Pieter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi | Antwerp, KMSKA Royal Museum of Fine Arts

Arts & Sciences
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The Adoration of the Magi

Rubens and the Baroque

In 1624 Peter Paul Rubens painted a monumental work for the high altar of Saint Michael’s Abbey in Antwerp. The subject was a familiar Biblical scene: the visit of the three kings to the newborn Christ-child. The abbey no longer exists, but the painting remains a high point in Baroque art.

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Rubens places us in the middle of the Christmas stall where Mary is showing her son Jesus to the three wise men from the East. The painter has used every means at his disposal to evoke the excitement surrounding the birth. The onlookers with their lively facial expressions look on or express their amazement with gestures. The presence of exotically dressed figures is also striking. The Ethiopian king Balthasar dominates the middle section of the painting. The palette is particularly colourful. The reddish-brown tints give the scene a warm glow. Rubens used assured brushstrokes and used chiaroscuro effects. His technique enabled him to paint fast, so that he could keep up with the stream of orders.


Kris Vandevorst

The basilica of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel breathes the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. This star-shaped, cupola-topped church is the masterpiece of the architect Wenzel Coebergher (1557-1634) and was built after being commissioned by the arch-dukes Albrecht (1559-1621) and Isabella (1566-1633) to give thanks for the capture of Ostend from the Calvinist rebels from the Northern Netherlands (1604). The Baroque basilica is today the best-known shrine of the Virgin Mary and place of pilgrimage in Flanders.

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Rubens and the Baroque

Peter Paul Rubens was born in 1577 near Cologne. After the death of his father his mother returned to Antwerp, where the family came from. Rubens trained as a painter and in 1600 left to spend eight years in Italy. There he was inspired by artists like Titian and Caravaggio. Back home Rubens emerged as an exceptionally productive master, who practised every genre. Besides landscapes and portraits he painted religious and mythological scenes on a large scale. For these he drew on his wide knowledge of Classical antiquity and literary traditions. In his studio in Antwerp he made oil sketches, which his pupils worked in large format. More than two thousand paintings left his studio.

With his religious works Rubens supported the Counter-Reformation. This was the Catholic church’s answer to Protestantism. With the Counter-Reformation the church not only initiated internal reform, but wanted to make its own teachings attractive again. The flamboyant Baroque style proved particularly suited to focusing on religious truths. Because of the Iconoclastic Fury many works of art had disappeared from churches. The art of the Counter-Reformation brought Mary and the saints back triumphantly. Imposing altarpieces and sculptures were designed to appeal to church visitors with easily recognisable subjects. This new décor changed the interior of many church buildings.

Focal points

Karel en de jacht.

Paris, Musée du Louvre

Charles I during the Hunt or Le Roi à la chasse. Anthony van Dyck was portrait painter to the English royal family during the reign of Charles I (1600-1649). He helped determine the image of the Stuart dynasty.

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Rubens as an Inspiration: Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens

The influence of Rubens can scarcely be overestimated. Anthony van Dyck was his most talented pupil and later his assistant. Within a short space of time he managed to equal Rubens. He also went to Italy. After his return to Antwerp Van Dyck painted religious themes in a new, emotional style and developed variations on the bourgeois portrait. His international breakthrough came with his appointment as court painter to Charles I of England. In London he painted iconic works that added a new dimension to European portrait painting.

After the death of Rubens (1640) and Van Dyck (1641) Jacob Jordaens remained active for more than thirty years. The versatile artist painted both portraits and Biblical and mythological themes and in addition was active as a designer of wall hangings. He excelled at genre pieces. Those colourful and humorous scenes from everyday life usually had a moralising undertone.

Towards the end of the 17th century the great blossoming was over, but the legacy of the great Antwerp Baroque painters proved indestructible. In the 19th century Romantic artists like Gustaaf Wappers and Nicaise De Keyser again took their inspiration from Rubens’ style. In 1843 Rubens was given a statue on the Groenplaats in Antwerp, and since 1946 his house on the Wapper has been a museum. It attracts around 200,000 visitors a year from all over the world.

Clara Peeters.

Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Clara Peeters, Still-Life with flowers, gilded cup, almonds, dried fruit, sweets, biscuits, wine and a tin jug.


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Clara Peeters

Baroque painting is often associated with religious and mythological scenes, executed in a bombastic style. But the Baroque period also had another side. Very popular with the rich bourgeoisie were also small and refined still lifes: scenes of bouquets, set tables or precious glassware. Women artists often specialised in this genre. They were not allowed to draw live nudes. Hence they chose subjects for which no anatomical knowledge was necessary.

Clara Peeters was one such painter of still lifes. This contemporary and fellow-townswoman of Rubens was very successful during her lifetime, but today little is known about her. Her scenes of crockery and cutlery, fishes, sugar dishes, flowers and shells demonstrate a particularly sharp observational capacity, refined technique, and subtle use of colour. The laid tables look attractive. But don’t be mistaken: each object in a Baroque still life refers to transience. The most magnificent flowers will fade, the cheese will be covered in mould, the wine glass will smash to smithereens. It was advice to viewers to use their time well in the short life granted to them.

Women were for a long time undervalued in the history of European art, but that is gradually changing. In 2016 Clara Peeters, as the first female artist ever, was given a monographic exhibition at the Prado in Madrid.

Pieter Paul Rubens, De Kruisoprichting, 1609-1610, in de Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal van Antwerpen. Het drieluik illustreert de barokke beeldtaal die Rubens uit Italië had meegebracht.
Antwerp, Cathedral of Our Lady, www.artinflanders.be, photo Hugo Maertens

Pieter Paul Rubens, The Raising of the Cross, 1609-1610, in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. The triptych illustrates the Baroque visual language Rubens had brought back with him from Italy.

De koning drinkt.
Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The King Drinks (about 1640) by Jacob Jordaens depicts the tradition linked to the feast of Epiphany of hiding a bean in a tart. Whoever finds the bean in his piece of tart, is allowed to be king for a day.

Clara Peeters zelfportret.
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

In the reflecting details of a beaker in one of her still-lifes Clara Peeters several times painted her self-portrait, palette in hand.

Brussels, Vlaams Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed, Oswald Pauwels

In his Renaissance mansion in Antwerp, partly designed by himself and at present known as the Rubenshuis, Rubens had his studio. There he worked on his paintings with his apprentices.

Carolus Borromeuskerk.
Kris Vandevorst

The church of Sint-Carolus Borromeus in Antwerp is a Baroque masterpiece and the Rubens church par excellence, although the fire of 1718 destroyed the 39 ceiling paintings by the master, which he executed together with Antony van Dyck. The monumental façade of the Jesuit church, based on the Gesù in Rome, shows the self-confidence of the Counter-Reformation.

In het Suske en Wiske-album De raap van Rubens (1977) speelt koning Melchior uit het schilderij ‘Aanbidding der koningen’ een hoofdrol. In het album reizen Suske en Wiske samen met Lambik naar het 17e-eeuwse Antwerpen, waar ze onder andere de Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk bezoeken en kennismaken met Rubens, Van Dyck en Jordaens.
Antwerp, Standaard Uitgeverij (@2023), Willy Vandersteen

In the Suske and Wiske comic album De raap van Rubens (Rubens’ Apprentice, 1977) King Melchior from the painting ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ plays a major role. In the album Suske and Wiske travel with their friend Lambik to 17th-century Antwerp, where they visit the church of Our Lady and other places and make the acquaintance of Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens.

Discover more on this topic

Clara Peeters
Meer vrouw op straat – Antwerpen

Bron: VRT archief, De chinezen – 3 ma 2020

De aanbidding
Een nacht in het museum – Wim Willaert

Bron: VRT archief, KMSKA – 20 sep 2022

Een nacht in het museum – Wim Willaert

Bron: VRT archief, KMSKA – 20 sep 2022

Weg van het meesterwerk – Rubens – Diana & haar nimfen maken zich klaar voor de jacht

Bron: VRT archief, Sylvester Productions – 4 sep 2019

Schilderij De aanbidding
Kunstwerk XL

Bron: VRT archief, KMKSA – 22 sep 2022

Van Dyck

Bron: VRT archief – 17 feb 2009


Alsteens Stijn & Eaker Adam
Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture

Yale University Press, 2016. 

Babina Natalia, e.a.
Rubens, Van Dyck & Jordaens. Vlaamse schilders uit de Hermitage

Mercatorfonds, 2011. 

Barnes Susan, e.a.
Van Dyck. A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings

Yale University Press, 2004. 

Belkin Kristin & Healy Fiona
Een huis vol kunst: Rubens als verzamelaar

BAI, 2004. 

Büttner Nils
Rubens: De schilder van mythen en goden

Meulenhoff, 2017. 

De Poorter Nora & Baudouin Frans
Rubens’s House

Brepols, 2022. 

De Dijn Rosine
Liefde, leed en passie: de vrouwen van Rubens

Van Halewyck, 2002. 

Duerloo Luc & Smuts R. Malcolm
The Age of Rubens. Diplomacy, Dynastic Politics and the Visual Arts in early seventeenth-century Europe

Brepols 2016. 

Eaker Adam
Van Dyck and the Making of English Portraiture

Yale University Press, 2022. 

Fabri Ria & Van Hout Nico
Van Quinten Metsijs tot Peter Paul Rubens

BAI, 2009. 

Filtenborg Troels, e.a
Jordaens. The Making of a Masterpiece

Statens Museum for Kunst, 2008. 

Hauspie Gunter
De Grote Rubens Atlas

Lannoo, 2018. 

Herremans Valerie
Rubens doorgelicht: Schilderijen uit verdwenen Antwerpse kerken

Snoeck, 2013. 

Huet Leen
Pieter Paul Rubens

De Bezige Bij, 2004. 

Huet Leen
De Brieven Van Rubens

De Bezige Bij, 2006. 

Huet Leen & Grieten Jan
Oude meesteressen: vrouwelijke kunstenaars in de Nederlanden

Van Halewyck, 1998. 

Kolfin Elmer, e.a.
Black is Beautiful. Rubens tot Dumas

WBooks, 2008. 

Lammertse Friso & Vergara Alejandro
Rubens. Schilder van schetsen

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 2022. 

Lamster Mark
De meester van de schaduw: Peter Paul Rubens, geheim agent

De Bezige Bij, 2009. 

Müller Hofstede Justus
De mooiste meesterwerken van Rubens

Het Laatste Nieuws, 2004. 

Sauwen Rik
Overzicht van leven en werk van de Vlaamse schilder (1577-1640)

Snoeck, 2004. 

Van Beneden Ben, Büttner Nils & De Poorter Nora
Rubens privé: de meester portretteert zijn familie

Marot, 2015. 

Van der Stighelen Katlijne
Hoofd- en bijzaak. Portretkunst in Vlaanderen van 1420 tot nu

Davidsfonds –Waanders Uitgevers, 2008. 

Van der Stighelen Katlijne
Van Dyck

Lannoo, 1998. 

Van der Stighelen Katlijne, e.a.
Elck zijn waerom: vrouwelijke kunstenaars in België en Nederland, 1500-1950

Ludion, 1999. 

Van Hout Nico (red.)
Copyright Rubens: Rubens en de grafiek

De Bezige Bij, 2004. 

Van Hout Nico
Sensatie en sensualiteit: Rubens en zijn erfenis

Mercatorfonds, 2014. 

Vander Auwera Joost & Van Sprang Sabine
Rubens: een genie aan het werk

Lannoo, 2007. 

Vander Auwera Joost
Jordaens en de Antieken

Mercatorfonds, 2012.

Van Wyhe Cordula (red.)
Rubens and the Human Body

Brepols, 2018. 

Vergara Alejandro
The Young Van Dyck

Thames & Hudson, 2013. 

White Christopher
Anthony Van Dyck and the Art of Portraiture

Modern Art Press, 2021. 

Woollett Anne & Van Suchtelen Ariane
Rubens en Breughel: een artistieke vriendschap

WBooks, 2006. 


Medved Lisa
De Graveur

Horizon, 2022. 

Schoeters Staf

Triloga, 2007. 

Van Der Laak Maartje
Het geheim van de Vlaamse Meesters

De Eenhoorn, 2019. (9+) 

Geerts Paul
Suske en Wiske: De Raap van Rubens (nr. 109)

Standaard, 1977. 

The Frick Collection
Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture


Van Dyck: a collection of 449 paintings
National Portrait Gallery
Over Van Dyck en zijn invloed
Rubens, opera in verf

Rubens bewandelt het leven

Visit Flanders
Stay at home Museum

Episode 3: Rubens

Learn From Masters, Jacob Jordaens, a collection of 154 paintings
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wenen
Over Jordaens’ Feast of the Bean King’