Rubens’s Martyrdom of St Andrew

Rubens’s Martyrdom of St Andrew (a commission for the Real Hospital de San Andres de los Flamencos in Madrid) is one of the earliest paintings to demonstrate the full fluency of his baroque style.

The painting depicts a dramatic moment in the legend. Andrew, bound to the cross which takes his name, has preached at length to the assembled multitude (20,000 citizens if the ‘Legenda Aurea’ is to be believed!) Death is immanent. The local proconsul, Aegeas, having granted a last minute reprieve has rushed on horseback to interrupt the execution. But Andrew refuses his generosity. His eyes – and heart – are set on heaven, where he says, God awaits his willing sacrifice.

The almost frenzied painting of horse and rider on the right side of the canvass, and the compression of figures throughout the composition, give it the emotional urgency which is to be found later in the mature religious paintings.

But something else besides the swirling gestures and sheer fluency of paint joins this St Andrew with the later works. It is the use of perhaps the most favoured and familiar ancient sculpture of the Baroque age, the Laocoon. In the ‘Descent from the Cross’ Rubens reverses the torso of the dying father for the suspended body of Christ.

Here it is his face and fierce expression which he borrows. Andrew’s gaze is both rapt and defiant. He exhibits both the utmost of human suffering and the serene hope of everlasting glory.

This full-throttle Baroque is designed to stir the emotions of observers, to sweep them up into a devotional ferment like that of the characters portrayed. But it does so not only with painterly gusto but with careful and meticulous scholarship. The learned and the emotional are here made servants one of the other.