The Four Evangelists
by Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish 1577-1640
SN 213 Oil on Canvas c1625

by Robert Anderson

Peter Paul Rubens, was one of the greatest artists of the 17th century. His canvases can be said to define the scope and style of high baroque painting through their energy, earthy humanity and inventiveness. A devoutly religious man, a man of learning and a connoisseur of art and antiquities, he was also a man of the world who succeeded not only as an artist but as a respected diplomat in the service of Isabella and Albrecht of the Spanish Netherlands.

Travels to Venice where he studied Titian, Veronese & Tintoretto freed his artistic talent from rigid classicism. While he did incorporate copies of classical statues in his paintings he always avoided the appearance and coldness of stone. To the contrary, his nudes, for which he became famous, always depicted an ample female form of vitality and good health as well as of sensuousness.

His mastery of color along with his knowledge of antiquity is seen particularly in his mythological paintings. As court painter and confidant to the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Rubens recognized the role art was to play in the Counter Reformation. His genius found expression in his designs for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestries which he and his assistants completed between 1625 and 1628.

Knighted by two monarchs and master of a successful workshop, Rubens became rich and famous in his own time. Having executed over 3,000 paintings, woodcuts and engravings of all types, he died the most respected artist of his time in 1640.

This painting presents the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - authors of the first four books of the New Testament - the Gospels. These Evangelists are often symbolically represented by four winged creatures: Matthew, a man; Mark, a lion; Luke, an Ox; and John, an Eagle.

The man represents Matthew because it is his gospel that begins with the tree of the ancestors of Christ. Mark opens with the voice crying in the wilderness, an allusion to the lion. The Ox, the sacrificial beast, is Luke whose gospel begins with the account of the sacrifice of Zacharias. The eagle, of all birds the one that flies nearest to heaven, represents John whose vision of God was closest and distinct from the others.

In this painting the idea of baroque theatre is reinforced by the way that Rubens has suggested that the Evangelists are walking across the stage apron, entering from stage left and exiting from stage right. The processional quality of the Evangelists is enhanced by the positioning of their heads, John to the right in red is full face, Matthew in black is seen in profile, Mark in a beautiful gold cloak is seen from the rear and Luke again is full face.

The concept of Divine Inspiration is given center stage with the Angel of St. Matthew gesturing toward heaven and pointing to the book that he holds. The Eagle of St. John swoops down from the fly space above the poscenium to our right, while the Bull of St Luke and St. Mark's Lion exit off stage to our left. The dolphin, shell and cornucopia that decorate the face of the stage apron are symbolic of the widespread influence of the Four Evangelists across the earth and the seas.

Historical Context:
The cycle of eleven paintings of The Triumph of the Eucharist was commissioned by the Archduchess Isabella who was the daughter of Philip II of Spain and the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands. It was planned as a gift for the convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid in 1625 where it still hangs today. This Franciscan Order of Poor Clares was one with which Isabella was closely associated.

The series is a mixture of allegory and religious propaganda intended to promote the worship of the Eucharist (ie the bread and wine consecrated as the body and blood of Christ and distributed at communion) which had been strengthened recently by the Council of Trent and which constituted an important element in Counter Reformation Catholicism.

This was a time of great concern on the part of the Catholic church as it attempted to correct not only the abuses of the clergy but also to reaffirm its tenets / dogma in the face of attacks by the Protestant Reformation.