Even though Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Baroque master and one of the greatest painters of the 17th century, lived 250 years before the invention of the motion picture camera, what he must have really yearned to do was direct.
At least, this was my initial thought upon getting a look at Spectacular Rubens at the Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibition of four magnificent Rubens-designed tapestries from his Triumph of the Eucharist series.
Maybe it was because the Oscars are coming up or maybe it was because the tapestries call to mind epic battles frozen on theater screens, but I couldn’t shake my film analogy.
Maybe it was because the Oscars are coming up or maybe it was because the presentation in Cullinan Hall of the 16-by-24-foot tapestries call to my mind epic battles frozen on theater screens, but I couldn’t shake my film analogy while walking through the exhibition with David Bomford, MFAH director of conservation and Alejandro Vergara, senior curator of Flemish and Northern European paintings, Museo Nacional del Prado.
As Bomford and Vergara discussed the origins of the series, the design and labor it took to create the works and their subject matter, these cinematic connections seemed even more apparent to me.
So pop some popcorn and let’s take a behind-the-scenes look at Spectacular Rubens, the making of the Triumph of the Eucharist — a film woven in wool and silk instead of light projected on screen.
The Executive Producer: Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia
The devout and deadly (with a crossbow, if you were a deer) favorite child of King Philip II of Spain, Isabel was the granddaughter of both a king of France and a Holy Roman emperor. Isabel and her husband Archduke Albert of Austria ruled together over the Spanish Netherlands until his death when she was made governor-general (in a no term-limits situation) whereupon she shaved her head put on a nun’s habit and ruled piously but solely for the rest of her life.
The Exclusive Run
The tapestry series was commissioned by Isabel to hang in Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, (Convent of the Barefoot Royals and best band name ever) the convent in Madrid she worshiped in as a child.
Besides being one of the greatest painters of the human form, Rubens was an astute businessman, diplomat, scholar and spy — that’s Rubens, Peter Paul Rubens. His artistic reputation allowed him access into the great European courts of the age, and he even managed to get himself knighted by usual enemies Spain and England. He was also a staunch Catholic whose beliefs mirrored his patron’s.
Besides being one of the greatest painters of the human form, Rubens was an astute businessman, diplomat, scholar and spy — that’s Rubens, Peter Paul Rubens.
The Making Of
Ruben made initial sketches for Isabel’s approval of 20 scenes that would make up the series and then painted larger oil on wood panels. Six are included in the exhibition.
These panels were used as reference for when the design was scaled up again onto paper the size of the tapestries. The oil sketches and larger paper cartoons were created as mirror images of the final tapestries because the weavers would then sew through these patterns from the back, probably destroying them in the process.
The project took years and the major weaving workshops in Brussels to finish. When completed the 20 were taken on great mule trains from Northern Europe to Madrid to install.
It’s pretty much your standard, timeless good vs. evil clash, depicted using allegorical images, but in Antwerp in the first half of the 17th century to Isabel and Rubens, at least, good meant transubstantiation was real, and evil were those who would deny it.
The Cast of Characters
Each of the tapestries tells a section of this overreaching political and philosophical story where the ideals of Catholicism trounce the forces of Protestantism, which is rather difficult to illustrate unless an artist is using symbolic figures. Father Time; various saints; Truth, played by a voluptuous woman; the Church, played by a voluptuous woman; Divine Love, played by a voluptuous women (there might a patten developing) feeding baby angels her blood; all become heroes as do Book of Genesis notables like Abraham.
In Victory of Truth over Heresy viewers can spot John Calvin and Martin Luther fleeing the beautiful woman Truth as she tramples an evil dragon. (Spoiler Alert: I think this might be a season 5 Game of Thrones episode, as well.)
The villains also take both allegorical and historical form. In Victory of Truth over Heresy viewers can spot John Calvin and Martin Luther fleeing the beautiful woman Truth as she tramples an evil dragon. (Spoiler Alert: I think this might be a season 5 Game of Thrones episode, as well.)
“All the interesting parts of these compositions are the bad guys,” noted Bomford in agreement with an essay Vergara wrote for the exhibition catalog. “All the depictions of the Catholic Church and Truth and so on, they’re all quite beautiful and slightly bland. It’s the villains that are really interesting, the idolators and heretics and things like that.”
Vergara also believes there are several ways of looking at the works, one certainly being in a historical context, but views can’t help but also see the quality of beautiful art by Rubens. “You have those two things happening at the same time. To one of things you need to relate to historically and the other one more personally as someone who is here and now,” he said.
There are so many details and flourishes within the panels and tapestries, a viewer could spend hours trying to fully see art and story in each work, and then might find some small image just as extraordinary as the main story. For example the lion mauling a fox at the bottom of Truth over Heresy certainly deserves his own spinoff series of tapestries. Call your agent, lion.
The Twist Ending
Like many artists of the late 16th, early 17th centuries, including Shakespeare, Rubens had a “fascination between what is the difference between reality and illusion,” said Vergara.
Look closely and see that many of the tapestries contain tapestries within tapestries. Even my lion appears to not be held in the main tapestry but instead coming out from underneath it, perhaps ready to leap into the museum.
As we leave the theater — OK, museum — we might wonder if all the world’s a tapestry and all the men and women merely woven into it.
Spectacular Rubens is on view at the MFAH until May 10.