"The work of this master is a formidable ode to joy": thus wrote the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren of Rubens. So it seems only natural that the artist should have worked for the Oratorians, the religious order founded by St. Philip Neri, the saint of joy. In 1606, in fact, he received a commission for the painting over the high altar of Santa Maria in Vallicella. This was the Roman mother church of the order approved in 1575, and was dedicated to the Virgin and St. Gregory. The founders of new orders could not be venerated on altars, so the picture had to represent the Madonna with St. Gregory and the saints whose relics were conserved in the church: Domitilla, Maurus, Papias and Achilleus. The contract specified that the fathers had the right to see the initial design and no obligation to keep the painting if it was not to their liking. And in fact the clients were not happy with it, probably because it did not respect the principles of the Catholic Counter Reformation: the image of the Madonna appeared in a triumphal arch and was too small with respect to the saints. The official version of the incident, however, put the blame on the "unfortunate light" that illuminated the altar and prevented them from appreciating the beauty of the figures. The fathers requested a new work painted on stone or some other material that would absorb the light of the church. So the decision was taken to paint the altarpiece on three panels of slate; the central one incorporated a miraculous Madonna, covered by a movable plate of copper on which Rubens depicted another Madonna and Child: even today, a mechanism allows the display of the original image on special religious occasions.
In 1608, the year in which the work was finished, the painter departed suddenly for Antwerp on hearing that his mother was gravely ill. He arrived too late and placed the rejected painting on her tomb.
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