Sacred vision Marten de Vos

The fall of Antwerp to the forces of Allessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma and Spanish commander-in chief, on August 17, 1585 began a period of unprecedented artistic activity in Flanders. Much of the work centred upon Antwerp Cathedral, where the Calvinist assault on images had been most effective. The guild altars (with a wealth of paintings which had been one of the glories of the Northern Renaissance) were ruthlessly destroyed.

Now those same guilds vied with one another to set them up again.

Marten de Vos’ ‘Christ triumphing over Sin and Death’ was painted for the Guild of Longbowmen (it is now in the Koninklijk Museum).

The picture is a fascinating combination of post-Tridentine sensualism and Protestant didactism. All the elements which were to dominate Flemish painting (Rubens apart) for the next sixty years are to be found in Vos’s canvas. The figure of Christ, standing on, but somehow floating above, the dragon and skull, derives ultimately from Raphael. St George to the left anticipates the full blown baroque of Sir Peter Paul. The two dominant figures, Peter and Paul (low down in the composition so that the observer can read the lengthy texts which they display in their left hands) hark back to an earlier time. They have strayed in from the work of some disciple of Rogier van der Weyden.

The whole atmosphere of the piece pays tribute to the effects of Calvinist teaching on the Flemish sensibility. This is a painting which engages not the emotions but the intellect. The imagery is subservient to the text – and the texts are printed out at some length for the edification of the spectator.

It was a moment which was not to last. Rubens’ great ‘Descent from the Cross’ (1612–14), painted for the same cathedral, signalled the arrival of baroque dynamism and extreme pathos.

Mark Stevens

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