of the brush that we attribute to the master. However, the face of Christ is enlivened by the typical sensual, nuanced handling of the paint with short brushstrokes and touches of colour so characteristic of Rubens. These finishing touches by the master make this painting stand out among the other studio versions of the composition.   

The panel on which the Head of Christ is painted has been planed on the back, so that a cradle could be attached. However, in two places the original oak was left untouched, namely where two 17th-century branding marks were applied to the wood. The first mark shows the brand of the Antwerp panel-makers guild, with the coat of arms of the city of Antwerp. The other branding mark is much more interesting. It represents a clover leaf or trefoil. This is the mark of one of Antwerp’s most prolific panel-makers, Michiel Claessens, who was active from 1590 until 1637. However, panels were not usually marked with panel- maker’s brands until after 1617, when a guild law made it obligatory to do so. This means that we can date the Head of Christ between 1617 and 1637.   

Rubens’ image of Christ had a large impact on his artist-colleagues in Antwerp. The Royal Collection in Britain contains a closely related Head of Christ, still in the company of its pendant, a Head of the Virgin; this last image, however, is not based on a Rubens model. Both pictures are stylistically associated with one of Rubens’ collaborators, Gerard Seghers (1591-1651). Another closely related Head of Christ was sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2010. This version was attributed to Peter van Lint (1609-1690), another colleague of Rubens in Antwerp.

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About the artist

Renowned equally as a painter, scholar and diplomat, he was the preeminent Baroque painter of Counter-Reformation altarpieces, and his prolific oeuvre includes mythological and allegorical subjects, history scenes, portraits and landscapes. His style accentuated colour and, primarily, an opulent sensuality. Such were the demands of his international clientele of royalty and nobility that he built, in the house he designed himself in Antwerp, a large studio to accommodate the huge number of assistants and students he needed to fulfil his numerous commissions. After making initial drawings and colour schemes, Rubens would leave his assistants to work on the paintings in his studio and then retouched everything himself in the final stages.

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