Breathtaking, inspiring and artistically engaging, “Spectacular Rubens: the Triumph of the Eucharist,” a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, features the work of master artist Peter Paul Rubens told in both elaborate oil sketches and monumental original tapestries woven in the early 1620s for a Franciscan convent in Spain.
It’s the largest number of works for the Eucharist series assembled in more than half a century and the first time these tapestries have traveled to the United States.
“This is Rubens on a grand scale that we don’t get to see often enough,” said Getty curator Anne Woollett, who worked with the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain, in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and in collaboration with the Patrimonio Nacional to mount this exhibition. “The complex iconography will grab you by the soul and we hope visitors will revel in the spirituality, joy and exuberance of Ruben’s unbridled creativity.”
Visitors who pass under the large photo realist images of the convent doors to enter the gallery will probably gasp with awe upon seeing the large tapestries, some as big as 16 feet high and 25 feet wide. The scope, content and skilled command of the tapestries harkens to a time when art was intricately linked to royalty and the bold presentation of deep, intimate, spiritual ideas.
This exhibit features four of the 20 tapestries that were originally commissioned to Rubens by the Spanish governor-general of the Netherlands, the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia. The interconnected the tapestries were intended to be hung in the Monasterio de las Descalza Reals (Convent of the Barefoot Royals) which was located near the royal palace.
The Infanta had a profound sense of religious obligation, and along with her husband, Cardinal-Archduke Albert of Austria, the two established a solid Catholic state after decades of conflict.
When her husband died, the Infanta exchanged her court dress for a Poor Clare nun’s habit (shown in paintings at the exhibit) but continued to wage military and diplomatic campaigns to secure peace. Rubens was probably called upon to broker behind-the-scenes deals and arrangements because of his ambassadorial nature and status as court painter, explained Woollett. “Patron and painter both shared a passionate and almost militant view of Catholicism.”
The commissioning of these tapestries was viewed as a way to convince the masses of the power of the Catholic Church against the perceived heresies of the day (often depicted as Calvin and Luther).
For more than 400 years, these tapestries (one on top of another) decorated the two-storied convent church on Good Friday and the Octave of Corpus Christi as well as other special circumstances. (Art scholars don’t know the specific designation of where the tapestries were hung.) It’s suggested the tapestries may also have been hung outside of the building for other select occasions.
A Closer Look
Overall, the tapestries are illusions within illusions. Powerful figures and small angels unfurl the tapestries amidst a backdrop of architectural details like stonework and garlanded columns.
Good versus evil is the main subtext for theological virtues told with images from the Old Testament, the life of Jesus and other Christian symbols. “These are bigger than liturgical statements,” said Woollett. “They were meant to celebrate the nature of the love of God.”
The wool and silk tapestries, each weighing about 200 pounds, are displayed alongside six of Ruben’s original oil sketches which weavers used to create the final artwork. These modelli have been recently conserved with a grant from the Getty Foundation through its Panel Paintings Initiative.
The modellis, Wollett pointed out, are “mirror backward images” because weavers needed to work from right to left on their looms as they “read” the sketch design. Even though he knew weavers would have to “recreate” his art in a different media, Rubens “showed no concessions when it came to complex scenes,” said Wollett referring to large expanses of skin, intricate illusions and demanding compositions.
Weavers with specialized talent — faces, architecture, etc. — were called upon to construct specific elements, making the tapestries a many-handed creation. They, along with Rubens, did receive artistic credit for the final product.