Rubens House shows Massacre of the Innocents and Head of the Apostle Matthew, two masterpieces by the young Rubens and Van Dyck, as part of Antwerp Baroque 2018

The Rubens House is showing two unique loaned works this autumn: The Massacre of the Innocents, an early masterpiece by Rubens (1577–1640) and the most expensive Rubens ever, will be on temporary display at the museum from 26 September. An outstanding early work by Rubens’ most talented pupil, Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), will also be on show. The Head of the Apostle Matthew has been provided on permanent loan by the King Baudouin Foundation – the only composition from the famous Böhler series displayed in a Belgian public collection.

As part of the second series of exhibitions marking the city cultural festival ‘Antwerp Baroque 2018: Rubens inspires’, the Rubens House is unveiling two unique loans. The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is lending the museum The Massacre of the Innocents, a tumultuous composition full of drama and violence, in which the young Rubens presents his credentials as an accomplished pictor doctus. The Rubens House is also showing an early masterpiece by Anthony van Dyck, who painted a Rubens-influenced Apostle cycle, known as the Böhler series, which is now dispersed all over the world. The King Baudouin Foundation recently acquired the painting of St Matthew from this series through a bequest and funded its restoration at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Brussels, where it underwent a revolutionary conservation treatment. The Foundation has now placed the work on permanent loan with the Rubens House, where it will be the only composition from the celebrated Böhler series on display in a Belgian public collection.

Rubens: drama and violence

Rubens’ monumental Massacre of the Innocents – one of The Art Gallery of Ontario’s most outstanding exhibits – has temporarily returned home. The painting is an early work by Rubens and swiftly entered a succession of prestigious collections. Having been wrongly attributed to a variety of masters since the eighteenth century, experts clearly identified Rubens’ hand in the Baroque formal idiom in 2001. The discovery of a Rubens previously believed lost was international news and the work was put up for sale. It was auctioned at Sotheby’s in London in 2002 for the record amount of £ 49.5 million – the highest price at that point to be paid for an old master. The Massacre of the Innocents was purchased by the Canadian businessman and collector Ken Thomson, who donated it to The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The painting has not travelled since 2008 and is still the most expensive ever painting by Rubens.

Bible scene

The work presents a scene from the Bible. Following the Nativity of Jesus, King Herod learns that a new king has been born in Bethlehem and, fearing for his power, he orders the killing of all boys aged two or younger. To spare their child this horrific fate, Jesus’ parents flee to Egypt with the infant. The ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ was a popular theme in painting. It was depicted especially frequently during the Renaissance, when artists developed a fascination for Antiquity.

References to Antiquity and the Renaissance

Rubens painted his version of the episode around 1610; shortly after returning from Italy. The work is packed with drama and violence, while the numerous allusions to Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance enabled the young artist to present his credentials as an accomplished pictor doctus. He took inspiration for the crouching mother, for instance, from the antique nude Venus in the Gonzaga family collection in Mantua, where he had been able to study it as court painter. The soldier in the centre of the composition, meanwhile, who is about to stab an old woman with his sword, is borrowed from The Wrestlers, a sculpture Rubens saw at the Villa Medici in Rome. His comrade, whose eyes are clawed at by the semi-nude young woman, is based in turn on the celebrated Laocoön group, which Rubens sketched in 1602 during his visit to the papal collections in the Vatican. The deathly pale corpses of the murdered children strongly resemble the marble sculpture of three sleeping putti that Rubens saw at the Villa Borghese in Rome. References to the Italian Renaissance are also clearly visible: Rubens drew on the figure of Christ in Michelangelo’s Resurrection, for example, for the soldier on the right who is about to dash a child against the stonework. However, unlike Michelangelo’s Christ, who conquers death, Rubens’ soldier is its cause. The most famous and certainly the most widespread representation of the Massacre of the Innocents was probably Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving after a design by Raphael. Compared with the latter’s graceful composition, Rubens’ interpretation is more powerful, true to life, and hence considerably more gruesome. Rubens also appears to have looked at examples in Antwerp: the diagonal composition of the architecture in the background, for instance, shows similarities with a composition by the Antwerp master Frans Floris.

Van Dyck: power and contemplation

Courtesy of the King Baudouin Foundation, the Rubens House is also showing an early work by Anthony van Dyck, representing the Apostle Matthew as a powerful yet contemplative male figure. The panel, part of a series of Apostle paintings, was recently acquired by the King Baudouin Foundation through a bequest and is the only Van Dyck Apostle still in Belgium. Having funded the restoration of this deftly executed Apostle’s head at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Brussels, the Foundation has now placed it on permanent loan at the Rubens House. The action firmly reflects its mission to preserve, protect and valorize important works from the nation’s cultural heritage and to make them accessible to the public.

Fluid brushwork

Van Dyck shows Matthew holding a halberd, the weapon with which the Apostle was martyred. He has modelled the figure with fluid brushwork that creates an even painted surface in which only the occasional stroke can be made out clearly, most notably in the hair in the cloak. He then applied the highlights with broad and exceptionally thick strokes – an impasto that is readily visible in the Apostle’s hand and face. The most striking examples, however, are the thick streaks of white paint on Matthew’s white shirt and along his halberd.

Inspiration from Rubens

The young Van Dyck might have drawn the immediate inspiration for his Apostles from Rubens, who had already painted an Apostle series for the Duke of Lerma around 1610. Van Dyck must have seen these examples in his mentor’s studio. It is thought that he painted his own series with Christ and the Apostles between 1618 and 1620: the style is in keeping with his works from his so-called first Antwerp period.

Böhler series

The King Baudouin Foundation’s Apostle Matthew is part of the ‘Böhler series’, named for the German art dealer Julius Böhler, who acquired it from an Italian private collection in around 1914. Böhler then sold the series on to various private individuals and museums. The Matthew composition is the only example of a Van Dyck Apostle in Belgium. Eight of the thirteen compositions in the series have survived, some of which are privately owned.

Seventh permanent loan from the King Baudouin Foundation

This latest permanent loan is the seventh occasion on which the King Baudouin Foundation has enriched the Rubens House collection. Previous loans of this kind include the decorative silver jug and dish by Theodoor Rogiers, Lucas Faydherbe’s Hercules, the De Ganay manuscript to Peter Paul Rubens and two paintings by Jacob Jordaens. They underline the Foundation’s mission to preserve and protect our heritage and make it accessible to the general public. In the case of the Van Dyck panel, this protection is two-fold: not only did the Foundation purchase the work, it has also funded its analysis and much-needed restoration at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Brussels.

Revolutionary conservation treatment

The first step at KIK-IRPA was to clean the panel, following which the yellowed varnish layer and areas of overpainting were removed. Cracks were repaired and losses in the paint layer filled. Technical examination confirmed something that can also be seen with the naked eye: Van Dyck did not paint the vertical strip on the left. Not only this work, but all those making up the Böhler series have been enlarged in the past. The main problem that needed to be addressed, however, was the panel’s wooden support, which has suffered woodworm damage. The old cradle had to be removed and replaced with a new system, to which end the wafer-thin panel was given a secondary flexibly attached support. This revolutionary restoration technique is based on a mathematical formula that provides exactly the necessary support without interfering with the panel’s natural expansion and shrinkage. The cradle on the rear is now a movable wooden slatted construction that functions as a flexible back, giving the panel greater freedom of movement. It is constructed from Sitka spruce – a type of wood with high elasticity that is also used in the aviation sector. The restorer Aline Genbrugge learned the technique from its developers, Simon Bobak and Ray Marchant, in London. This is the first time the method has been used in Belgium.


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Practical details

The Massacre of the Innocents: most expensive Rubens ever

26 September 2018 – 3 March 2019

Head of the Apostle Matthew: permanent loan


Rubens House

Wapper 9–11

B-2000 Antwerp

€ 10.00 / € 8.00 / free

Open Tuesday to Sunday/10 am–5 pm.

Closed Mondays, 1 November, 25 December and 1 January.

Nadia De Vree

Press coordinator, Museums of Antwerp

About Rubenshuis

The master lived here in this house with his family for years and painted with his colleagues and assistants in a studio that he designed himself. He created many of his paintings in this house, in the centre of Antwerp.