Peter Paul Rubens 1577 – 1640
Los defensores de la Eucaristía
The Defenders of the Eucharist
Oil on canvas
65,5 cm x 68 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Rubens was one of the leading voices of the Catholic Counter-Reformation style of painting
In September 1609 Rubens was appointed as court painter by Albert VII, Archduke of Austria and Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, sovereigns of the Low Countries.
Rubens was twice knighted: by Philip IV of Spain in 1624, and then by Charles I of England in 1630.
He was also awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University in 1629
In 1625 the Infanta commissioned Rubens to design a series of seventeen tapestries destined for the Monasterio de las Descalzas in Madrid
Painted panels were needed for the tapenstries
Six of these panels are in the Prado and this is one of them - the tenth in the series
Each panel is a triumphant procession
This is no exception
One can almost hear the accompanying music
In this procession, St Clare of Assisi holds the monstrance
Her face has the face of the Infanta. Rubens was of course a consummate diplomat
St Clare had a special devotion to the Holy Eucharist
In art St Clare always carries a ciborium or a monstrance from the legend that in 1234, she repelled attackers from the army of Frederick II who were engaged on an assault upon Assisi, by taking the ciborium from the little chapel adjoining her cell, proceeded to face the invaders at an open window against which they had already placed a ladder and then raised the Sacrament on high
Beside the figure of St Clare is St Thomas Aquinas, the author of Lauda Sion Salvatorem, the sequence for the Mass of Corpus Christi around 1264, at the request of Pope Urban IV for the new Mass of the Feast
Dies enim solemnis agiturIn qua mensæ prima recoliturHujus institutio.("For on this solemn day is again celebrated the first institution of the Supper")
He is of course also author of Pange lingua, Sacris solemniis, Adoro te devote, and Verbum supernum prodiens, which are used in the Divine Office.
Also present are the four great Doctors of the Church. At the end of the procession is St Jerome
Leading the procession are Saints Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great
Completing the procession is St Norbert of Xanten (c. 1080 – 6 June 1134), also known as Norbert Gennep, founder of the Premonstratensian order of canons regular at Prémontré in the Diocese of Laon in France
He was known as the "Apostle of Antwerp" and therefore is an apt saint for a commissioner and artist from Antwerp
The saint was also noted for his defence of the Eucharist
Indeed he was called the “Apostle of the Blessed Sacrament”
In the iconography of Norbert he stands holding a monstrance or some Eucharistic symbol, perhaps a chalice or ciborium, or kneeling in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
He preached against the eucharistic heresy of Tanchelm in Antwerp which is perhaps why the Infanta and Rubens thought his inclusion in the tapestry most appropriate
His cult was revived during the Counter-Reformation and he was canonised by Gregory XIII in 1582 (at the same time as that of St. Romuald and St. Bruno)
Here we see the finished tapestry in the Salón de Tapices in the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales in Madrid. It is 500 x 492 cm and made from wool and silk. It was manufactured by Jan II Raes, Hans Vervoert, and Jacques Fobert in Brussels 1627-1632
Apart from the mirror image, one important change is the prominent position given to the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is not the dove but the bird seen by St Teresa of Avila in her vision of the Holy Spirit
Rubens was more than familiar with the Vision of St Teresa on the Vigil of Pentecost 1569. See Vision of the Dove
St Teresa described her vision in this way:
"One day-it was the vigil of Pentecost-I went, after Mass, to a very solitary spot, where I used often to say my prayers, and began to read about this festival in the Carthusian's Life of Christ.
As I read about the signs by which beginners, proficients, and the perfect may know if the Holy Spirit is with them, it seemed to me, when I had read about these three states, that by the goodness of God, and so far as I could understand, He was certainly with me then....
While I was meditating in this way a strong impulse seized me without my realising why.
It seemed as if my soul were about to leave my body, because it could no longer contain itself and was incapable of waiting for so great a blessing....
I had to seek some physical support, for so completely did my natural strength fail me that I could not even remain seated.
While in this condition, I saw a dove over my head, very different from those we see on earth, for it had not feathers like theirs but its wings were made of little shells which emitted a great brilliance.
It was larger than a dove; I seemed to hear the rustling of its wings. It must have been fluttering like this for the space of an Ave Maria.
But my soul was in such a state that, as it became lost to itself, it also lost sight of the dove."