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Foreign Relations: Figuring Faith and Femininity in the Age of Rubens



Foreign Relations: Figuring Faith and Femininity in the Age of Rubens


Jamie Vanessa Lyon

Doctor of Philosophy in History of Art

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Elizabeth Honig, Chair

The first part of my title, Foreign Relations, is meant to conjure up the many valences of this phrase in the life and works of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). On the most obvious level, it points to his part time employment as a multi-linguistic diplomat negotiating peace on behalf of the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, Isabel Clara Eugenia (1566-1633), the Spanish-born daughter of Philip II. It also evokes Rubens's sustained interaction with and pleasure in Italian art, and specifically, his status in contemporary art writing as a &IsquoVenetian&rsquo Baroque painter in all but nationality. Pushing the notions of foreign relations a bit further, the phrase surfaces the ethically tenuous connections between some typically Rubensian subjects, such as nude or eroticized women, and their narrative origins and cultural contexts in biblical texts and Catholic devotional art. This network of intersecting, at times oppositional, historical and artistic factors frames a study in which I approach the body, especially the female body, as a conceit-making rhetorical device or &Isquofigure&arsquo for Rubens. I argue that typology (historical prefiguration through types) and interpictoriality (reflexive and reciprocal relations between interdependent works of art) are mutually constructive, sometimes parallel, components of Rubens's artistic process and as such, crucial to interpreting his deeply gendered iconography.

Several of Rubens's most canonical devotional and/or doctrinal compositions are discussed in the dissertation. But whereas these works have served recent scholars as case studies&mdashtypically examined to a greater or lesser degree in isolation from rather than in conversation with the painter's massive oeuvre&mdashhere they are approached historically and chronologically, as they occur and reoccur over the course of more than thirty years of Rubens's public diplomatic and artistic career. The result is a new understanding of this essentially conservative, self-consciously intellectual and innately tolerant painter as a man whose personal relationships with wise and powerful women were in constant tension with the masculinist mores of the day, but who nonetheless developed an art in which women are supremely meaningful.

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