Constantia Rubens

Portrait of Rubens's youngest daughter, autumn 1683

Everyone eagerly awaited my birth as the inheritance could not be divided without my presence. And it was a sizeable inheritance, even though I reduced everyone's share.

He never saw me

There is no portrait of me. I realised this as a child. There are beautiful portraits of my elder stepbrothers Albert and Nicolaas, of my sisters and brothers Clara-Johanna, Frans, Isabella-Helena and Peter Paul. They were all painted by our father, Rubens. He never saw me. The master's hand never immortalised my face as a child with a few quick, deft strokes. My mother remarried, with Mr van Bergeyck and had a new family. I ended up between the two.

 

A home of my own

I have lived in La Cambre Abbey near Brussels since I was eleven. Yes, I entered the convent at a very young age.  To have a home of my own. I went to school here and wanted to stay here. My mother thought it was a good choice, everyone did actually. I took a vow of poverty. I don't feel so bad now that there is no portrait of me. Albert and my mother come to visit me sometimes.

There are about thirty nuns here. We rise early, we sing and pray in the choir. On ordinary days we are served two meals a day, always without meat. On fast days only one meal. In winter we are allowed to wear a fur coat, thank God, because it can get quite cold here.

Our new abbess is doing her best to improve our finances. The war has brought our convent to the brink of bankruptcy. When she was elected, I was also a candidate. However, Claire Schetz already had quite a reputation as an economist. I don't think I could implement her rigorous policies. She economises on everything. She has to spend her days balancing books, writing letters, in meetings and trials, in discussions with tenants whose harvest was trampled by soldiers. She leads the life of my stepbrothers.

 

The first sign of trouble

Ten years ago, one lovely summer's days in June 1673, we spotted the first sign of trouble. We heard the sound of trumpets and rolling drums, the thundering of horse's hooves, of banners in the wind. It seemed as if the world was about to end here in the peaceful Sonian Forest. We rushed to the gate. We saw rows and rows of musketeers in red cloaks ride by. And then we saw him, the king of France, Louis, the fourteenth to go by that name. He made his horse rear up and courteously took of his hat with the white feathers for us. We all curtsied deeply. He had a magnificent retinue of princes and dukes, followed by soldiers. They were on their way to Maastricht. For a battle. And we know all too well in Brussels that one battle begets another.

 

The memory of warm colours

Wars last such a long time. They tend to fall silent in winter, but then we have other problems. And yet I look forward to the saint's day of the holy bishop who lived here as a hermit, a long time ago. 19 February. In spite of the cold, we celebrate the saint's day of Boniface of Brussels. We carry his reliquary on our shoulders to the place where his hut used to be. The locals celebrate with us. This makes me very happy. And I often draw strength from the suffering that another saint of our abbey, Aleidis of Schaerbeeck, courageously endured. Centuries ago even. She became blind. If I were to go blind, I would still remember the warm colours of certain paintings, the colours of the lovingly painted children's portraits in my mother's home. But I have forgotten the details.