Exhibition Review: Baroque goes stained glass! Oil sketches for lost windows return to Antwerp.

The Phoebus Foundation’s “Behind the Scenes” exhibition is free to view in St Paul’s Church until 30 June 2022.

The exhibition is accompanied by a new book:

Stoning of St Paul and Scourging of St Paul: Designs by Abraham van Diepenbeeck (1596-1675) for a Series of Stained Glass Windows in St Paul’s Church in Antwerp. By Madeleine Manderyck, Jan Van Damme and Zsuzsanna van Ruyven-Zeman. Phoebus Focus, XXII. Antwerp: Hannibal Books, 2021. €22.50. ISBN 978 946388 799 1

Review by Dr Adam Sammut

Fig. 1 St Paul’s Antwerp, “Behind the Scenes” exhibition of the oil sketches (photo: Danny
Van Praet )

In the choir of St Paul’s, Antwerp are two oil sketches by Abraham van Diepenbeeck (1596-1675) belonging to The Phoebus Foundation (Figs 1 -3). Known as ‘Rubens’ most truthful follower, Van Diepenbeeck trained in ’s-Hertogenbosch as a stained-glass painter but went on to work as a painter and draftsman, designing prints and tapestries over the course of a long career. As identified by the authors of the new Phoebus Focus XXII, all members of the Corpus Vitrearum Belgium, the oil sketches depict the apostle Paul brutally stoned and scourged as described in the Acts of the Apostles. The sketches are designs for two out of ten stained-glass windows narrating the life of St Paul, commissioned in 1633 by the Dominican order whose church this used to be. They are important because all the windows, which were widely admired in seventeenth-century Europe as monumental backlit paintings, have since been sold off.

Fig. 2 Abraham van Diepenbeeck, The Scourging of St Paul (oil sketch, second version), c.
1637. The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp (photo: © Christie’s Images Ltd. 2019)

My PhD thesis, “Rubens and the Dominican Church in Antwerp: Art and Political Economy in an Age of Religious Conflict” (University of York, 2021) discusses these sketches in the context of the rebuilding of the choir c. 1616-39. In the final chapter, I reconstruct the windows’ iconographic programme with reference to all the known oil sketches as well as drawings and tapestries that might have derived from them. The excellent Phoebus Focus book gives a fulsome account of the two sketches in the context of the church, Van Diepenbeeck’s career and the fate of stained-glass windows in Belgium after the French Revolution, showcasing important discoveries including visual material and archival documents. Incorporating some of the Corpus Vitrearum’s new insights, I hereby summarise what is known about Van Diepenbeeck’s windows.

Fig. 3 Abraham van Diepenbeeck, The Stoning of St Paul (oil sketch, second version), c.
1637. Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp (photo: © Koller Auctions, Zurich)

In the eighteenth century, the glass panels were reported damaged. Since they could not be restored, the monastery apparently sold them to wealthy ‘Englishmen’ who were scouring Europe to furnish their estates. Their final destination is not known. Originally Van Diepenbeeck was commissioned to paint seventeen windows but according to eyewitness accounts, just ten along the choir were ever installed. The project took a long time to complete. On the basis of circumstantial evidence, I argue it was shaped by the artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and the learned former bishop of ’s-Hertogenbosch, Michael Ophovius (1571-1637), whose funeral effigy is to the right of the high altar. Above each window was the coat of arms of its respective donor, among whom counted a branch of the Houtappel family, Johannes Malderus the bishop of Antwerp (1563-1633) and Albert van den Bergh, who called himself the marquis of Bergen-op-Zoom. The windows brought colour and drama to St Paul’s now monochrome ecclesia fratrum while also articulating the order’s missionary ambitions as apostles to the “gentiles” i.e., the Protestant Dutch.

Information about the stained glass is fragmentary. As discussed in the Phoebus Focus book, two contracts are held by the FelixArchief but the windows’ iconographic sequence is nowhere laid out in full. Several windows on the south side are described in the antiquarian tome Verzameling der Graf- en Gedenkschriften van de Provincie Antwerpen (1873): the Conversion of Saul (Fig. 5), the Escape from Damascus, the Sacrifice at Lystra and the Stoning of St Paul. Missing from this sequence is the Baptism of Saul, a sketch for which was owned by the 2nd Viscount Palmerston until the nineteenth century. According to the Verzameling, the window depicting the Stoning of St Paul was adjacent to the high altar.

Fig. 4 Cover, Phoebus Focus XXII (photo: © The Phoebus Foundation)

Fig. 5 Abraham van Diepenbeeck, The Conversion of Saul (oil sketch, first version), c. 1633.
Stadtmuseum Neuburg an der Donau, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen (photo:
author)

The windows on the north side are absent from the historical record. Nevertheless, they can be reconstructed with reference to visual sources and likely iconographic precedents. The Scourging of St Paul surely stood opposite the Stoning, coming next in the Acts of the Apostles but also to reinforce the theme of Paul carrying Christ’s cross during his ministry (and ergo, Dominican friars during theirs). Then would have come St Paul in Prison, a sketch for which is recorded in the archives of Ludwig Burchard, as discovered by the Corpus Vitrearum (Fig. 6). It seems inconceivable that the Order of Preachers would exclude St Paul Preaching at Athens, having dedicated the high altar to the apostle partly because of his oratorical skills. A fine sketch, St Paul Healing a Young Man is held by Vassar College, which I went to Poughkeepsie to see (Fig. 7). The series probably ended with St Paul Shipwrecked on Malta, a drawing related to which used to belong to the Discalced Carmelites of Bruges.

Fig. 6 Abraham van Diepenbeeck, St Paul in Prison, c. 1637. Whereabouts unknown
(photo: Rubenianum Antwerp, Collectie Ludwig Burchard)

Fig. 7 Abraham van Diepenbeeck, St Paul Healing the Young Man (oil sketch), c. 1637. The
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie (purchase, Betsy Mudge
Wilson, class of 1956, Memorial Fund)

This small but fascinating exhibition draws attention to all the church has lost since the heyday of the Flemish Baroque, which went beyond just paintings. The Phoebus Foundation’s two sketches show the clear influence of Rubens, who also painted the high altarpiece Saints Dominic and Francis Saving the World from the Wrath of Christ (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon). A comparison with two previous versions of the Stoning and Scourging held by Schloss Ludwigsburg, Stuttgart (published in the Phoebus Focus book) shows evidence of Rubens teaching Van Diepenbeeck, his studio assistant, how to make design using the medium of the oil sketch which he had pioneered. While the Ludwigsburg sketches have heavy underdrawing and many pentimenti, the later Phoebus sketches are painted directly with oils. While the earlier sketches have fussy and cluttered compositions, the later ones are bolder and more monumental in scale.

Both the Pauline window cycle and its respective oil sketches established Van Diepenbeeck’s reputation as a painter in the Rubensian mode. It is remarkable that in 1638-39, he re-enrolled in the artists’ guild of St Luke as a painter, having previously claimed to have abandoned the profession in front of his fellow stained-glass painters. Oddly though, Van Diepenbeeck continued to accept commissions to design windows from Antwerp Cathedral and the local Minim convent into the 1640s. As the Phoebus Focus book argues, the windows were probably finished with the help of his compatriot Jan de Labaer (1603-68), who painted windows for the Soeten Naam confraternity in St Paul’s earlier the same decade. The sketches were collected avidly by the likes of Padre Resta and other connoisseurs because they were made as works of art in their own right as well as “mock-ups” for the satisfaction of the monastery.

Van Diepenbeeck’s sketches, while generally small and narrow, are not uniform in format. One distinguishing feature is the grid lines incised into many of the panels, which denote how the design would fit into a mullion support. Oil sketches for the following scenes are still to be discovered: The Baptism of Saul, The Escape from Damascus, The Sacrifice at Lystra, St Paul Preaching at Athens and St Paul on Malta. 

As for the stained-glass windows themselves, they could still be somewhere in the British Isles. As well as churches, they might also adorn secular settings like country houses. Indeed, furniture from St Paul’s sold off in the 1630s today graces The Gallery in Adare Manor, one of Ireland’s most luxurious hotels. 

It would be very exciting to discover what remains of these fantastic windows. Any enquiries or information, please contact [email protected].

Dr. Adam Sammut is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of History of Art, University of York. Rubens and the Dominican Church in Antwerp is under contract with Brill, Leiden for publication in 2022.

Comments are closed.