Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard XIII (3)

Subjects from history

The Constantine Series

Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard XIII (3) 
Subject from history 
III. The Constantine series
Koenraad Brosens 
translated from the Dutch by Beverley Jackson
Turnhout : Brepols, 2011. 
ISBN: 978-1-905375-86-8 
400 pp., ill. 


The Constantine Series

In 1622 Rubens designed a second series of tapestries depicting episodes from the life of the Emperor Constantine. For this series he made twelve oil sketches, which are currently dispersed among public and private collections in the United States and Europe. The cartoons for the tapestries, which have not survived, were based on Rubens’s oil sketches. The tapestries themselves were woven in workshops in the Parisian suburbs of Saint Marcel and Saint Germain.

On the basis of new archival research and a critical study of the literature, The Constantine Series discusses the genesis and the iconographical and stylistic features of the series, placing these in their artistic and commercial context as well as commenting on the specific situation in which the work was carried out. The result is the first comprehensive study of this series. Brosens’s analysis of the business strategy of Marc Comans and François de la Planche, the directors of the workshop in Saint Marcel, the correspondence between Rubens and Peiresc, the provenance of the twelve oil sketches and the iconographic program leads him to conclude that the tapestry series was not commissioned by King Louis XIII of France, as previously believed, but by Comans and De la Planche themselves.

Close study of Rubens’s literary source for the series, Annales Ecclesiastici van Caesar Baronius, also reveals that the artist conceived the tapestries to hang in a different order than is generally assumed. Finally, Brosens discusses in depth the tension between the austere monumentality of the images and their highly sophisticated aesthetic characteristics. This is linked to Rubens’s profound knowledge of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, his earlier attempts to approach these sources more freely and creatively, other contemporary tapestry series produced in France and Brussels, and the pictorial and decorative qualities, possibilities and challenges inherent to the medium.