Artist: Peter Paul Rubens
Dimensions: 455 x 347 cm
Support: Oil on canvas
Museum: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
This monumental canvas once decorated the high altar of the Jesuit church in Ghent. When the order was dissolved at the end of the 18th century, Louis XVI bought the painting which, after the French Revolution, ended up in the Brussels museum.
According to the legend, the Scots monk Livinus was not only bishop of Ghent but also a martyr whose tongue was torn out. It is possible that Rubens was commissioned to produce this painting for the millennium of the martyrdom in 1633. In so doing a date previously assumed for Livinus’ martyrdom was corrected and the exemplary behaviour of a local saint, the founder of the local community of believers, was given place of honour in the church. All this is typical of the Jesuit’s counter-reformation intentions of basing the re-sourcing of the true faith on militant, recognisable and historically grounded foundations. Their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, defended the heroism of the martyrs against the Protestants.
In the prints of Meditations on the Gospel, a book of devotions written by the Jesuit Hieronymus Nadal on Ignatius’ instructions, the accent is therefore on the cruelty of their tortures. Rubens’ depiction of Livinus’ torture follows the same line. The viewer is spared not a single horrible detail, neither the blood-spattered knife in the torturer’s mouth who in the left foreground grins at the saint in his bishops’ garments with his mitre and staff, nor his companion who has grabbed Livinus’ beard, nor his comrade-in-arms holding the saint’s torn-out tongue in a pair of tongs above an avidly yapping dog.
The strong gestures, the rhythm of the paint strokes, the shimmering lighting and the masterly colour composition carry the sense of movement to a climax. From heaven comes the reward for the martyr and the justified retribution for his executioners’ misdeed, in the figures of two putti, who reach Livinus the martyr’s palm, and the angels who, with their thunderbolts, cause the soldiery to disperse in fear and their horses to bolt. For this final, central detail, Rubens took his inspiration from the famous Tyrant Slayers group of statues in front of the Quirinale Palace in Rome, thereby playing to the learned Jesuits’ love for surprising aesthetic effects and their erudite knowledge of antiquity.