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Old January 7th, 2017, 01:14 PM   #1

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Rubens' religion


Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a Catholic, but when he produced his painting of the Holy Family's 'Return from Egypt', (painted in 1614), he seemed to show Mary as pregnant with another child. Didn't this contravene Catholic teaching about the perpetual virginity of Mary? What's the explanation for this? What response or censure (if any) did his painting receive?

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Old January 7th, 2017, 03:43 PM   #2
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Well, first of all, I don't know for sure, but, I remember from studying Vermeer that the women in these Dutch/Flemish paintings around this time appeared pregnant but, possibly, were not. Apparently, it was part of the style.

Yeah, to me she looks pregnant but, if we can transfer some of the scholarship on Vermeer's paintings to Ruben, which is plausible with my limited knowledge due to the regional proximity of the two painters, then, she may not be pregnant after all.
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Old January 7th, 2017, 04:13 PM   #3

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Well, first of all, I don't know for sure, but, I remember from studying Vermeer that the women in these Dutch/Flemish paintings around this time appeared pregnant but, possibly, were not. Apparently, it was part of the style.

Yeah, to me she looks pregnant but, if we can transfer some of the scholarship on Vermeer's paintings to Ruben, which is plausible with my limited knowledge due to the regional proximity of the two painters, then, she may not be pregnant after all.
It actually reminds of the famous Van Ecke bedroom scene;

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There has been debate over whether the female's apparent pregnancy is real or just a reflection of the female fashion at the time. But the Van Eycke was painted nearly 200 years before the Rubens. I'm not aware of the same fashion appearing in Vermeer's work, unless you mean the Woman in Blue?

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Some have suggested that here, too, the woman is just fashionably dressed to appear pregnant.

Personally the arguments against pregnancy being depicted in these two pictures do not convince me. And even if pseudo-pregnancy were a female fashion (one that stretched over 250 years? - really?) was there any contemporary comments about Rubens' Virgin Mary looking 'fashionably pregnant'?

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Old January 7th, 2017, 04:27 PM   #4
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I remember the issue in regard to Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance.

There is some scholarship on this issue. Let me root around the net for awhile to see if I can find it.
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Old January 7th, 2017, 06:59 PM   #5
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Although to modern viewers it seems quite obvious that the young woman is pregnant, there exist sound reason to believe this it not the case. Marieke de Winkel, an expert of the history of costume, offers substantial evidence in regards in her essay, "The Interpretation of Dress in Vermeer's Paintings." According to De Winkel, pregnancy "was not a common subject in art and there are very few depictions of maternity wear. Even in religious paintings such as the Visitation, where depictions of pregnant women is required, the bodies of the Virgin and Saint Elizabeth were usually completely concealed by draperies." De Winkel further argues that "to my knowledge there are no examples of pregnant women in Dutch portraiture, an interesting fact considering that many women were painted in their first year of marriage, a time when they could have been with child."

Arthur Wheelock also believes that the young woman is not pregnant but for a different reason. He observes from numerous paintings by Vermeer's contemporaries, that Dutch fashions in the mid-17th century seemed to have encouraged a bulky silhouette. The impression of the short jacket worn over a thickly padded skirt in Vermeer's painting in particular may create just such an impression.
WOMAN HOLDING A BALANCE by Johannes Vermeer

Well, it is a concatenation of views on the subject. Wheelock has the particular viewpoint that I had in mind. Of course, these are comments on Vermeer's work and not on Ruben's Return from Egypt so it is just a notion at this point.

If we go back to your original question, I really don't have an answer other than she was not pregnant. Which is, a viewpoint that I will readily admit as inconclusive given the facts in play.

If Rubens meant to portray Mary as pregnant then it really does not make any sense given the Catholic Church's doctrine of perpetual virginity. It is de fide for Catholics and would have been de fide for Ruben at this time.

I had a couple of thoughts in regard to this period being the counter-reformation and even perhaps something to do with the translation of Mary being a young girl versus a virgin. However, those are just grasping at straws and make zero sense to me given the Catholic doctrine at this time.
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Old January 8th, 2017, 10:49 AM   #6

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Cepheus, thanks for the article. The argument seems to be teleological - pregnant women were not painted, therefore these women are not pregnant, therefore they just look pregnant, and the evidence for this is that pregnant women were not painted, therefore these women cannot be pregnant, and just look pregnant because.....etc, etc.

Any idea where de Winkel's work can be found online? And, of course, if the Virgin Mary was not portrayed as pregnant even when you would expect it, then Rubens' painting is even more controversial for its time.
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Old January 8th, 2017, 11:30 AM   #7
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Cepheus, thanks for the article. The argument seems to be teleological - pregnant women were not painted, therefore these women are not pregnant, therefore they just look pregnant, and the evidence for this is that pregnant women were not painted, therefore these women cannot be pregnant, and just look pregnant because.....etc, etc.

Any idea where de Winkel's work can be found online? And, of course, if the Virgin Mary was not portrayed as pregnant even when you would expect it, then Rubens' painting is even more controversial for its time.
You are welcome.

Here is de Winkle on Google books:
https://books.google.com/books?id=WE...page&q&f=false

I did a quick search for Arthur Wheelock. His book is mentioned but not available for viewing, or, at least I could not find it.

Also, I found an author opposing Wheelock's POV by Julia Kristeva (she has a reference to Wheelock's comments on this ,see #28, but the preview of the book did not allow me to see it):
https://books.google.com/books?id=-s...0women&f=false

All three of the authors here have works on Amazon BTW.

I agree with you on the teleological aspect of De Winkel's view. I found her view suggestive, but not convincing. I think the more substantive argument to be Wheelock's view that it was the style.

However, if we are talking about style, what are the constituent elements of the materials that are causing the bulkiness in the apparel? I would need a positive explanation of how the ensemble was put together to make it look the way it does before I could consider his view to be conclusive.

I googled 17th Flemish fashions for women and did see some styles that approximated the bulkiness here: however, I found many imagines of women dress in this period that did NOT resemble this bulkiness. I certainly did not see enough images from my google search to suggest that this "pregnant look" was a pervasive fashion style of this period for Flemish / Dutch women.
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Old January 8th, 2017, 12:08 PM   #8

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Originally Posted by Moros View Post
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a Catholic, but when he produced his painting of the Holy Family's 'Return from Egypt', (painted in 1614), he seemed to show Mary as pregnant with another child. Didn't this contravene Catholic teaching about the perpetual virginity of Mary? What's the explanation for this? What response or censure (if any) did his painting receive?

Click the image to open in full size.
I'm sure a few eyebrows were raised over this painting.

Although it should be recognized that Rubens had a fondness for 'healthy' models.

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Here is his The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist

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Old January 8th, 2017, 12:38 PM   #9

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I certainly don't know much about art, but both women above are painted holding fabric in a way that makes them look regnant. So it could be a sort of mask - in a way, a guy says "goodness gracious me, this woman is pregant!" and since it was a no no, the painter could say she's just holding the skirt, dress, peace of clothing in such a manner. Perhaps it was fashionable to walk around like this, you know, like the Romans and their togas wrapped around their arms. I don't know, don't lynch me for it ...
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Old January 8th, 2017, 12:59 PM   #10

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I certainly don't know much about art, but both women above are painted holding fabric in a way that makes them look regnant. So it could be a sort of mask - in a way, a guy says "goodness gracious me, this woman is pregant!" and since it was a no no, the painter could say she's just holding the skirt, dress, peace of clothing in such a manner. Perhaps it was fashionable to walk around like this, you know, like the Romans and their togas wrapped around their arms. I don't know, don't lynch me for it ...
I think that it's likely that the women that Rubens painted were padded enough with fat around the stomach and thighs that they looked like they had a 'baby bump'.

Rubens 1577-1640 was painting during the latter half of the Protestant Reformation 1517-1648 so who knows.
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