The 17th-century Flemish baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens is a great historical painter, not because of the scenes from ancient Roman history that he sometimes painted, but because, when we encounter his works, we find ourselves trying to understand what kind of society could possibly have produced art with such vivid iconography, lavish symbolism and sensual detail.

The exhibition of his work at Bunkamura: The Museum pushes visitors in this direction, as the only alternative would be to stand back in passive wonder and awe at the cosseting foliage, swirling hair and fabrics, and the expertly painted muscles and fat that seem to roll from his paintings as from a horn of plenty — something else that, by the way, often appears in Ruben’s extravagant works.

For example, the exhibition’s centerpiece is “The Finding of Romulus and Remus” (ca. 1612-13), a large canvas that takes the Roman historical theme back to its mythic roots. This complex composition includes birds and foliage, two chubby infants, the she-wolf that suckled them and a shepherd about to stumble upon them. Two Roman gods — naked — are thrown in for good measure.

Such a work has us wondering why themes such as this, with its pagan gods and heroes, its richness of detail and dramatic composition, had such an appeal to the Christian landed aristocracy of the 17th-century, or in this case the Catholic hierarchy as the work is from a former papal collection. These paintings, so impossible in today’s cynical and irony-laden artistic climate, serve as puzzles, spurring us to historical comprehension in order to grasp the art.

The exhibition seems to be aware of this tendency of the works to make us ponder and seek answers, as it does its best to send us home with a fuller understanding of the painter and his milieu. This is signaled by the slightly awkward title “Rubens: Inspired by Italy and Established in Antwerp,” which sets out the two main geographic poles of the painter’s career.

This North-South polarity also reminds us of the great schism in Europe at the time, between Catholicism and Protestantism. Rubens’ life coincided with what was perhaps the most devastating war in European history in terms of proportional impact, the Thirty Years War, in which a large percentage of the population of central Europe perished.

This intense, sectarian divide partly helps to explain the redolent paganism of “The Finding of Romulus and Remus,” as the struggle, seen from the Protestant North was one against Roman power, and the Papal City, even though intensely Catholic, was keen to garner cultural power by emphasizing its past glories as the capital of a pagan empire, even if this meant promoting the old Roman myths.

Compared with his pagan themes, which he continued to paint with the passion that struck him when he first arrived in Italy at the impressionable age of 23, Rubens’ Christian subject matter is much less inspired. This is because Rubens, above all else, was a painter who exulted in movement and action, whereas the great set pieces of Christian art — the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the piety and martyrdom of saints, etc. — have a passive, static and quietest character that suits a more reflective brush.

An interesting contrast here is between Rubens and his student and assistant Anthony Van Dyck. One of the aspects of the exhibition is the importance of the great workshop, in which the master would sketch out the composition then allow his apprentices to do the less important painting, until finally stepping back in to do the highlights and the finishing. Many a Rubens canvas is in fact a collective effort, and many young artists got their start in his workshop, including Van Dyck.

The exhibition features works by these associated artists, of which the most impressive is Van Dyck’s “St. Mary Magdalene Repentant” (1618-20). This shows the reformed Biblical prostitute in reflective mode. While Rubens’ brush hungers for action, Van Dyck’s sits comfortably with mood and emotion, creating drama and interest in the reddened cheeks and tearful eyes of the repentant — a truly psychological painting.

Compare this with Rubens’ Christian subjects. “The Lamentation of Christ” (ca. 1614) shows his skill in composition and foreshortening, but there is a lackluster feel to the painting of people clustered around the dead savior. “The Resurrected Christ Triumphant” (ca. 1616) allows more energy and dynamism, but, although an important commission, it is still a lot less convincing.

To best see Ruben’s artistic mojo at work, it is better to turn to a series of simple oil sketches he did in preparation for the paintings used to decorate the Spanish king’s hunting lodge at Torre de la Parada. These rough, pagan-themed daubs have a dynamism and a hint of wild energy that seem to best evoke the real Rubens.

“Rubens: Inspired by Italy and Established in Antwerp” runs at Bunkamura The Museum till April 21; open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. till 9 p.m.). ¥1,500. www.bunkamura.co.jp/english/museum

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