The Wallace Collection

Peter Paul Rubens: The Holy Family with Elizabeth and St John the Baptist (P81)
Treasure of the Month - January 2004

Peter Paul Rubens: The Holy Family with Elizabeth and St John the Baptist (P81)

The Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was the most imaginative and influential painter of Catholic Europe in the seventeenth century. His extraordinary energy is reflected in his prolific output of portraits, landscapes, histories and religious pictures. His powerful narrative style was the perfect vehicle for religious imagery in the service of a Catholic church on the offensive against Protestantism and its emphasis on the written word. His historical and religious paintings are brightly coloured, often highly innovative and remarkable for their dramatic composition, sculptural form and variety of attitude and gesture. This painting shows Christ held by his mother Mary with her husband Joseph in the background. Mary's cousin Elizabeth holds her son, St John the Baptist, who clasps his hands in a gesture of devotion towards Christ. Christ wears a coral necklace symbolising the blood he will later shed on the Cross; St John sits on an animal skin symbolic of the one he will wear as an adult when preaching in the desert. This subject is not found in the Bible. Instead it was taken from a thirteenth-century text, the Meditationes Vitae Christi (Meditations on the Life of Christ), which was a popular source for seventeenth-century artists. The Spanish painter Murillo's version of the same subject may be seen at the far end of the opposite wall of this gallery.

The picture demonstrates Rubens's exceptional powers of characterisation and narrative. He carefully differentiates between the ages of the people represented and emphasises their relationship to one another by a skilful use of look and gesture. The brilliant colours and the seemingly effortless way in which he has brushed in his forms owe much to the oak panel on which the picture has been painted.

Commissioned by Archduke Albert, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, and painted 1614-15, it hung in the Duke's oratory (a small chapel for private worship) at his palace in Brussels. In the eighteenth century it belonged to the Austrian Emperor Joseph II who gave it to one of his councillors. In 1846 it was bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, father of Sir Richard Wallace, for the considerable sum of 2,660 guineas (£2,793).

Also in this gallery may be seen (opposite) another of Rubens's religious paintings, Christ's Charge to Peter, and (in the centre of this wall) his greatest landscape painting, The Rainbow Landscape. A superb group of six oil sketches by the artist hangs in East Gallery I, also on this floor.