Faith through Art: Saints witness mystical marriage in Belgium altarpiece

“Virgin and Christ Adored by Saints” was created by Peter Paul Rubens for St. Andrew Church in Antwerp, Belgium. (Photo from Moses Kimball Fund at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

By Norman Farmer
Columnist

The feasts of All Saints (Nov. 1) and St. Catherine of Alexandria (Nov. 25) are good reasons to reflect upon an extraordinary painting by Peter Paul Rubens, the greatest painter of the Catholic Counter-reformation, that brings both subjects together in a single massive 18 foot by 13 foot altarpiece. In the foreground of this altarpiece, which was intended for, though never installed upon, the high altar of St. Andrew Church in Antwerp, Belgium, St. Augustine looks straight out through the picture-plane to all viewers, commanding each to approach a magnificent golden altar where the Holy Family appears at the summit.  
No altar is merely “ordinary,” since each is a special and sanctified place in the world of created things where God literally comes among us. Yet, the altar to which St. Augustine guides us is quite special because it is dedicated to the bond of matrimony typified by the Holy Family and exemplified by the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine to Christ: a spiritual marriage, that is utterly of the spirit, a “transforming union” (as St. John of the Cross explains) found at “the pinnacle of human maturity which occurs when a person is divested of all that is not divine, of all that is creature-centered.” The subject is discussed at length by Father Thomas Dubay in “Fire Within,” published by Ignatius Press. 
This is the true subject of Rubens’ altarpiece. And his thoughts as he envisioned, designed and then painted such a thing cannot have been different from those that moved St. John Damascus to write this passage in his “Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images:” “How depict the invisible? How picture the inconceivable? How give expression to the limitless, the immeasurable, the invisible? How give a form to immensity? How paint immortality? How localise a mystery? It is clear that when you contemplate God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, you will be able to clothe Him with the human form. When the invisible becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His form ...  and contemplate it.” This passage, in fact, characterizes the threshold we cross upon entering Rubens’ painting.
The trinitarian armature or basic design of the painting is unmistakable. Saints George (with the dragon), Sebastian (with a quiver of arrows), Augustine (in his bishop’s robes and miter, pointing the way with his crozier), Lawrence (with grill of his martyrdom), and Nicholas of Tolentino (in reverent prayer) comprise the foundation. A group of women saints populates the left side, beginning (it is believed) with Apollonia of Alexandria –– a virgin martyr, Agnes of Rome –– patron saint of betrothed couples, Mary Magdalen –– who was faithful from the beginning, and Clare of Montefalco –– nun and abbess whose continual devotion was to the sufferings of Christ. Their upward glances direct our own eyes to the mystical marriage where, accepting a golden ring, St. Catherine becomes the bride of Christ. 
Saints Peter, Paul and John the Baptist, the sole figure on the right, contemplate the mystical betrothal in characteristic ways: Peter, by looking long and hard at the moment itself; Paul, by gazing beyond at John, who is accompanied by two angels leading a lamb and whose gestures reiterate his original testimony to the God-in-man identity of Jesus: “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). 
Rubens leaves a small dark triangle of emptiness between Sts. Sebastian and Augustine at the foot of the altar, intending beyond a doubt to ensure that the Real Presence would stand out visibly at the elevation. Such emphasis on the physical presence of the Eucharist is consistent with St. Augustine’s words in a famous homily on “The Nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist:” “What you see on God’s altar ... you’ve heard nothing about just what it might be, or what it might mean, or what great thing it might be said to symbolize. For what you see is simply bread and a cup –– this is the information your eyes report ... My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped.” 
This is precisely what is visibly affirmed by this amazing masterpiece of sacred art.