The crowning glory of Inigo Jones’ building
The significance of the Banqueting House ceiling can hardly be over-stated. It was the crowning glory of Inigo Jones's building and the canvasses, installed by March 1636, confirmed the Banqueting House at the forefront of princely taste.
Rubens is commissioned
The ceiling canvasses were painted by the famous 17th-century Flemish artist, Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and is the only scheme painted by him to remain in its original position.
They were commissioned by Charles I, probably in 1629-30 when Rubens visited him in England. At this time Rubens was acting as an envoy from the Spanish King, Philip IV.
During this visit he may have executed the preparatory sketch for the ceiling, now on loan to the National Gallery.
Painting on a massive scale
The nine ceiling canvasses are large - the central panel measures over 58 square metres. The painted cherubs are close to 3 metres tall.
The large scale of the commission did not deter Rubens, as he relished working on a grand scale and had written to James I's agent in 1621: 'I confess that I am, by natural instinct, better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities. Everyone according to his gifts; my talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size or diversified in subject, has ever surpassed my courage.'
The canvasses were painted by Rubens and members of his studio in Antwerp. In October 1635 they were shipped to London and by March 1636 they were in place in the Banqueting House.
It appears that Rubens had no intention of accompanying his works to England, and in fact he never saw them in situ. He had to wait two years to be paid the £3,000 which he was due. Charles I also rewarded him with a heavy gold chain.
Lead image of Rubens, copyright Kunsthistorisches Museum The Bridgeman Art Library