From The Catholic Rubens: Saints and Martyrs
The Archangel Michael Altar for Duke Wilhelm of Pfalz-Neuburg
A vehement and stormy altarpiece demonstrates how Peter Paul Rubens contributed his furia del pennello [brush fury] to the confessional struggles surging through Bavaria before and during the Thirty Years War. At issue in this case was the reconversion of the collateral line of the Wittelsbach family in Pfalz-Neuburg, who had fallen away from the old faith. When Wolfgang Wilhelm, the eldest son of the rigidly Lutheran count palatine Philipp Ludwig, reconverted to Roman Catholicism in order to marry a sister of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria in 1613, the Jesuits appeared in Neuburg that same year as confessors and preachers. Wolfgang Wilhelm succeeded his father as duke a year later and immediately turned over the Protestant palace chapel to the Jesuits, who also took control of the high school. It represented a complete victory for the Roman Catholic camp. Straightaway, Rubens himself appeared as an artistic actor in this spectacular drama of dynastic conversion. The altarpieces for the re-Roman Catholicized palace chapel were ordered from the Antwerp master. There is a report of a payment as early as 1617. The contact with Rubens was probably established via Duke Maximilian, who purchased four hunting scenes from the Flemish master around 1616 or 1617. The association with the preeminent Roman Catholic prince and commander-in-chief was obviously important to the artist. In 1621, Rubens dedicated an engraving of the Adoration of the Magi to Maximilian; the inscription read, “Serenissimo Maximiliano utrisq[ue] Bavariae Duci et Christianae Religionis Piissimo Assertori” (To the most serene Maximilian, Duke of both Bavarias and supremely pious protector of the Christian religion). With the pieces Rubens painted for the altars of Bavaria, we find ourselves always in the same circles of Counter-Reformation dynastic rulers.
Somewhat later, however, Duke Wolfgang Wilhelm had Rubens paint another altarpiece, which one could call the very seal of the prince’s reconversion to the Roman Catholic faith. Although the picture, now housed in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, is known as the Engelsturz (The Fall of the Rebel Angels) in the art historical literature, its ecclesiastical subject is more correctly a blazing representation of a combative and victorious Archangel Michael. Without peer in his knowledge of the propagandistic imagery of the Roman Catholic Revival, Rubens spoke concretely in a letter to Duke Wolfgang Wilhelm of October 11, 1619 about an “Altare per santo Michele” (the altar of Saint Michael) and of a “suggetto di santo Michele” (subject of Saint Michael). No documentation of the church’s original choice of Saint Michael as a subject has survived, giving rise to various speculations. We know for certain only that it was a painting for an altar of Saint Michael in a church somewhere in Wolfgang Wilhelm’s domain.
During the Counter-Reformation, the Archangel Michael, in battle with the renegade angels and in the act of driving the insurgents down to hell, was a paradigmatic figure of the Roman Catholic Revival, a symbol of the war against the Protestant heretics. The militant cult of Saint Michael was almost nowhere more virulent than in the Wittelsbach duchy. We need only remind ourselves of the programmatic history of the high altar in Freising. The Trophaea Bavarica Sancto Michaeli Archangelo: In Templo et Gymnasio Societatis Iesu Dicata (Bavarian trophies to the archangel Saint Michael, dedicated in the church and gymnasium of the Society of Jesus), published in Munich in 1597 in commemoration of the consecration of the Jesuit church of Saint Michael, proudly and menacingly declares,
Sed gentibus unica cunctis,
Plus mea Dive tibi debet gens Boiara princeps;
Vincere quo didicit ductore duellatores,
Et prisco numen ritu placare Deumq[ue]
Relligione patrum sarta tectaq[ue]; vereri
(But one people owes you more than all others,
Holy Prince: my Bavarian people;
for under your leadership it learned to vanquish the war makers,
propitiate God according to the old rites,
and honor him with the intact, preserved religion of the fathers.)
At the end of the sixteenth century, this Bavarian Wittelsbach cult of Saint Michael produced the two famous images of Saint Michael in the Munich Jesuitenkirche: the high altarpiece of 1587 by Christoph Schwarz and the statue of Saint Michael of 1588 by Gerhard Hubert. Both celebrate the archangel as the antiheretical conqueror of Lucifer.
Rubens’s painting for an altar of Saint Michael in a church of unknown location in Pfalz-Neuburg perpetuates the Jesuit cult of Saint Michael that surrounded the Munich court. But the Flemish painter did not relate his painting to the depictions of Saint Michael and Lucifer in Munich. Instead, he drew on the tradition of his homeland, a vivid example of which was accessible to him in Frans Floris’s Saint Michael altarpiece of 1554 in the Antwerp cathedral. Floris shows the archangel, armed with a sword and shield and supported by the Heavenly hosts, vanquishing a dragon and plummeting devils, and gazing down in triumph at Lucifer.
Rubens borrowed numerous details from Floris’s picture, but at the same time, he transfigured Floris’s dreadful composition as if with a magic wand. Whereas Floris’s falling bodies are tangled up with one another and his Michelangelo-like figures look calcified or petrified, in Rubens’s painting, all is sensuous, whirling motion, telling a fabulous tale of the wondrous and terrifying metamorphosis from anthropomorphic into bestial form. The fingers of the falling angels turn into hideous claws. Horns sprout from their heads and their faces assume brutish features. In falling, the devil in the middle of the picture has turned onto his back and clutches a writhing snake in his fist. His ghastly face, reminiscent of something from a horror film, looks up at Saint Michael. This is Lucifer, the terrible prince of the devils. His hulking, muscular body is a free adaptation of Laocoön from the famous antique group statue in the Vatican Museums, which was a repeated inspiration for Rubens in his ecclesiastical paintings. The pagan priest overtaken by serpents as he makes an offering here becomes the ringleader of the fallen angels. The snake he holds is the attribute of his fall from grace. Rubens was a true wizard of evocative metamorphoses from pagan to Christian, from the Rome of antiquity to the Rome of the church. The exchange of glances between the radiant celestial warrior Michael and his opponent, the misshapen archfiend Lucifer, was already to be found in Floris’s altarpiece. Rubens has focused the encounter with mordant physiognomic wit. Above, the shining hero – a Christian Achilles – below, the bestial visage: le beau et la bête.
The most astonishing transformation has occurred in the figure of Saint Michael. On his flashing shield we read the Hebrew inscription, “Michael,” (Who is like God?), and, above him, distant and powerful, we see God the Father, who has sent him out to do battle. The archangel is God’s messenger and warrior. He is clad in Roman armor; the metal of his breastplate flashes, and his billowing red paludamentum gleams like a flame. He lifts his sword and looks down at the fallen Lucifer, in whose skull a bloody gash appears to have been opened. The pose of the winged warrior just now floating down from Heaven possesses an ethereal, dance-like lightness and grace that may seem strange in the midst of the furious tumult of battle. But the significance of the pose becomes clear when we realize that Rubens has here transformed the fleet-footed figure of the pagan Mercury – the “nimble messenger of the gods,” well known to Rubens in the form of Giovanni da Bologna’s famous statue now in the Bargello in Florence – into the Heavenly messenger of Christianity and prince of the Heavenly hosts. Mercury has become Michael. Rubens has incorporated the sensuous forms of the gods of antiquity into the images of the Roman Catholic Revival. Again, this art historian with his Protestant background stands trembling before an image of the war against the heretics, but the movement in Ruben’s paintings, his imaginative and almost jocular juggling of gods, saints, and demons, melts away the fury of confessional struggle, dissolves it into a humane narrative of the victory of beauty and civilization over monstrousness and chaos.