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Because the few grand tapestries of the early modern period that survive are frail and rarely exhibited, we forget that they were the most luxurious and prized of art forms among European elite, far costlier than painting or sculpture. So it is rare to encounter not one but four monumental Flemish tapestries in the remarkable exhibition Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The four belong to a series of twenty tapestries, known as The Triumph of the Eucharist, commissioned in the 1620s by the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, Habsburg princess and Spanish governor-general of the southern Netherlands (roughly equivalent to present-day Belgium), who held court in Brussels. The Infanta’s task was to protect the crown’s Catholic dominions and win back Habsburg territory lost to rebel Protestants of the northern Netherlands (roughly equivalent to The Netherlands of today). She was defender of the Catholic faith at a time when the terrible religious wars threatened to split Europe in two.
What is the subject matter of the tapestry series? The imagery aimed to glorify the Roman Catholic Church; specifically, it sought to express the church’s triumph over heresy, a major theme in the Counter Reformation period. The series was intended for the church of the Convent of the Barefoot Royals (Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales) in Madrid. The convent church, near the royal palace, was also the church of the Habsburg family. The tapestries decorated the convent church on principal events of the church year and remain in regular use, although these days the site is both museum and convent. The exhibition also features the original tapestry designs—in the form of painted modelli (oil sketches)—alongside their woven counterparts. The oil sketches were created to guide the weavers, and six modelli appear here, newly restored.
This introduces the question of design. Who was the creative force behind this tapestry series? The tapestry designer (and painter of the exquisite modelli) was none other than the Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens of Antwerp. Rubens was court painter to the Infanta, trusted diplomat, and knight of the Spanish crown. Rubens devised the series in his Antwerp studio, and his designs were woven in Brussels by the famed workshops of Jan Raes I and Jacob Geubels II.
Some four hundred years later, these monumental tapestries—robust profusions of wool and silk, comprised of eight or nine warp threads per centimeter, and measuring some five meters high by seven meters long—still stun. Despite their age, the tapestries have retained their colors of blues, greens, and yellows. The blacks and browns remain tenacious enough, although the red thread has lost vigor. By placing the small modelli alongside the grand hangings, the exhibition considers matters of scale, color, and process across media. Rubens must have pushed for more pictorial effects in tapestry than ever before. The eye confronts lush texture, density, and color at the same time that it perceives volumetric form and illusionistic space. One admires the delicate, woven gradations of hues—the eye lingers on the shiny, silkiest passages used to model forms, enhancing a sense of volume and creating light effects. An exhibition diagram reconstructs how the tapestries once hung inside the church, probably one atop another, covering most of the wall space. The exhibition is testament to the singular visual power of this medium.
Now for the iconography. Because this is Rubens, viewers expect complex imagery that flows into an energetic whole. We certainly get that here. Each tapestry features a central scene with powerful figures in motion, some riding Roman chariots, symbol of victory. Above the central scene, playful cherubim unfurl fictive “tapestries” to suggest spatial ambiguity and multiple levels of reality. Is that a “tapestry” within a tapestry? A “painting” within a tapestry? Or some external “reality,” glimpsed via a fictive gap in the church wall? Tricky Rubens.
Architecture or garlands indicate heavenly, earthly, or allegorical realms. For instance, Solomonic columns signal that a scene takes place in the heavenly realm (referencing the Old Testament’s temple of Solomon, a Christian symbol for the heavenly Jerusalem), while Tuscan orders symbolize the world of humans. Below the central scene, bracketed by garlands, animals may appear as allegories of good and evil. Rubens synthesized a complexity of classical motifs, allegories, and Christian symbols into a visual language of power and optimism that his patrons adored, particularly the royals. And he made it look easy. Erudite Rubens.
Consider how Rubens designs an individual image. For instance, when the subject matter seeks to express the spiritual victory of the Catholic Church over its enemies, namely heretics, how does Rubens handle it? Rubens’s modello, The Victory of Truth over Heresy (ca. 1625–26), presents the allegorical figures of Time (a winged old man with beard and scythe) and Truth (a beautiful woman in white) rising above a trampled dragon, symbol of evil. Defeated human foes appear here too: iconoclasts, Muslims, and Jews fall, flee, or lie prostrate, as lady Truth of the Catholic Church ascends in triumph. Among the defeated are two Protestant reformers: John Calvin is portrayed with a pointed beard, while Martin Luther appears with monk’s habit. Lady Truth points to a Latin inscription above, Hoc est corpus meum (This is my body), a reference to the Eucharist, the central ritual of Christian worship. Below the main scene is an allegory: the noble lion (an allegory for the victorious Catholic Church) claws a dying fox (as a symbol of Satan, it stands for heresy.) In sum, the devotional, ecclesiastical, and political coalesce in a vigorous whole. Sly Rubens.
The series culminates in a tapestry titled The Triumph of the Church over Ignorance and Blindness (ca. 1626–33), which, as we shall see, also celebrates the triumph of the Eucharist. Its subject matter encapsulates the entire iconographic program of the series, and, arguably, it shows off Rubens’s most powerful moves. Before turning to the iconography, it is important to revisit two theological matters: the Eucharist—where wafer (bread) and wine are taken—was, according to the bible, instituted by Christ at the Last Supper, and emerged in the Christian Church as the fundamental ritual and sacrament in memory of Christ. The moment when the wafer is consecrated, known as “transubstantiation,” was, for Catholics, the moment when the wafer becomes the body of Christ. This was the holiest moment in the Eucharist ritual and became the central part of disputation between Catholics and Protestants. For Protestants, “transubstantiation” was understood to be symbolic in spirit, reenacted in reverence of Christ. For Catholics, once the “Host” (or Sacrament) was consecrated, it was believed that the spirit of Christ was actually present (and thus the Sacrament, sometimes housed within a monstrance, could be worshipped).
So, how does Rubens deliver? He conceived of the scene as an ancient Roman triumph, fusing classical and Christian elements. A gilded chariot drawn by white horses transports a regal woman who represents the church. With both hands, regal church holds a monstrance, Host within, gazing at it in adoration. (This scene corresponds to the actual procession held on the feast day of the Eucharist, when the monstrance would be carried through the streets—as scholar Nora de Poorter once described it—like a prince in triumph among crowds kneeling in adoration.) The rolling chariot wheels crush several foes underneath, symbolizing the power of the Eucharist and the church’s triumph over evil. Two allegorical figures hobble beside the chariot, bound and blindfolded: these are Blindness and Ignorance (the latter has the ears of an ass). Below this central “tapestry” scene is an allegory: a globe surrounded by a serpent biting its tail (symbolizing eternity), along with a palm branch (symbol of victory). With a single image, Rubens covers so much ground. The Triumph of the Church tapestry effectively proclaims this: the Eucharist prevails over those who attempt to desecrate it, now and always. Clever Rubens.
The curators include two portraits of the formidable Infanta. A gorgeous painting by Alonso Sánchez Coello presents a glittering princess aged nineteen, the apple of her father’s eye. This contrasts with a portrait of the Infanta, painted forty years later by Rubens himself, recast as a humble and devout ruler, wearing the simple, dark Franciscan habit she donned then. Her piety inspired her people.
This is the context in which the “God of Painters” (as Rubens was already known by then) designed the Infanta’s divine cause. A Catholic, he too was devoted to the Eucharist. The valuable exhibition publication rightly describes Rubens’s unique sense of “visual rhythm” and “timing” of ascending and descending forms.
Historically, of course, we know what follows. Spain would not win back the northern Netherlands. Nor could Roman Catholicism stem the tide of Protestantism. Moreover, production of the grandest early modern art form, the monumental tapestry, already in decline, would cease thereafter.
Today, Rubens’s iconographic acrobatics may seem beyond us busy moderns. At first glance, the myriad elements and illusionistic layers overwhelm. Baroque pomp and classical splendor clash with contemporary aesthetics. Christian elements complicate. But if we take the extra time to unravel the complexities, follow the visual rhythms, and stay on his marvelous ride just a little longer, we can better grasp the magnitude of Rubens’s powers and truly understand what this landmark achievement means.
Christine Petra Sellin
Professor, Department of Art, California Lutheran University
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