Come, sit with me near the open fire, I'll tell you all about my life. I lived in interesting times. You know what that usually means: calamity. But you know, there are so many calamities, and we people have to soldier on courageously. And I really did, I mean it.
My name is Maria Rubens. I tend to call myself Marie. I used to leave near St. Michael's Abbey along the Scheldt, and I will be buried in the abbey church. I often think of this, because winter is approaching and my asthma is getting worse. I can feel myself weakening.
My sons Filips and Peter Paul
My son Filips is a city official. He still lives with me but I expect he will get married soon. He used to compose poems in Latin for the girl of his dreams, but now he writes to her in ordinary language, it works much better. My youngest son, Peter Paul, lives in Rome. He receives important commissions there, he is working on a magnificent painting for the most beautiful church in Rome but I would love to see him again. If he doesn't come soon, it will be too late. And so I lay here dreaming, under a fur coverlet, near the fire: I just can't get warm anymore.
My husband Jan used to smell so nice
My father used to trade in tapestries. Stunning fabrics for decorating cold walls, woven tapestries full of animals, plants, heroes from Antiquity, knights and saints. Tapestries woven with gilt thread, which shines in the light of the fire, the candles, and the torches in winter time. I used to enjoy looking at them. Our tapestries were woven in Brussels and were very precious. My father also traded in Turkish tapestries, without plants, animals or people in them, but with lawns and roads, and the colours of flowers: beautifully landscaped gardens, which you could spread out on the floor. Oh, he used to do very well for himself. And I enjoyed a carefree youth in our vibrant city of Antwerp. Here I fell in love with a handsome, promising young man. Jan Rubens. His father was a pharmacist and Jan had studied law in Italy. He smelled nice, like the herbs in his father's shop. I was so proud of him! And everyone in Antwerp appreciated his qualities: he was an alderman of the city for five years, to everyone's satisfaction. But unrest was brewing. And then the Iconoclasm happened.
The flight to Cologne
Jan was already of the opinion that something had to change in society. He became a follower of Calvin. Like Calvin, he had studied law and he agreed with everything that Calvin wrote about the disgusting workshop of idols in churches and our enslavement by Rome. Many people in the town council agreed with him. When the Calvinists stormed the churches in the city and ruined all the statues and paintings, in the magnificent year of 1566, the town council in effect never intervened. And we were happy, because we wanted to use the churches as improved, purified houses of prayer for ourselves. The ordinary people would soon follow suit, we thought. Jan thought that the Prince of Orange, the most important nobleman in our region, would be able to allay people's fears and give the Calvinists what they wanted. But then our king dispatched the Duke of Alva to the Netherlands. And we were on his black list. Jan did not wait for him to arrive, he had me pack some necessities, I even had to leave behind the children's toys and we fled to Cologne.
I hated being a refugee. Without any guarantees, without a profession, without a status. The wife of the Prince of Orange also lived in Cologne. She was German, her name was Anna of Saxony. She asked my husband for legal advice. I was relieved: he would be able to practice his profession again and make important friends. But the princess was an unhappy, fickle woman. She seduced my husband. She became pregnant. In the spring of 1571. And the prince's brothers captured Jan and locked him up in a dungeon of their ancestral castle, Dillenburg.
I had no idea. From one day into another, my husband had disappeared and I only found out weeks later what had happened. Can you imagine, dear passer-by, how I must have felt? There I was, all by myself, with small children, in a foreign city. My husband had betrayed me. Me, and the Prince of Orange. And our children. My world fell to pieces.
But I had to remain strong. After some time, my husband was granted permission to write me a letter. In it he begged for my forgiveness. He no longer had any courage and he was hoping for a timely death, I could sense it. The fragments of my heart broke again. And so I forgave him. He was the father of my children. We had always had a good understanding. I fought back. With the few resources I had as a woman. I wrote letters to the men who held him captive begging for his release. I consoled my husband with letters, I inspired courage. "How could I be so harsh to trouble you in these times of despair and fear? I would like to help you out of there, with my own blood, if only I could and now I no longer write "you worthless man", because I have forgiven you." I paid people. With my money, our money, the money of our family. I managed to buy my husband's freedom, and reduced our family to poverty. I had to wait for two years before he was released from the fortress. But he was sentenced to house arrest, in the town of Siegen. The princess had since had his child, a daughter. She became insane. My husband was only released when she died, in 1577, and we were granted permission to return to Cologne. My Filips, my Peter Paul, they were born in Siegen, like a late gift in life.
A broken man
My husband was a broken man. He no longer had any resilience, no longer had the strength to work. I earned an income for us instead, I followed in my father's footsteps and started trading in goods. And when Jan died, I returned to Antwerp with my children. To the city of my father and mother. Yes, even to the Cathedral of Our Lady, whom Calvin despised so much. In 1589, I was back in the city. To never leave again. It was a difficult transition, but I was so happy to hear my native tongue again, to see my family, to give my children opportunities again. I buried the secret of Siegen deep in my heart. Filips and Peter Paul, they have no idea.
I hope Peter Paul returns soon
Filips sent Peter Paul a letter about my health. Oh, I hope he returns soon. That he is on his horse already, past the Alps, that I can just see him for an instant. He can paint beautiful paintings here too, many of the churches that were destroyed need new decorations. I am becoming tired, dear passer-by, leave me now, please. I must rest.
Maria Rubens died on 19 October 1608. Rubens only found out on 28 October in Rome that she was gravely ill, dropped everything and left and only arrived in Antwerp on 8 December.