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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Peter Paul Rubens - The Banqueting Hall and his diplomatic mission in England


Peter Paul Rubens and Inigo Jones, The Banqueting Hall, interior

One of the most majestic artworks in London is a series of nine oil paintings extended over an area of 222 m2, created by Sir Peter Paul Rubens and commissioned by Charles I for the Banqueting Hall. This is the only work of the artist to be preserved in the same place where it was created for.

The Banqueting Hall was a Presence Chamber, where the King used to receive ambassadors and holds ceremonies, grand theatrical performances, balls and grand feasts.

The building was inside a complex of buildings that formed the Whitehall, the English Royal Palace, started in the medieval period and renovated and enlarged by Henry VIII, becoming one of the biggest Royal Palace in Europe. The first Banqueting Hall was built by Queen Elizabeth I and it was a wooden structure, meant to be temporary, but with the rise to the throne of James I and his wife Ann of Denmark, that was the necessity to have a permanent structure as the new royals loved to hold masquerade balls and theatre performances with mechanical and complex sceneries.

The first Banqueting Hall, designed by Robert Stickells for James I, burned down in 1619, after scenery caught fire by candles in New Year Eve.

The king was not at all sorry because he was disappointed by Stickells’ design that looks like a forest of columns supporting a gallery and blocking much of the audiences’ view so he decided to commission a new one to the architect Inigo Jones.

Inigo Jones, The Banqueting Hall, exterior

Between 1619 and 1622, Jones created a building in a classic style, taking inspiration by the works of Palladio, and by the Ancient Roman and Renaissance architectures that he saw in his journey in Italy.

The Banqueting Hall was built in an enormous and unique hall, with the dimensions of a double cube as in the basilica, resting on top of a vaulted Undercroft decorated with shells and designated as a private place for James I and his male favourites.

In 1621, Rubens concluded one of his masterpieces the decoration of the Jesuit Church in Antwerp.

Rubens was considered the most important painter outside Italy.

In 1608, he returned in Antwerp and he was appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella on 23 September 1609 and, as an exception to move to the court in Brussels he was granted to base himself and his studio in Antwerp.

In addition, he was permitted to teach and paint as he wished without being subject to guild regulations and to receive private commissions.

Rubens learnt everything that he could in Italy and he was specialised, differently from the other Flemish painters, in very large works for altarpieces and noble houses.

After the success, he obtained with the Jesuit church in Antwerp, Rubens started to desire more commissions from the European Courts and for this reason he wrote a letter to the English Ambassador of James I: “I confess that I am, by natural instinct, better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities”.

The contact didn’t bring any commissions and Rubens move to the French Court.

Rubens was a well-educated person, fluent in five different languages, he was a refine negotiator who knew the European Courts and the noble families for this reason he was often employed by the Flemish Court as polished diplomat.

He was sent to Paris to realise an allegorical series for the Queen mother Henrietta Marie de' Medici in the Luxembourg Palace. He ended the work just in time for the wedding of Henrietta Maria of France with Charles I of England, son of James I. During the celebrations, he met the powerful Duke of Buckingham, a favourite of James I, for whom he painted a portrait and an allegorical painting for his premises, York House, where he displayed one of the richest art collections of England.

In 1629, the Archduchess Isabella decided to send Rubens to London to try to obtain an alliance between Spain and England to defend the Spanish Netherlands against the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.

He was playing a diplomatic role that has to prepare the field for the entry of the diplomatic delegation.

Rubens arrived in London on the 5th June 1629 and he was welcomed by the new King Charles I and he was host in York House, that was empty after the sad death of the Duke of Buckingham.

In the seven months in waiting for the diplomatic delegation, Rubens visited several cities around London, he get really fascinated by English countryside and he accepted various private commissions.

In January when the Spanish Ambassador arrived, Rubens decided to offer before to left a gift to Charles I, the painting the Allegory of the Blessing Peace, an allegorical work to induce England to make peace with Spain.

Peter Paul Rubens, Allegory of the Blessing Peace,1629-30 National Gallery, London

The painting underlines the benefits of Peace in contrast with the one of war. Minerva, goddess of wisdom, is pushing away Mars, god of war and his companion the Fury and protecting the group and a young girl who represented Peace, symbol of prosperity. Around Peace there are the followers of Bacchus and a Faun who are celebrating the joy of peace.

The overall message is clear and chimes with Rubens’s mission: rejecting war and embracing peace will bring prosperity and plenty. The mission ultimately bore fruit. Rubens returned to Antwerp in March 1630, having been knighted by Charles, and a peace treaty between England and Spain was signed in November.

Charles I, a great collector of art, was delighted by this painting that placed in one of the main rooms in Whitehall and after that he decided to commission to Rubens the ceiling decoration of the Banqueting Hall, place that has to commemorate the memory of his father, James I, who died in 1625.

Paolo Caliari known as the Veronese, The Council Chamber of the Doge’s Palace, 1579-80, Venice

Rubens met the king’s architect Inigo Jones to discuss the commission and both agreed to use as a model that both had seen in Venice: The Council Chamber of the Doge’s Palace by Paolo Caliari known as the Veronese, place to receive foreign delegations and organizing and coordinating the work of the Venetian Senate.

Rubens realised some sketches to be approved by a special commission and after that he left for Antwerp where he painted with his pupils the nine canvases commissioned.

Three of the biggest canvas were painted in the rooms of the Antwerp Exchange and in the nearby Refectory in the Carmelite monastery because their big dimensions were not suitable in his studio.

Another problem to solve was to create the right prospective vision of the works as they have to be seen in a distance of 60 metres with precise angle of visualisation.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, @ Royal Collection Trust

Entering in the Banqueting Hall the first work that you can see is The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, 762 x 549 cm.

After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, took the throne James IV of Scotland and I of England, who unified the two kingdoms. James I, crowned and in State robes, holding the orb in his left hand, leans forward as if in judgement from his throne, with a gesture as of acceptance towards two female figures as England and Scotland with a naked child, symbolising the newly-born union between his northern and southern kingdoms. The child is supported on either side by the figures of England and Scotland, while above his head Britannia in the guise of Minerva holds his joined crowns of the two nations united under the Stuart dynasty. It is a political and religious image to strengthen the Anglicanism.

Close to this painting there are two ovals. The first is depicting Minerva, or Wisdom striking Ignorance (549 x 239 cm).

The helmeted Minerva, or Wisdom strikes Ignorance with her spear; an owl in the upper background carrying a laurel wreath. In the other oval Heroic Virtue crushes Envy (549 x 239 cm) Heroic Virtue, in the guise of Hercules, with a club, attacks a twisted female figure representing Envy or Discord, with snakes in her hair.

In the central section follows the climax of the decorative ceiling The Apotheosis of James I (975 x 625 cm).

Peter Paul Rubens, The Apotheosis of James I, @ Royal Collection Trust

James I, with one foot on an eagle and the other on the imperial globe, is about to be raised to the heavens, by the female figure of Justice as the reward for his earthly labours. To his right two female figures probably symbolise Religion (with flaming urn) and Scriptural Truth (with book).

The King's symbols of earthly majesty, the crown and orb, are borne away by cherubs, while other cherubs hold the palm of peace and announce with a fanfare the impending royal ascension.

At the top of the composition flying figures bear the symbols of Mercury (the conductor of the dead in classical mythology) and hold out a laurel wreath, to which the eyes of the King are raised in anticipation. To the left flies the winged female figure of Victory.

On the side of this oval there are two rectangular panels with cherubs, animals and fruit garlands.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Wise Rule of James I, @ Royal Collection Trust

The last canvas is The Wise Rule of James I (762 x 549 cm). High on a massive throne, James I looks down on a turbulent scene in which Wisdom, represented as Minerva, with helmet, Medusa with shield and thunderbolt, defends the throne against War, shown as Mars with a firebrand, trampling on the King's enemies, while Mercury (on the left) points to the nether regions as their destination.

The King, with a sweeping gesture, indicates Peace embracing the seated figure of Plenty, now free to enrich his subjects.

A cherub holds the royal crown and winged figures hold above the royal head the laurel wreath of victory.

The King is enthroned against a background of twisted columns to remember that he is the new Solomon, a justice keeper.

The last two ovals of the decoration are Reason and Intemperate Discord, and Abundance and Avarice.

In the first oval the female figure of Reason, or Wise Government, holding a bridle in her hands, above the crumpled figure of Intemperate Discord. In the second one, the monumental female figure of Abundance swathed in red robes, with a brimming cornucopia, symbol of plenty, bestrides the bound figure of Avarice.

All the composition of the ceiling represents the conflicts mitigated by the virtues that greatest reign against vices following Aristotelian schemes.

The ceiling by Rubens and Jones celebrates a Protestant Monarchy in a style and architecture related with the Catholic and European Kingdoms.

Rubens ended the canvases in 1634 and sent them to England with some of his pupils.


Peter Paul Rubens, the ceiling of the Banqueting Hall

His pupils with the architect Inigo Jones unrolled the canvases in the Banqueting Hall and they all realised to have done a mistake in the measurement. Rubens and Jones agreed in a feet and inches measurements but they didn’t realise that they were different in Belgium and England.

The canvases were reduced and inserted in the white and gold frames.

Charles I was delighted by this work that celebrated his father and paid Rubens the amount of £3000, actual £218,000, a gold chain and he was appointed a Knight.

This celebrating ceiling was also the last thing that Charles I have seen in 1649 before his execution in the Banqueting Hall, after his defeat in the Civil War.

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