Wise Men from the East: The Magi Portraits by Rubens

Around 1616, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) painted an unusual series of portraits of the three Magi for the Antwerp scholar Balthasar Moretus (1574-1641). At the time, Moretus directed the prolific Plantin press, one of the most active printing establishments in Europe at the time of the Catholic Reformation. Rubens and Moretus, who suffered from hemispheric paralysis from birth, went to the same school and were united since then by personal friendship as well as shared intellectual pursuits. The exhibition will explore the origins of the visual formula of the series, the artist’s involvement with Moretus and the Plantin press, and the connections between the three busts and large-scale narrative representations of the Adoration of the Magi painted by Rubens.

To paint the three Magi individually and in bust format, rather than adoring the baby Jesus together, is an unprecedented choice from an iconographical point of view. Rubens must have conflated the traditional series of the Apostles, represented in bust format with their attributes, and a type of “head study” that Flemish and Italian artists of the time used in their workshop, to create this series. Portraiture was also an important point of reference: King Balthasar bears an evident resemblance to a slightly earlier depiction of an African by the artist, a copy of a portrait of a prince of Tunis by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, which Rubens owned. All of these types of images will be represented in the exhibition to make a case for the origin of the series.

Rubens’ exuberant style and inventive compositions reached a wide audience across Europe thanks to engravings and the printing press. Around the same time as he worked on the Magi portraits, Rubens also designed the title pages of two important publications of the Plantin house. The exhibition also brings together prints that reproduce paintings of the Adoration of the Magi made by Rubens for ecclesiastical as well as secular settings and clients, to elucidate another important question. The three busts of the Magi have long been understood as deriving from the Adoration of the Magi painted by Rubens for the church of St. John in Mechelen. However, the precise relationship of these paintings with the rest of Rubens’ oeuvre is probably more complex.