Totally unknown and completely unpublished, this picture is critical in understanding Jordaens’ creative process in preparing the Brussels altarpiece (fig.1), a significant commission for the artist who by this point in his career had only executed one major religious altarpiece of vertical format. That picture, The Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia, was painted by Jordaens in 1628 as part of a triad commission given to Anthony van Dyck (Saint Augustine in Ecstasy) and Peter Paul Rubens (Madonna Adored by Saints) by the Augustinan church in Antwerp. Each painter provided large scale vertically orientated pieces for one of the three altars in the space (all in situ). The commission itself was almost certainly due to Rubens’ close relationship with the Antwerp Augustinans, and Jordaens’ inclusion in the highly visible project marked a new chapter in his success as one of the preeminent Baroque masters of his day.1 Jordaens received the commission for Saint Martin Healing a Possessed Man just two years later, and it was to be his first independently secured altarpiece commission.
For his design Jordaens took as his point of departure Rubens’ Miracles of Saint Ignatius, painted in 1619-20 for the Jesuit church in Antwerp, today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (fig. 2). Like Rubens, who staged his protagonist high above the supporting figures, Jordaens here sets Saint Martin in an elevated position from which he forcefully dominates the scene. He is flanked by a pair of monks who appear to guard him from a possessed man at the base of the steps below him. The specificity of the monks, particularly the face of the figure at right, suggests that they were painted from life, and quite plausibly could be identified as of one of the Benedictine patrons. The writhing, half naked figure is powerfully muscular and dominates the space around him. He is barely restrained by two men and two women who struggle to set the afflicted before Saint Martin as he exorcises the spirit from within. Tetrodius, the master of the afflicted, stands off to the side glaring at the drama before him. His sumptuous red robes and exotic feathered headdress separate him as a figure of worldly means and power.
Prior to this canvas’ current reintroduction into scholarship, the composition was known best through three modelli that illustrate the genesis towards the final altarpiece. This picture comes closest to what is considered the first in the series, a pen, brush and ink sheet in the Stedelijk Prentenkabinet, Antwerp (fig. 3, inv. no. 154). That modello shares with this canvas all key elements, including Saint Martin’s elevated position, an architectural backdrop set off by Corinthian columns, and an almost identically dressed and posed Tetrodius. The two later iterations of the composition (fig. 5, British Museum, London, inv. no. 18188.8.131.52 and fig. 6, National Gallery, Washington, D.C, inv. no. 1993.9.1.) display fundamental shifts in figure placement and architecture that ultimately come closer to the Brussels altarpiece. Of immediate impact is the fact that in these later workings, as well as in the final altarpiece, Saint Martin stands below and at left in a quieter and less hieratic manner. He is among the people, as opposed to hovering above them. The basic design thus transforms rather dramatically from one of an upward gazing and dynamic diagonal, as evidenced here, to that of a quieter horizontal, which Jordaens must have ultimately found most satisfactory to his patrons needs.
Recent technical analysis of the picture under infrared-reflectography reveals a number of inventive adjustments to its initial design. Of particular note is a substantial shift to the standing woman's head orientation at left, as well as the initial inclusion of a later omitted figure along the column at center left. The most interesting discovery, though, is a change to the appearance of the Benedictine monk who stands closest to Saint Martin whilst gazing out at the viewer (fig. 7). In the original design Jordaens gives this subject a more youthful, yet similarly distinctive portrait-like appearance. In the final painted work, however, this man has taken on an older, heavy set facial type. This aforementioned specificity lends to a possible identification of that monk as Antonius de Roore (1577-1655), a Benedictine monk who became Abbot of Saint Martin's at Tournai in 1623, and was a leader in the Abbey's architectural development. A similarly dated (circa 1628) portrait by Rubens of de Roore does indeed bear striking resemblances to Jordaens' initial portrayal of the monk (fig. 8, see H. Vlieghe, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, vol. XIX, Portraits II, London 1987, cat. no. 132, reproduced fig. 165). Indeed it is de Roore's coat of arms that Jordaens paints at the base of a column in the final Brussels altarpiece, thus he was almost certainly the patron of the commission.
This painting is the only pure oil which relates to the final altarpiece, albeit with significant differences, and as a finished painting of some scale it calls into question its desired purpose for the artist Though it may have been executed after the completion of the altarpiece as a ricordo for the patrons, or perhaps for Jordaens himself, its highly finished drapery, fully articulated modelling, and close attention to background detail strongly suggest that it functioned as a late stage, large scale modello for the patrons of the Saint Martin altarpiece. Jordaens' status as a successful but still unproven altarpiece producer may have caused the monastery to request a fully realized product with which to base their final approval on the project. As with many liturgical patrons of the Baroque era, their artistic opinions were intrinsically linked to their reading of the biblical scene, and Jordaens’ original presentation of Saint Martin in a decidedly more confrontational vantage point may not have appeased the Benedictine reading of the story. Thus in this case it seems most likely that Jordaens was asked to adjust the figurative arrangements, a process he returned to through the British Museum and National Gallery sheets which more closely adhere to the final altarpiece design.
1. R.A. d'Hulst, Jordaens, New York 1982. Translated from the Dutch by P.S. Falla, vol. I, p. 131.
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