A Ceiling fit for a King

Discover the Rubens ceiling at the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London

In collaboration with Historic Royal Palaces

London's lost palace

The palace at Whitehall was one of Europe's largest palaces. The Banqueting House had a vast ceiling painted by Rubens.

A painting the size of a tennis court

This ambitious ceiling is made up of nine individual paintings

A royal commission

This huge oil painting by Peter Paul Rubens adorns the ceiling of the Banqueting House and was commissioned by Charles I as testament to the glory of the Stuart monarchs.

A vast enterprise

This magnificent painting by Peter Paul Rubens remains the largest surviving work by the Flemish artist still in its original location in Europe

Disaster!

When the canvases arrived in England and were first unrolled on the floor, Inigo Jones and Rubens’ assistants realised with mounting horror that a miscalculation meant they were the wrong size to fit the ceiling spaces!

Royal residency

Banqueting House is the only remaining complete building of Whitehall Palace, the sovereign's principal residence from 1530 until 1698 when it was destroyed by fire.

Political painting

The three main canvases at Banqueting House depict the themes of the union of England and Scotland, the wise rule of the good King and the central idea of kings as gods on earth.

Divinity and Regency

An introduction to the ceiling

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Rubens was approached about the project by James I before the King died in 1625. His son Charles I, commissioned the final design to celebrate his father's reign.

The largest scene is in the centre – which is more than 60 square metres in size - shows James being carried into heaven (his apotheosis) at his death in 1625.

King James is carried by an eagle belonging to the chief ancient god, Jupiter.

The King is helped by the figure of Divine Justice with her scales. Both James and Charles believed monarchs were given their authority by God alone.

Rubens displays why he was the best artist for this job, painting multiple, huge and dynamic figures, viewed from directly below. These convince the viewer that we are looking up into the heaven.

A king becoming a god

The Apotheosis of James I

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Architect Inigo Jones designed a great beamed ceiling with spaces ready to take the enormous decorated canvases.

In the centre is King James I, seated on a throne in a magnificent, almost biblical, architectural setting.

The mythological gods of ancient Greece and Rome act out the benefits of his wise rule.

The king points towards two women who represent Peace embracing Plenty, who carries the fruits of peace in her horn of plenty.

Minerva, goddess of Wisdom strikes down the god of war, Mars, with her shield and thunderbolts.

Peace and plenty

The Wise Rule of James I

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Rubens had never worked on such a large scale before, the total area equalled 225 square metres.

This depicts James I’s greatest political success, the peaceful union between the kingdoms of England and Scotland.

In this appearance, James is enthroned within a vast Roman domed hall

The baby held up by the two female personifications of the kingdoms probably symbolises Charles I’s eldest son, the future Charles II.

England and Scotland

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland

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The paintings were completed by Rubens in 1634, but were not installed until two years later.

Here you can see Cupid, holding his flaming torch of love.

Cupid drives a chariot pulled by a ram and wolf.

This is a Biblical reference to a peaceful union on earth.

Cherubs lead tamed wild animals

Procession

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Rubens received £3,000 (the equivalent of £218,000 today) and a heavy gold chain as payment for his work.

This procession flanks the central painting of James I apotheosis.

It depicts a chariot of grapes and fruits with attendant cherubs.

The chariot is drawn by a wolf and a bear.

A raucous celebration

Procession

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Mythology and allegory

The four corner paintings feature figures from Roman mythology with moralistic messages