Northern convert artists in Rome


Peter Paul Rubens, St. Gregory the Great surrounded by male and female saints adoring the miraculous image of the Virgin and child, the so-called Madonna della Vallicella, 1606, oil on canvas. Grenoble, Musée de Grenoble, France.

In 1606 the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), who had come to Rome from Antwerp, won perhaps the most important commission of his young career. This was the high altarpiece painting for the Chiesa Nuova, the Roman mother church of the Oratorians, a Catholic reform religious order founded in the papal city during the sixteenth century. That same year, German engraver Mattheus Greuter (c. 1564/1566 – 1638), come to Rome from Strassburg, executed two engravings for the Roman Oratorian congregation that echoed the composition of Rubens’ altarpiece.

Both working in the Oratorian milieu, and almost certainly working collaboratively, the two artists’ biographies intertwined in more ways than one. Rubens and Greuter emigrated from northern Europe around the turn of the seventeenth century, and in their artistic pilgrimage they were not exceptional, but were following an established Renaissance paradigm in the footsteps of such transalpineEuropean artists as Albrecht Dürer. However, what made them different as northern artists in Italy after the Council of Trent was their common origin amongst the first generation born Protestant in northern Europe, who subsequently converted “back to” Catholicism and left their sometimes war-ravaged homelands for Rome.

In the papal city they came to be recognized as convert and potential converters of other northern heretics, even marketing themselves as such. Such convert diaspora artists’ personal reformative spiritual discernment made them exceptional figurers of divine vision – or at least, such was the perception amongst certain ecclesiastical elites. In post-Tridentine Rome, for artists like Rubens and Greuter, denying protestant heresy in order to serve the Pope and his Church not only informed, but could play a pivotal role, in securing patronage. In a 1604 copyright request Greuter submitted to the Sacred Palace, a Vatican entity with oversight of publication permissions and censorship, he foregrounded the story of his conversion:

It was around ten years ago that Mattheus Greuter abandoned the Lutheran heresy, and embraced the truth of the Catholic faith. In order to live more securely as a Catholic he forsook his homeland, and with his three children […] came into Catholic territories […] where he has lived several years with great spiritual consolation, surviving by his art of copper engraving, by which he he has made both his livelihood, and a great name for himself.

Greuter would have only included the story of his conversion if he believed it would help him obtain printing privileges, which in this case it did.

Another northerner convert working in the Oratorian orbit, self-exiled engraver Philippe Thomassin (1562 – 1622), a contemporary of Rubens and Greuter, collaborated with the latter in 1596. Having come from France to Rome, he faced the Roman Inquisition for having engraved a portrait of then-heretical King Henry IV. After imprisonment he went into exile in Naples, where Oratorian Cardinal Cesare Baronio (1538-1607), writing from Rome, located him in 1593 to execute a new illustration for the title page of Baronio’s Annales Ecclesiastici. Thomassin returned to Rome redeemed after completing the engraving, a rendering of the Oratorians’ own marian icon, and an icongraphy predetermined by Baronio.

Bound up with Baronio’s strategic patronage were the confessional ramifications of the engraver, punished for one heretical image, then producing an orthodox Catholic one. Thomassin’s engraving, as well as Greuter’s prints and Rubens’ altarpiece, affirmed the sacred Catholic institutions, such as the cults of saints and of images and the sacrament of the Mass. Their works simultaneously sublimated the threat of heresy, latent in these artists’ homelands and biographies. The images these convert artists produced figured the invisible interior act of the would-be heretic’s recant, constituting a sign of their inward act of faith and obedience to the Roman Catholic Church.

–Ruth S. Noyes

Ruth S. Noyes received her doctorate in the History of Art in 2010 from Johns Hopkins University. This entry reflects a broader book project under development titled “Un Luterano di quella razza che si abrusciorno in campo de fiore.” Catholic convert diaspora artists in early modern Italy.


Bruwaert, Edmond.  La vie et les oeuvres de Philippe Thomassin, graveur troyen, 1562-1622.  Troyes: P. Nouel & J.-L. Paton, 1914.

Hollstein, F. W. H. German Engravings, Etchings, and Woodcuts, Ca. 1400-1700. Amsterdam: M. Hertzberger, 1954.

Bertolotti, Antonino. Artisti Belgi Ed Orlandesi a Roma Nei Secoli XVI e XVII; Notizie e Documenti Raccolti Negli Archivi Romani. Bologna: Arnaldo Forni Editore, 1974.

Huemer, Frances. Rubens and the Roman Circle: Studies of the First Decade. Garland Studies in the Renaissance. New York: Garland Pub., 1996.

Finocchiaro, Giuseppe. Cesare Baronio e La Tipografia Dell’Oratorio: Impresa e Ideologia. Storia Della Tipografia e Del Commercio Librario. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 2005.


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