Virtual Art Tour: Rubens's London masterpiece

The Painted Ceiling of the Banqueting House, Whitehall Palace

By Historic Royal Palaces

Sebastian Edwards, Head of Collections

View of Whitehall, with the Banqueting House and the Holbein Gate (c1744-48) by After Antonio JoliHistoric Royal Palaces

The magnificent ceiling painting was originally intended as the crowning glory of Inigo Jones’s equally ground-breaking Banqueting House, which was completed for King James I in 1622.

Portrait of the Artist (1623) by Sir Peter Paul RubensRoyal Collection Trust, UK

The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was probably the most successful artist of his time, and because he was in huge demand was not able to create this masterpiece for more than a decade.

Portrait of the Artist (1623) by Sir Peter Paul RubensRoyal Collection Trust, UK

During this time, James I died and his son, Charles I, commissioned the final design to celebrate the successes of his father’s reign. The theatricality of Rubens’s paintings reflected the real drama of the royal masque performances which took place inside the Banqueting House.

‘I confess that I am, by natural instinct, better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities.’ 

Rubens writing to a royal agent 1621.

The Banqueting House Ceiling (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

Let's take a closer look at Rubens's masterpiece.

The Wise Rule of James I

The Banqueting House Ceiling The Wise Rule of James I (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

Opposite as you enter the Great Hall is a large allegory  -  a picture with a symbolic meaning – with James 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. Above flying beings exchange the King’s worldly crown for a victor’s laurel wreath.

The Banqueting House Ceiling The Banqueting House CeilingHistoric Royal Palaces

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland

The Banqueting House Ceiling The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

From where Charles I sat in the Great Hall, opposite the entrance, you see the scene of his father, James I’s greatest political success, the peaceful union between the kingdoms of England and Scotland which ended many years of strife. 

When Queen Elizabeth I died childless, a crisis was averted by giving the English crown to her nearest relative, King James VI of Scotland. 

In his second appearance, James is enthroned, within a vast Roman domed hall. Two cherubs fly down to fix the new royal coat arms of England - now combined with Scotland - on to his throne canopy. 

He points his sceptre at Minerva, appearing again, who obeys his command to tie together the two kingdoms’ crowns which she is holding. 

The baby held up by the two female personifications of the kingdoms probably symbolises Charles I’s eldest son, the future Charles II, a later addition to the painting’s original concept.

Here are two courtiers, watching the scene in wonder. They seem to be portraits, but their identities have been lost in time. 

Setting the scene

Two brown areas can be seen on the architectural frame to the paintings. These are recent conservation trials to discover how the wooden ceiling was originally finished as a frame for the ceiling’s canvases, just after they were installed in 1636.

Instead of the modern white-and-gold decoration we know this was once painted a walnut wood colour. The darker, narrow patch is the original finish as it was restored in the early 1800s. The lighter brown below is a temporary sample, which is a reconstruction of this decoration.

The Banqueting House Ceiling The Banqueting House CeilingHistoric Royal Palaces

The Apotheosis of James I

The Apotheosis of James I (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

The largest scene 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. 

He is carried by an eagle belonging to the chief ancient god, Jupiter, helped by the figure of Divine Justice with her scales. Both James and Charles believed monarchs were given their authority by God alone.    

Above, female personifications of winged Victory and perhaps Great Britain bring the king a laurel wreath, to exchange for his earthly crown. 

The Banqueting House Ceiling The Apotheosis of James I (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

This woman represents Religion, holding an open Bible showing the first words of St John’s gospel, ‘In the beginning’ (was the Word). James I is remembered for introducing an influential new English translation of the Bible.

Here 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 heaven.

The Banqueting House Ceiling (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

The Royal Victories

In the four corners of the ceiling are oval mythological battles, which reinforce the message that James was a powerful but also a just ruler. In each personification a kingly virtue tramples down one representing a vice, which a good king must reject. 

Temperance Triumphant over Intemperance

Wise Government holding a bridle above Intemperate Discord (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

This female figure, modestly dressed in a blue robe and headcloth, represents the virtue of Temperance. At the time the ceiling was painted temperance meant voluntary self-restraint from all vices. 

She treads on the naked, sprawling and disorderly body of Intemperance or Vice. In reality James I was indiscrete when it came to some of his worldly pleasures. Temperance holds a horse’s reins, bit and bridle in her hands, used to exert control.

Intemperance has a snarling grey dog which represents discord.

The Banqueting House Ceiling The Banqueting House CeilingHistoric Royal Palaces

Apollo, bestowing Royal Liberality, overcomes Avarice

Abundance suppressing Avarice (2017) by James BrittainHistoric Royal Palaces

The ancient god of the sun and also the arts, Apollo, represents the generosity of kings. In a pose which echoes the King’s nearby, he is painted with light radiating from his head, as he triumphs over a semi-naked woman, who represents Avarice or Greed.

Apollo holds a cornucopia -  a horn of plenty - from which pour golden coins and the crown, sceptre and orb. James I was renowned for his personal generosity.

In contrast, Avarice clutches a tightly closed purse in her hand.

The Banqueting House Ceiling The Banqueting House CeilingHistoric Royal Palaces

Hercules crushing Discord

Hercules crushing Discord (1630-1634) by Peter Paul Rubens and James BrittainHistoric Royal Palaces

The ancient Greek and Roman hero Hercules  - the personification of physical heroism -  raises his club to destroy a female figure at his feet. 

The female figure has snakes instead of hair like the infamous gorgon, Medusa and represents the evil of envy or discord. James I brought peace with Scotland and end to the discord that had divided the island of Britain.

In the struggle Discord’s snake bites Hercules’ leg. Its strange rodent-like face suggests the artist - probably one of Rubens’s assistants – had not studied a live snake.

The Banqueting House Ceiling The Banqueting House CeilingHistoric Royal Palaces

Minerva overcoming Ignorance

Minerva spearing Ignorance (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

The goddess Minerva reappears as a counterpart to Hercules’ strength, representing the King’s wisdom. She is shown spearing Ignorance in the form of an old naked woman, who fights back.  

Minerva’s symbol is an owl, shown here bringing her a victor’s laurel wreath.  

The head of Ignorance is hidden by the painting’s frame, because of an unfortunate confusion between English and Flemish units of measurement which led to the paintings being slightly too large! In Rubens’s sketch design he intended her to have the ears of an ass.

The Banqueting House Ceiling (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

The Processions

Either side of James I’s apotheosis are two great 12-metre-long scenes celebrating the fruits of his peaceful reign. A procession of cherubs lead tamed wild animals and drag a huge garland of fruit. 

Procession (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

Cupid, holding his flaming torch of love, drives a chariot pulled by a ram and wolf. This is a Biblical reference to a peaceful union on earth. 

The Banqueting House Ceiling (1630-1634) by Peter Paul RubensHistoric Royal Palaces

On the opposite side of the ceiling another chariot - loaded with grapes for wine - is pulled cooperatively by a lion and bear. 

These and other wild animals from Africa and Asia here remind us that Rubens was painting during the time of the beginnings of colonial exploitation by the European countries where he worked.

Take a moment to zoom in and explore Rubens's masterpiece some more.

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