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Bishop Rovenius blessing a Family (that of Jacob van Wassenaer?)
Breenbergh, Bartholomeus
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Breenbergh, Bartholomeus

Deventer, 1598 - Amsterdam, 1657

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Bishop Rovenius blessing a Family (that of Jacob van Wassenaer)?

Ca. 1650. Oil on canvas.
Not on display

This painting entered the holdings of the Museo del Prado as an anonymous Flemish work, although the 1873 catalogue reports the attribution to the Le Nain brothers proposed by M. de Chennevières based on its purported similarity to The Procession (Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. 6841), then held to be an original work by these artists. From 1942 onwards it is listed as executed by Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569-1622), since the Louvre painting had come to be identified as the work of the latter. Three decades later, the 1963 catalogue notes that Regteren Altena has observed traces of a signature on the step, which he interprets as that of the painter Bartholomeus Breenbergh on the basis of a drawing for the figure of the bishop signed BB.f. which he located in the Landesmuseum Darmstadt. In 1971 Regteren Altena publishes this drawing together with an engraving of Rovenius bearing an inscription stating that it was executed in 1650 by Theodoor Matham (1605/06-1676) after a painting by Breenbergh. Although the resemblance between the bishop in the drawing and the one in the painting is questionable, the latter is nonetheless an exact rendering of the figure in the engraving. The attribution to Breenbergh is officially accepted by the Museum in 1985. Although Roethlisberger (1981) repeats the reference to the signature, it is not visible to the naked eye today, nor is it detectable in the infrared reflectogram.

Philippus Rovenius (Deventer, 1574-Utrecht, 1651) was one of the most active advocates and disseminators of Catholicism in Holland, where he organised the Propaganda Fide mission. He was appointed Apostolic Vicar of Holland by PaulVin 1614. After becoming a bishop in 1620, he settled in Rome from 1622 to 1623, by which time Breenbergh already resided in the city. He later lived more or less in hiding in Utrecht until 1639, when he was sentenced to exile by the Calvinist church, which seized his possessions in 1640. He sought refuge in Amsterdam.

The work is an atypical example of the output of Breenbergh, who generally painted outdoor settings. The scene takes place inside a crowded church. It shows a young woman opening the gate of the balustrade leading into the presbytery, where a bishop wearing an early sixteenth-century choir cope stands at the altar blessing the family before him. Behind the balustrade, an elegantly dressed young woman kneeling next to an elderly lady turns to glance at her. On the basis of literary sources, Nalis (1932) proposes identifying the group as the family of Jacob van Wassenaer and his second wife. They belonged to the Catholic branch of one of the most prominent Dutch noble houses and it is known that Rovenius lived in hiding at their home during his stays in Utrecht after being sentenced to exile. Regteren Altena suggests that the woman opening the gate might be Hendrika van Duivenvoorde, Jacob van Wassenaer`s sister. For his part, Bennebroek (2005) identifies the young woman with uncovered head kneeling behind the balustrade and holding a rosary as Odilia, Jacob van Wassenaer`s daughter from his first marriage, on account of her similarity to the portrait of this young woman executed by Steven van Duyven (Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts). Although the family members are attired in the fashion of the 1630s, the dress and hairstyle of this young woman make it possible to date the work to around 1650.

Stylistically, the presence of two different techniques that divide the composition into two parts is worthy of notice. The painter uses his singularly refined, exquisitely detailed manner for the family, and a looser execution for the setting and, more significantly, for the figure of the bishop. Each approach involves the use of a different range of colours: reds, browns and yellows for the bishop, altar and parishioners, and black, grey and white for the family group. The elderly woman kneeling beside the gate and the young lady entering the presbytery, both dressed in black, white, brown and red, provide a link between the two groups. The fact that the figure of the young woman entering the presbytery is handled in the same manner as the members of the family would appear to suggest that she belongs to it.

However, Bennebroek considers that it is not a portrait but an allegorical figure, specifically a personification of Faith, on account of its position in the centre of the composition before a dome that alludes to St Peter`s in Rome. Roethlisberger interprets the campanile by the dome as an allusion to the Roman church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

An X-radiograph of the work shows that the heads of the young couple are painted over the balustrade of the presbytery, and that the artist made minor positional adjustments to the hand that the young man clasps to his chest and to the face and hands of the child kneeling beside the elderly man. The infrared reflectogram appears to show the background pillar passing beneath the bishop`s mitre. All this suggests that the painter may have drawn, at least in part, an initial sketch of the architectural elements of the church.

The iconography of this scene is highly enigmatic. In Holland, the Catholic community was forced to celebrate its religious rites in shuilkerken or clandestine churches. Though the painting above the altar is consistent with the Dutch Caravaggists` renderings of the Calvary that frequently adorned the shuilkerken, the architecture represented here is alien to Dutch tradition. As stated above, the dome visible in the background appears to be an unmistakeable reference to St Peter`s in Rome. In addition, the white bands worn by the parishioners on their heads indicate that we are witnessing a sacramental confirmation ceremony in which the family does not appear to take part, as its members are not wearing these bands.

Furthermore, the head of the young woman kneeling behind the balustrade is uncovered, which is quite odd. It is therefore reasonable to think that the painting does not depict a real scene but may be an evocation of an event -for example, a pilgrimage of the Van Wassenaer family to Rome- or a family portrait disguised as a religious scene, similar to Saint Peter in the House of Cornelius, signed and dated in 1653 by Barent Fabritius, where the depiction of a Gospel passage (Acts 10:24) provides a pretext for a family portrait, in this case of the painter`s family: there, too, the loose execution of the figure of Saint Peter contrasts with the fine draughtsmanship in the rendering of the members of the family who kneel before him to receive his blessing.

Whatever the case, Breenbergh`s scene appears to be designed as a testimony of the Catholicism of this branch of the Van Wassenaer family and its personal connection with Bishop Rovenius. Or in a wider sense, it may be, as Bennebroek (2005) states, an explicit expression of recognition and support of the apostolic endeavours of Bishop Rovenius by a particular sector of the Dutch nobility, personified here by this family (Posada Kubissa, T.: Pintura holandesa en el Museo Nacional del Prado, Catálogo razonado, 2009, pp. 43-47).


Technical data

Inventory number
Breenbergh, Bartholomeus
Bishop Rovenius blessing a Family (that of Jacob van Wassenaer?)
Ca. 1650
Height: 96 cm; Width: 112 cm
Royal Collection (Palacio de Aranjuez, Madrid, pieza de vestir la reina, 1818, nº 246).

Bibliography +

Inventario Palacio del Real Sitio de San Ildefonso. La Granja, Inventario general pinturas, muebles y otras alhajas de la Reina Nuestra Señora que tiene en el Palacio del Real Sitio de San Ildefonso, Inventarios Reales en 12 volúmenes y un índice (fotocopias), Madrid, 1746, pp. nº1442.

Regteren Altena, J. Q., Jan van den Bergh, Oud Holland, 76, 1961, pp. 69-86.

Nalis, H.J., Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Vereeniging tot Beoefening van Drerijssetsch Regt en Geschiedenis, Verslagen en Medelingen, 87, 1972, pp. 62-81.

Salas, Xavier de, Museo del Prado. Catálogo de las pinturas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1972.

Valdivieso, Enrique, Pintura Holandesa del siglo XVII en españa, Universidad, Valladolid, 1973, pp. 231.

Roethlisberger, Marcel, Bartholomeus Breenberg, The Paintings, Walter de Gruyter, Berlín, 1981, pp. 82-83, 206-208.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Catálogo de las pinturas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1985, pp. 85-86.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Museo del Prado: inventario general de pinturas (I) La Colección Real, Museo del Prado, Espasa Calpe, Madrid, 1990, pp. nº1260.

Bennebroek, Carla C. M., Compilatie of College, Hoe liturgisch is de Bisschoppelijke Zegening van Rovenius?, Univ. de Leiden (tesis inédita), 2005.

Bennebroek, Carla C. M., Compilatie of Collage, Hoe liturgisch is de Bisschoppelijke Zegening van Rovenius?, Deventer Jaarboeck, 2006, pp. 24-37.

Eck, Xander van, Clandestine splendor : paintings for the Catholic Church in..., Waanders, Zwolle, 2008, pp. 58-62.

Posada Kubissa, Teresa, Pintura holandesa en el Museo Nacional del Prado. Catálogo razonado, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2009, pp. 43-47.

Other inventories +

Inv. Real Museo, 1857. Núm. 1260.
Escuela Flamenca / 1260 La Bendicion episcopal. / Un obispo junto á un altar da la bendicion á una / familia que la recibe devotamente. La iglesia está / llena de gente. / Alto 3 pies, 5 pulg, 6 lin; ancho 4 pies, 2 pulg, / 6 lin.

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1873-1907. Núm. 2026.
2026.-(1260-I.)-La bendicion episcopal.- Un prelado, / en pié junto á un altar, da la bendicion á una nume- / rosa familia, que la recibe arrodillada en presencia de / mucha gente.-F.L. / Alto 0,97; ancho 1,18.-L.

Inv. Fernando VII, Aranjuez, 1814-1818. Núm. 246.
Pieza de vestir la Reyna [...] {20826} 246 / Cinco quartas alto seis ancho un obispo echando bendiciones a un pueblo

Museo Real de Pinturas a la muerte de Fernando VII, 1834. Núm. 301.
SALÓN 2º / ESCUELA FLAMENCA [...] Tres cientos y uno. La Bendicion episcopal: un Obispo junto a un altar / Anónimo / Lº / 5.350

Inscriptions +

Inscribed in white. Front, lower left corner

Inscribed in pen and ink. Back, lower central area

[restos ilegibles de tiza]
Inscribed with chalk. Back, Upper central area

[texto ilegible en la fotografía]
Inscribed in golden colour. Stretcher, upper crossbeam, on the right

Inscribed in orange. Front, lower left corner

M.N.PRADO / 02263
On metallic tablet. Stretcher, right side bar

Nº 2293
Inscribed with chalk. Stretcher, upper crossbeam

Nº 2293
Inscribed. Stretcher, right side bar, lower area

Nº 2293 [2 veces]
Scrap of paper. Stretcher, upper crossbeam

Exhibitions +

Dutch Painters at the Prado
03.12.2009 - 11.04.2010

Displayed objects +


Update date: 09-04-2022 | Registry created on 28-04-2015

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