The defining element in the background of Rubens’ 1620 portrait of Lady Arundel are the Solomonic columns. The four columns, that are shaped as if rotated around their inner axis are placed in front of the landscape and bathed in warm light. They are decorated with fluting, which emphasizes the rotation. Between the fluting there are figurative decorations showing a flock of putti between vine leaves. The easily recognizable design of the Solomonic columns goes back to the twelve columns that Constantine the Great brought to Rome in the 4th century. They were said to originate from the temple of Solomon and erected as columns of the Old St. Peter’s Basilica. In the course of the construction of the megalomaniac new building of St. Peter still seen today, these columns were removed from their original place of installation.
Their original function can be seen in the fresco of the Donation of Constantine in the Sala di Costantino in the Vatican. The gigantic new church, the pillars comparatively shrunk and were downgraded from a space-defining element to a detail in the decoration of the crossing pillars. With this striking architectural frame, the portrait obviously references the Countess’s trip to Italy on which sitting for a portrait in Antwerp was a mere stopover. The columns are not generic set pieces of ancient Italian architecture, however. They are inextricably linked with Saint Peter in Rome and thus the center of the Catholic Church. This is emphasized by the arrangement of the columns, which is not adapted to the shape of the loggia on which, according to the logic of the picture, they should be placed. Rather, they seem strongly distorted in perspective as the supporting pillars of a ciborium. Solomon’s pillars appear very prominently in Raphael’s cartoon depicting the healing of a paralyzed man by St. Peter from 1515.
In the cartoon the elaborately Solomonic pillars dominate the composition. The human figures in the scene are restricted by the twelve columns in such a way that the columns appear as the actual focus. The many secondary figures, often half hidden between them, surround the main scene from the Acts of the Apostles, framed on both sides by prominent colonnades leading the gaze into the background of the composition. According to John Shearman, the original cartoons were discovered by Rubens in Arras in 1620 and shortly after recommended to the English king for purchase. The purchase was not successfully completed until 1623. The cartoons, then acquired by Prince Charles, remained part of the state collection until after the execution of Charles I.
The portrait session of Lady Arundel in Antwerp falls in the period between Rubens’ finding of the cartoons and their acquisition by the English royal court. It is unthinkable that Rubens’ discovery was not a subject of his conversation with the Countess. Rubens had copied Raphael’s cartoons before and so the columns may not only represent a reference to the destination of the trip and the Countess’s Catholic faith. The inclusion of the motif moreover points to the conversation about the Raphael cartoons and shows that at this time Rubens was pondering the English court as a suitable buyer.
At the time of the sitting, the so-called Spanish Match between the English heir to the throne and the Spanish Infanta was being negotiated with new intensity. In the context of the negotiations for the Spanish Match the purchase of Raphael’s cartoons can be understood as a statement on the importance of the original, unidivided religious community founded by the apostles.1According to Jerry Brotton, the importance of the acquisition of the cartoons is underestimated, although they represent Charles’ first major purchase. The cartoons represented a veiled commitment to the authority of the papacy founded by the apostles and were known as such through copies at Catholic courts throughout Europe. Even if according to Anthony Blunt, Rubens used the Solomonic columns so often in his compositions that it would be difficult to list all instances conclusively, the use of this element in the portrait of a Catholic noblewoman and art connoisseur from England is striking.
The columns in the background address Rome as possible destination of Lady Arundel’s journey, connecting her travels with the possible acquisition of the famed Raffael cartoons. Her catholic faith made Lady Arundel an important dilomatic figure. A visit to the center of the catholicism was politically difficult if not dangerous for members of the English court, let alone a woman. Around 1620, the ubiquitous desire for peace played a role, the hope for which many saw in the union between the English and Spanish crown. Against the background of the religiously and dynastically motivated wars in Europe, Lady Arundel is being staged as an ambassador of this contemporary hope for peace and unity.