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Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Triumph of the Eucharist

"The Triumph of the Church over Ignorance and Blindness," from The Triumph of the Eucharist, circa 1626-1633
Design by Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577–1640
Woven in the workshop of Jan Raes II, Brussels,
Wool and silk, 490 by 752 centimetres,
Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid


"The Triumph of the Church over Ignorance and Blindness," (detail) from The Triumph of the Eucharist, circa 1626-1633
Design by Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577–1640
Woven in the workshop of Jan Raes II, Brussels,
Wool and silk, 490 by 752 centimetres,
Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid


"The Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry," from The Triumph of the Eucharist, circa 1626-1633
Design by Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577–1640
Woven in the workshop of Jan Raes II, Brussels,
Wool and silk, 490 by 752 centimeters,
Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid


Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577–1640
The Sacrifice of the Old Covenant (about 1626)
70.5 x 87.6 cm (27 3/4 x 34 1/2 in.)
Oil on panel
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Oil sketch which is the design for one tapestry in a cycle known as The Triumph of the Eucharist. The Old Testament sacrifice of a lamb was presented as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ, commemorated in the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens
Flemish, 1577 - 1640
The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, c. 1626 from The Triumph of the Eucharist, circa 1626-1633
oil on panel, 65.5 x 82.4 cm (25 13/16 x 32 7/16 in.)
The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Sir Peter Paul Rubens
Flemish, 1577 - 1640
The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, c. 1626 (detail)from The Triumph of the Eucharist, circa 1626-1633
oil on panel, 65.5 x 82.4 cm (25 13/16 x 32 7/16 in.)
The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Sir Peter Paul Rubens
Flemish, 1577 - 1640
The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, c. 1626 (detail) from The Triumph of the Eucharist, circa 1626-1633
oil on panel, 65.5 x 82.4 cm (25 13/16 x 32 7/16 in.)
The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Tapestries are an often overlooked facet of Rubens’s oeuvre.

“The Triumph of the Eucharist,” a tapestry cycle of twenty parts , was commissioned by the Archduchess Isabella (the Hapsburg regent or governor of the Spanish Netherlands) in 1626 for the Poor Clares' convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid.

The tapestries were woven in Brussels and are still in the Spanish convent.

Its subject was of central significance during the Counter Reformation, given that Protestants challenged the Catholic belief that Christ’s body and blood are actually present in the Eucharist.

It was Rubens' most ambitious tapestry scheme. It blended biblical and allegorical figures with contemporary portraits.

A number of weavings centre around the Ark of the Covenant. Five show scenes of prefigurations from the Old Testament and six show allegorical triumps related to the Eucharist. As such they illustrate the mystery of Transubstantiation - the actual presence of God in the Eucharist.

The tapestries were to cover the interior walls of the convent's chapel on feast days.

Rubens began the work in 1625 with oil sketches meant to project the appearance of the installed tapestries and allow for their translation by weavers.

In the designs illusionist elements were employed, blurring the distinction between the viewer's own sphere of reality and fiction: the pictures are presented on canvases painted in trompe l'oeil, suspended by cherubs in an equally fictitious painted architectural frame. Each of the eleven 'tapestries within tapestries' shows a picture allegorising, explaining and glorifying the Eucharist.

The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek (above) is a modello, or oil sketch, for one of the tapestries. The event illustrated, from Genesis 14:1-20, is the meeting of Abraham, returning victorious from war, and Melchizedek, high priest and king of Jerusalem. Crowned with a laurel wreath, Melchizedek offers the armour-clad Abraham bread and wine, prefiguring Christ's Eucharist.

For this tapestry design, Rubens used the ingenious device of presenting the narrative as though it appears on a tapestry itself. Three flying cherubs carry the heavy, fringed fabric before an imposing architectural setting.