A masterpiece from the golden age of painting
The ceiling of the Banqueting House is a masterpiece and the only surviving in-situ ceiling painting by Flemish artist, Sir Peter Paul Rubens. It is also one of the most famous works from the golden age of painting.
The canvases were painted by Rubens and installed in the hall in 1636. The three main canvasses depict The Union of the Crowns, The Apotheosis of James I and The Peaceful Reign of James I.
Most likely commissioned by Charles I in 1629-30, this ceiling was one of his last sights before he lost his head. The King was executed on a scaffold outside on Whitehall in 1649.
‘I confess that I am, by natural instinct, better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities.’ - Rubens in a 1621 letter to James I’s agent was not deterred by the large scale of the commission.
Indeed, the ceiling canvasses are large - individually, two of them measure 28 x 20ft (approximately 9 x 6m) and two others measure 40 x 10ft (approximately 13 x 3m).
When the canvases were first unrolled on the floor, Inigo Jones and Rubens’ assistants realised with mounting horror that they wouldn’t fit in the ceiling.
The problem had occurred because although both Belgium and England measured in feet and inches, each country used a different length for a foot. Drastic moderations had to be made on site to make them fit.
It appears that Rubens never saw his works inside the Banqueting House. He wrote to a friend, 'In as much as I have a horror of courts, I sent my work to England in the hands of someone else.'
After an initial two-year delay, Rubens received £3,000 (the equivalent of £218,000 today) and a heavy gold chain as payment for his work.