Peter Paul Rubens
Saint Theresa of Avila
Oil on panel. 80 x 54 cm.
The present painting forms part of an important group of commissions placed with Rubens by the Catholic Order of the Discalced Carmelites in the early 1600s. Called so for renouncing the wearing of shoes, the religious order originated in Spain and followed the reforms suggested by Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-82). They greatly expanded their activities in the Southern Netherlands around this time. Teresa of Ávila was a Spanish mystic and nun who reformed the Carmelite Order and was highly influential during the Spanish Renaissance. She was beatified in 1614, an event which was celebrated in works of art such as the present panel.
In addition to two major altarpieces representing St. Teresa for the convents of Brussels and house of Antwerp, Rubens and his studio were commissioned to paint numerous smaller devotional images with her effigy. The present painting is amongst three to depict an intimate spiritual composition showing Saint Teresa during her vision of a miraculous dove, which she describes in chapter 30 of her autobiography, the “Libro de su vida”. The saint is represented wearing the black, white and brown garments of her order. She is shown on her knees entranced in devotion before the apparition of a mystical dove.
The work, previously known to scholars from old photographs, has only recently re-emerged. Of the three variants of this composition, this is the smallest and most intimate. The removal of the yellowed varnish and old retouchings has revealed a work of fine autograph quality, and the painting was subsequently requested for loan by the Rubenshuis Museum in Antwerp from 2014 to 2016. Along with another variant in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, it is considered of the finest quality. The third composition exists in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam and was commissioned by Archduchess Isabella of Austria for the Carmelite convent in Brussels. It is by far the weakest in quality, yet the circumstances of its commission leave little doubt that it was produced in Rubens' workshop.
It is most likely that Rubens worked up the present painting and the Fitzwilliam version side by side - the one providing the model for the other. In light of Teresa's beatification in 1614, the demand for two autograph variants (as well as the third substantially workshop production in Rotterdam) is unsurprising, and also consistent with Rubens' frequent practice in the 1610s. A dendrochronological examination of the panel has revealed a date around 1598 for the tree used, and is consistent with an execution date of circa 1614.
Ben van Beneden has confirmed the attribution to Sir Peter Paul Rubens following his first hand inspection of the painting.
Ben van Beneden, 6. February 2016.
Christie´s, London, 18. July 1952, lot 134. - Frank Sabin collection, London. - Christie´s, London, 2013 (as workshop).
Reference literature: Michael Jaffe: Rubens. Catálogo Completo, Milan 1989, p. 209, no. 321 and p. 202-203, no. 288c. - Hans Vlieghe: Corpus Rubeninanum Ludwig Burchard, 1974, part VIII, Saints II, p. 163-164, no. 153.
Museum Rubenshuis, Antwerp, as Peter Paul Rubens.