Jacob Jordaens (Antwerp 1593-1678)
Jacob Jordaens (Antwerp 1593-1678)

The Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths

Jacob Jordaens (Antwerp 1593-1678)
The Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths
oil on canvas
30 ½ x 41 ¾ in. (77.5 x 106 cm.)
By descent to Sir George Tapps-Gervis-Meyrick, Bt. (1915-1988), sold in aid of the Sir George Meyrick Combined Trust; Christie's, London, 15 May 1970, lot 100, as 'Rubens' (140 gns.).
with Thomas Agnew and Son, London, from whom acquired by the following,
Professor Michael Jaffé, and by inheritance to the present owners.
R.-A. d'Hulst, Jacob Jordaens, New York, 1982, pp. 48, 52 and 55, fig. 14.
D. van Eldere, 'Ovidiaanse thematiek in het werk van Jacob Jordaens', Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, 1992, pp. 94-95, fig. 3.
A.W.F.M. Meij, Rubens, Jordaens, van Dyck and their Circle: Flemish Master Drawings from the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, exhibition catalogue, Rotterdam, 2001, p. 74, under no. 6.
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum; Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor schone Kunsten, Von Bruegel bis Rubens. Das goldene Jahrhundert der flämischen Malerei, 4 September 1992-8 March 1993, nos. 40.1 and 29.
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor schone Kunsten, Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), 27 March-27 June 1993, no. A1.
Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, on long-term loan until 2018.
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique; and Kassel, Museumslandschaft Hessen, Jordaens and the Antique, 12 October 2012-16 June 2013, no. 73.

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Imogen Jones
Imogen Jones

Lot Essay

Jordaens executed this violent and frenzied scene of the clash between the two legendary races from Greek mythology - the Centaurs and the Lapiths – in circa 1615-16, when he was still in his early twenties. Clearly indebted to the dense and chaotic figure groupings in Rubens’s work at this date, Jordaens may also have drawn inspiration from Michelangelo’s sculptural frieze of the same subject in Casa Buonarroti, Florence, which he might have known through a sketch in Rubens’s workshop. The resulting composition is a highly dynamic and ambitious work that shows Jordaens on course to becoming one of the greatest northern baroque painters of the seventeenth century.

The Centaurs and the Lapiths were both natives of Thessaly. According to Greek legend, Lapithes and Centaurus were said to be the twin sons of the god Apollo and the nymph Stilbe, daughter of the river god Peneus. Lapithes grew to become a fearless warrior, while Centaurus was deformed and later mated with mares from whom the race of half-man, half-horse Centaurs originated. The Lapiths invited the Centaurs and the Thessalonian chiefs to attend the wedding of Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, and Hippodamia at a shady grotto near their palace. Unaccustomed to wine, however, the Centaurs became unruly, and when the bride was presented to the guests, the wildest of the Centaurs, Euryton, seized Hippodamia and his fellow Centaurs followed suit. Jordaens has captured the violent and bloody conflict that ensued, during which Euryton is stopped by Theseus and the Centaurs eventually driven back to the mountains.

The subject derives from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (XII, 210-535), which was widely read in the Low Countries: Karel van Mander called it ‘the painter’s Bible, since so many stories from it have been painted’ (van Mander, 1604, cited in R.-A. d’Hulst, in Jacob Jordaens, exhibition catalogue, Antwerp, 1993, p. 40, footnote 4). Jordaens found most of his mythological themes in this text, including: Meleager and Atalanta, Mercury and Argus, Pan and Syrinx, and Diana and Actaeon. The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs was a popular theme in painting and sculptural, two early reliefs from the fifth century BC are found on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and on the Parthenon.

With its mass of writhing, intertwined figures, Jordaens’s depiction of the subject clearly owes a debt to Rubens’s scenes of violent motion, including his Massacre of the Innocents of circa 1611-12 (fig. 1; Private collection, on loan to the Art Gallery of Ontario) and his The Death of Sennacherib of circa 1612-14 (Munich, Alte Pinakothek). Jordaens did not train in Rubens’s studio, unlike van Dyck, but rather in that of Rubens’s own teacher, Adam van Noort, who would later become his father-in-law. His work was informed by that of Rubens from an early stage, however, as Professor Balis makes clear: ‘his repertoire of figure types and the overall visual effect he strives for in these early years can only be interpreted as a deliberate effort at emulating Rubens’s style’ (A. Balis, ‘Fatto da un mio discepolo, Rubens’s studio practices reviewed’, in Rubens and his workshop, T. Nakamura, ed., Tokyo, 1994, p. 112). Two of the principal figures in this painting are indebted to works by Rubens: the enraged Lapith at the far left of the composition was directly inspired by the young hero in Rubens’s David Slaying Goliath of circa 1616 (fig. 2; Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum); while the outstretched young Lapith with a firebrand lower centre recalls the dead Argus in Rubens’s Juno and Argus of circa 1609-10 (Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Foundation), which in turn was derived from Michelangelo’s Punishment of Tityus.

In the catalogue to the 2012 exhibition Jordaens and the Antique, however, Irene Schaudies highlighted an even closer debt to Michelangelo’s relief of the same subject from circa 1492 (fig. 3), of which two detailed drawings survive, that have been attributed traditionally to Rubens (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Foundation). Schaudies argued that Jordaens’s composition is closer to Michelangelo’s relief than Rubens’s early battle scenes both ‘visually and conceptually’, indicating that if the two surviving drawings are in fact by followers, they may nevertheless record a lost Italian study by Rubens. Indeed, evidence from Jordaens’s surviving sketches relating to works by Rubens reveal that he may have had special access to preparatory material in Rubens’s workshop, not ordinarily shared with artists outside the studio (see N. van Hout, ‘Jordaens not Jordaens: on the use of model studies in the 17th century’, in Jordaens and the Antique, exhibition catalogue, Brussels and Kassel, 2012, pp. 55-59).

While Michelangelo focused on the overall sense of chaos and violence in his sculptural frieze, Jordaens went to great lengths to incorporate as many of the protagonists from Ovid’s text as possible: at far left, Rhoetus attacks Euagrus, Corythus and Dryas; in the centre of the composition, the powerful bearded Gryneus casts a burning altar onto the unfortunate Broteus and Orios; beyond him the reckless Amycus seizes an entire chandelier, which he hurls at Celadon; while in the background, Exadius grasps a set of antlers, which he will use to kill Gryneus. Schaudies suggests that Jordaens’s adaptation of Michelangelo’s original invention shows his competitive spirit and exemplifies the notion of paragone, or the comparison of sculpture and painting: ‘if sculpture has the advantage of tactility, painting has the advantage of being able to show more than time and three-dimensional space permit – and all that in living colour’ (op. cit.).

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