06 January 2014

Art for Christmas (13): ‘The Adoration
of the Magi’ by Peter Paul Rubens

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

Patrick Comerford

This Christmas season comes to a close today [6 January 2014] with the Feast of the Epiphany. The readings for today in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; and Matthew 2: 1-12.

My choice of work of Art for Christmas this morning is The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1644). This version of the painting can be seen above the altar in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.

Rubens was a Flemish baroque painter, and worked in an extravagant Baroque style that emphasised movement, colour, and sensuality. Although born a Calvinist in Germany, he is well known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, as well as his portraits, landscapes, and historical paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects.

As well as running a large studio in Antwerp, he was a classically educated humanist scholar and diplomat who was knighted by both King Philip IV of Spain and King Charles I of England.

Rubens painted The Adoration of the Magi, recounted in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 2: 1-12), more often than any other episode in the life of Christ. The theme offered Rubens, as a supporter of the Counter-Reformation, the opportunity to depict the richest worldly panoply, rich textiles, exotic turbans and a range of human types caught up in a dramatic action that express the humbling of the world before the Church, represented by the Madonna and Christ Child.

This version of The Adoration of the Magi was originally painted by Rubens in 1634 for the Convent of the White Nuns at Louvain in Belgium. It measures 4.2 metres high by 3.2 metres wide.

The three magi are full-length figures backed by a frieze-like crowd. The oldest magus kneels to kiss the foot of the Christ Child with a tender gesture, as the Child, who is pushed forward by the Virgin Mary, appears to offer a blessing with his right hand.

The property millionaire and racehorse owner Major Alfred E. Allnatt (1889-1969) bought this version The Adoration of the Magi at Sotheby’s in 1959 for a then world-record price of £250,000 from the estate of the Duke of Westminster.

That year, Major Allnatt also bought Sandbrook House, a Queen Anne Irish country house near Ballon, on the borders of Co Carlow and Co Wicklow. His herd of Blonde d’Aquitaine cattle was among the top prize winners at agricultural shows throughout Britain and Ireland, including the RDS Spring Show in Dublin and the Royal Ulster Show.

Two years later, in 1961, Major Allnatt offered the painting to King’s College, Cambridge. King’s College accepted “this munificent gift” with the intention of displaying the painting in the chapel, possibly as an altarpiece.

The painting was initially displayed in the antechapel, but a significant group of the college’s fellows – including Michael Jaffé, future Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and a world expert on Rubens, and the Provost, Noel Annan – were determined to have the painting become the focal point of an entirely redesigned east end.

As the first stage of this project, the Edwardian reredos and the 17th century wood panelling in the chapel were removed and the painting was installed behind the altar in April 1964. The painting was so large that the raised floor of the chapel’s east end had had to be levelled to prevent the masterpiece obscuring the bottom of the Tudor east window. Yet the will of the founder of King’s College, King Henry VI, in 1448 required the steps and stated that the high altar should be raised three feet above the choir floor.

Rwenty fellows and the writer EM Forster, who was an honorary fellow, signed a letter urging the college to reverse its plan and to “admit that it has made a mistake.” Despite these protests, the floor was levelled and the newly refitted east end opened in 1968. By then, the painting had been removed from its original frame and was given blank wings to make a pseudo-triptych to give it a greater presence.

When the sanctuary floor was dug up, it was found to rest on Tudor brick arched vaults, which were then destroyed. Human remains were also found, with lead coffins dating back to the 15th century. These had to be removed so the floor could be lowered, but the workers refused to continue until this was done properly and a service held. Surprisingly, King’s College seems to have kept no records of the number and positions of these discoveries.

The alterations were highly controversial, with the Architects Journal criticising it as “motivated not by the demands of liturgical worship but by those of museum display.” In order to accommodate the painting, the former sanctuary was completely destroyed, the beautiful high altar, the three steps leading up to it, and the fine wooden communion rails were removed. Only the communion rail survives, but it now stands on either side of the sanctuary.

In June 1974, the painting was damaged by vandals who used a coin to scratch the initials “IRA” in 2-foot-high (0.61 m) letters across the front.

Sandbrook House is now a private country house hotel standing in the midst of 25 acres.

The Chapel of King’s College is one of the most popular tourists attractions in Cambridge, and is known throughout the world for the Christmas Eve Service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

The Feast of the Epiphany is being celebrated in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this evening with the Cathedral Eucharist at 6 p.m. The Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Dr Michael Jackson, is the celebrant. The cathedral choir returns this evening when, under the leadership of Organist and Director of Music, Ian Keatley, they sing Tomás Luis da Vitoria’s Missa O Magnum Mysterium. The communion motet is Magi veniunt ab oriente Jerosolimam, by Jacobus Clemens non Papa.

The cathedral website, under the heading ‘Christmas Isn’t Over Yet,’ currently says: “For some reflection on the season of Epiphany, when we celebrate the coming of the Magi and the Light to lighten the gentiles, please visit the Revd Canon Patrick Comerford’s blog here.”

King’s Parade, Cambridge, with the East End of the Chapel of King’s College on the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)


O God,
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
Mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the bright splendour whom the nations seek:
May we, who with the wise men
have been drawn by your light,
discern the glory of your presence in your incarnate Son;
who suffered, died, and was buried,
and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

Series concluded

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