Rubens’ “Elevation”

Brad Miner | December 7, 2021

Some think of the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) as mostly images of voluptuous (sometimes nude) women. (His The Judgment of Paris is a good example.) If I see a full-figured woman, I reflexively think: Rubenesque. Other artists, Pierre Auguste Renoir is one, painted women who were zaftig (a lovely Yiddish synonym), but nobody says Renoiresque.

But that aspect of Rubens’ work is really the celebration of the human form in the spirit of Michelangelo (1475-1564). And Rubens was probably the greatest Catholic artist of the Baroque period (c. 1600 through 1750), as, arguably, Michelangelo had been in the Renaissance. In painting, especially, the Baroque style is the artistic manifestation of the Catholic Counter-Revolution, the energetic reassertion of Catholicity against the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation.

Of all the Catholic paintings by Rubens, none stands taller than “The Elevation of the Cross” – literally: the triptych in which “Elevation” is the centerpiece stands more than 11 feet tall and is over 15 feet wide. (The image below, showing a woman standing before it in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, gives some perspective on its size and impact.)

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