A World in Turmoil

Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools Access Guide

War ravaged Europe in the late 1500s. The conflict between the Netherlands and Spain lasted from 1568 to 1648: almost a century of bloodshed, looting, and destruction. Determined to keep the wealthy northern territories under his authority, King Philip II of Spain sent his favorite daughter, the Infanta Isabella, and her husband, Archduke Albert, to govern the rebellious region.

The two used the Catholic faith in an attempt to glue their fragmented provinces back together. Painters like Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck understood better than anyone the role that the visual arts could play in this agenda. Their sensational and poetic paintings overwhelmed visitors and encouraged strong emotional reactions to religious scenes. They could sweep you up and even move you to tears.

Ultimately, none of this worked. In 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Eighty Years’ War, the Netherlands formally split in two. The northern region was recognized as Protestant and an independent republic, while the southern part remained Catholic under Spanish rule.

Ultimately, none of this worked. In 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Eighty Years’ War, the Netherlands formally split in two. The northern region was recognized as Protestant and an independent republic, while the southern part remained Catholic under Spanish rule.

Geluk en glas breken vlug

Fortune and glass break quickly

Anthony van Dyck
South Netherlandish, 1599–1641
Mary, the Christ Child, and Saint John
About 1627–30
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

When he painted this work, Anthony van Dyck was back in Antwerp, after sojourns in England and Italy. His moving religious images, such as this one, conveyed an emotional Catholicism meant to engage the viewer and, ultimately, solidify support for the devout Spanish officials.

Peter Paul Rubens
South Netherlandish, 1577–1640
A Sailor and a Woman Embracing
About 1615–18
Oil paint on panel
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image Credit Line: © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

In this scene, we see an ill-matched couple, a popular subject at the time. While the sailor’s intentions are clear, her half-smile introduces an element of ambiguity. Is she welcoming or resisting the advances of the man? Does she have an alternate motive? Regardless of the answer, the artist seems to revel in our puzzlement.

Jacob Jordaens
South Netherlandish, 1593–1678
Holy Family with an Angel
About 1625–26
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

111. Jacob Jordaens, Holy Family with an Angel, c. 1625

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Narrator: It’s the angel’s wing that gives the game away – this is no ordinary portrayal of a cherished new baby with his family. Well, maybe also the rosary beads, and the bunch of grapes symbolizing the Catholic Mass. So … this baby is the Christ Child, sitting on Mary’s lap as her husband Joseph beams down at him.

Katharina Van Cauteren: And look at his little hands - it's still touching, even after all these centuries.

Jacob Jordaens must have been a real loving family man. In this painting, he uses his wife and their young child as models for this very touching picture of the Holy Family. And as Jordaens was one of the most important painters in Antwerp, people no doubt knew - they recognized them. These are not faraway saints. They are just normal people like you and me. They even look at you as a viewer, as if to say, come and join us in our intimate moments of prayer.

In the 16th century, the Low Countries were torn apart due to this bitter religious conflict.

Narrator: The newly-emerging Protestant faith was gaining ground.

Katharina Van Cauteren: And art was supposed to bring them back to the good old Catholic faith. And empathy was crucial there - in this painting, Jordaens accomplishes this mission.

Jacob Jordaens
Flemish, 1593–1678
Serenade
About 1640–45
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

A group of musicians serenades a young woman. Jacob Jordaens has flipped a well-known proverb around. Usually the saying “as the old sing, so the young pipe” suggests that children follow their elders’ example. In Jordaens’s painting, however, the piping adults take their cue from the singing child.

The artist has also included himself. He’s the red-cheeked figure in the middle. The little boy in the foreground is Jordaens’s son, and the young woman is his wife or possibly his grown daughter.

Sebastiaen Vrancx
South Netherlandish, 1573–1647
The Battle of Leckerbeetje
About 1600
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Lieutenant Leckerbeetje (a cavalry officer in the service of the King of Spain) took aristocratic offense at a perceived slight by Pierre de Bréauté (a captain in the service of the Dutch Republic), and he decided to settle the matter through a mass duel, a kind not seen since the Middle Ages. Leckerbeetje was killed along with numerous comrades and enemies—a useless tragedy begun by a trivial insult.

Peter Paul Rubens
South Netherlandish, 1577–1640
The Adoration of the Magi
About 1606
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

112. Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Magi, c.1606

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Narrator: Peter Paul Rubens pulls drama, movement and emotion out of his toolkit to bring the story of the infant Christ and the Magi alive in this painting. Bright light beams down from above to draw our attention to Christ, who turns to meet his mother’s tender gaze. At his feet, the oldest of the Magi kneels, his eyes closed in silent adoration. The painting encourages viewers to feel the same way – emotionally moved, their Christian devotion strengthened.

Katharina Van Cauteren: It's such an overwhelming painting actually. It's so small, but it has such power.

Narrator: Rubens painted the scene around 1606, as a young artist in Italy. There, he learned how to create imagery that appealed to viewers’ feelings – but also conveyed compelling political and religious messages. Take those Magi -

Katharina Van Cauteren: They actually also embody the four continents, which is of course also a political and religious statement - Christianity is now everywhere in all four corners of the world. If you look at the little helper at the left, he represents America as a new continent.

Narrator: This ability to pack a painting with different layers of meaning appealed greatly to Rubens’s many royal patrons. Those included the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, who employed him as soon as he returned to Flanders from Italy.

Michaelina Wautier
South Netherlandish, 1604–1689
Everyone to His Taste
About 1650
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

There were few female painters in the 1600s, and their training was generally restricted to floral still lifes—a genre not deemed very important. Michaelina Wautier, however, overcame such strictures and painted portraits, mythological themes, and genre scenes. This painting of a boy trying to take away a boiled egg from another depicts the popular proverb “To each his fancy, but sharing is best.”

Anthony van Dyck
South Netherlandish, 1599–1641
Saint Sebastian
About 1627–32
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Saint Sebastian was a soldier in the Roman army. He converted to Christianity at a time when it was prohibited, and he was sentenced to death. Sebastian was shot with arrows, but according to the story, God intervened, and Sebastian miraculously survived. Notice the little angels: They look concerned, and their eyes are ringed with red from crying. As you look at this painting, you’re supposed to be swept up in the same way by the scene’s powerful sense of drama.

113. Anthony Van Dyck, Saint Sebastian, c. 1627-1632

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Narrator: Stuck with arrows by Roman torturers angered by his forbidden Christian faith, St Sebastian leans back against a tree. His body, recalling Christ’s taken down from the Cross, emerges from darkness, bathed in divine light. And his eyes seem to roll back as if he’s on the point of death.

It’s an incredibly theatrical presentation, made even more electrifying by the skill of the artist who painted it. Anthony Van Dyck, like Rubens, was a weapon for Flanders’ Catholic Archdukes to use in their fight against the spread of the Protestant Christianity. Protestantism threatened not just their faith, but ultimately their rule itself.

Katharina Van Cauteren: And of course, they cleverly start using art. So first of all, they give lots of commissions to artists like Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens because like no others, they knew how to overwhelm viewers, to touch them emotionally, by using these smart visual tricks. And I like comparing them to movie makers - they just push the pause button at the most crucial scene. And so you get the goosebumps like, ah, what's happening here, and look at this, and now what's next? So the result is that the archdukes they indeed do reestablish their power and centuries later, the core of the Archducal territory will evolve into present day Belgium.

Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools: 300 Years of Flemish Masterworks is co-organized by the Denver Art Museum and The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp (Belgium). It is presented by the Birnbaum Social Discourse Project. Support is provided by the Tom Taplin Jr. and Ted Taplin Endowment, Keith and Kathie Finger, Lisë Gander and Andy Main, the Kristin and Charles Lohmiller Exhibitions Fund, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Christie's, the donors to the Annual Fund Leadership Campaign, and the residents who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Promotional support is provided by 5280 Magazine and CBS Colorado.