Rubens’s Plan for the Eucharist Tapestries

The Solution

Three decades after my book The Triumph of the Eucharist was
published in 1982—and forty years after I published my article on how
they were conceived as two-tiered 'sacred architecture' [Art Bulletin,
December 1975]-- the enduring question of how precisely Rubens
designed the Eucharist tapestries, his grandest and most elaborate
commission of religious art, to hang together in the royal convent chapel
of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid may finally be resolved in a way
consistent with the principles I had outlined: namely, that they create a
consistent illusion with respect to Rubens’s architectural details (angles of
view and lighting) along with clear compositional and iconographic
integrity. In other words, like architect Mies van der Rohe, three centuries
later, Rubens both believed and demonstrated that “God is in the details.”
Two recent and groundbreaking contributions to the study of this
tapestry cycle have made this reconstruction not only possible but
inevitable. The first is the 2012 Rubens Symposium at the Ringling
Museum in Sarasota, Florida, organized and directed by Dr. Alexandra
Libby; the second, her own illuminating dissertation (2013) on the
Eucharist series as an extraordinary and extravagant ex-voto commission, a
fundamental revision of our understanding of its origins, context, purpose,
and political significance.
At the Ringling Symposium, Dr. Marjorie Wieseman of the
London National Gallery persuasively demonstrated that the six so-called
Balme Group bozzetti in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (UK)
were originally painted on a single panel to illustrate one wall in the chapel
decorated with these New Testament subjects. Her observations thereby
confirmed Nora de Poorter’s 1978 hypothesis (which she herself
considered “highly conjectural”, p.100) that the Wolfvoet group of six
Old Testament subjects likewise were painted on a single panel
representing a chapel wall and later cut into individual bozzetti. Following
up on these hypotheses, I have constructed two arrangements below, one
for each wall. These reveal that at the bozzetti stage Rubens already had a
clear and consistent architectural arrangement for the liturgical ‘north’ wall
to the left of the high altar (traditionally devoted to Old Testament scenes
in medieval cathedrals) and the liturgical ‘south’ wall to the right as one
faced the altar, traditionally decorated with New Testament scenes (see
Émile Mâle, L’art réligieux après le Concile de Trente, p. 338).

2 The Solution

As we see, the lighting falls to the left in the three prefigurations
(Abraham and Melchisedek, Elijah and Angel, and Moses and the Manna
above the Triumph of Hope). The placement of the narrower Elijah and
Moses tapestries together directly above the latter explains the unique
feature of paired Tuscan columns at the right, but not at the edge, in the
Triumph of Hope: they line up precisely with the pair of Solomonic
columns in the two prefigurations above. No doubt this detail was the
result of a larger space below, the side doorway and temporary altar
(perhaps), both of which had to be left uncovered. We shall see that after
completing his first modello (Prado, Madrid) for Abraham and
Melchisedek, Rubens redesigned the latter to replace the Hope tapestry
directly below (probably as a result of learning that he had to leave an
open space for the organ that had been installed a decade earlier, in 1615)
Rubens redesigned the first and uniquely royal prefiguration—since
Melchisedek was both priest and king—to the exact specifications of the
Hope tapestry, a subject he dropped from the cycle and to some degree
incorporated into the iconography of the Triumph of Ecclesia (see
Scribner, p. 80-81).

The Solution 3

The corresponding reconstruction of bozzetti for the ‘south’ New
Testament wall, the realm of Ecclesia, who dominated it in the largest of
all the tapestries, one which in my reconstruction was to hang facing the
door from the nuns’ cloister. Once again, the architectural perspective is
consistent, as one stands in the center and looks left and right, along with
the overhead lighting which fans out in two directions (right to left for the
left pair in the sanctuary; left to right in the four tapestries in the church

Author’s reconstruction of the ‘Balme Group’ bozzetti as Rubens
originally conceived them to cover the liturgical ‘south’ wall of the chapel.
The pair at the left was designed for that wall of the sanctuary or
presbytery, to the right as one faced the high altar. The pairs at the right
were for the side wall of the nave, on the lower level broken by a space to
accommodate the side entrance to the garden and public cloister. The
brilliance of Rubens’s compositional design as revealed in this
arrangement reinforces its architectural consistency--and vice versa.

4 The Solution

There soon followed at the Rubens Symposium a more dramatic
revelation: Ana García Sanz’s proposed reconstruction of the actual
tapestries around the convent chapel. Her novel arrangement, based on a
series of measurements she took of the chapel today (sheathed in wood
paneling in the 19 century and altered in many places), was visually
stunning—the first time Rubens’s tapestries were illustrated in situ in all
their glowing colors and monumental proportions. Her reconstruction
was subsequently published and meticulously illustrated in the catalogue of
the 2014 Prado and Getty exhibitions--Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph
of the Eucharist Series by Alejandro Vergara and Anne T. Woollett. But
on close inspection the proposed arrangement raises troubling questions,
for many of the tapestries appear inconsistent in angle of view, source of
lighting, and iconographic juxtapositions (beyond, of course, their
common thread of the Eucharist). It is as though Rubens, after carefully
planning his bozzetti to create a unified program, was content to re-shuffle
the cards.
More troubling is her relocation of the five ‘Adoration’ tapestries
to the back wall of the church, a location duly considered by Nora de
Poorter but (in my view) correctly rejected since this monumental, two-
storied finale would there have been invisible to the nuns in their choir
(coro alto) as well as to the congregation below in the sotocoro and, most
important, the King and royal family who would be sitting on the raised
tribune, as Dr. Libby has described, with their backs to the miraculously
elevated sacrament—as much a violation of decorum as of decoration!
The bottom tapestries would also have blocked the view of most
of the congregation sitting in the under-choir (sotocoro), leaving those
worshippers literally in the dark. Finally, in order to accommodate the
high central grill of the nuns’ choir, the central tapestry had--in Ana García
Sanz’s reconstruction—to be raised above the flanking pair, thus breaking
the line of Rubens’s illusionistic cornice. Even after thus violating Rubens’s
architectural construction, it still leaves the top half of the grill covered by
this tapestry. It is unthinkable that Rubens, who was an amateur architect
and as versatile as practical, would have tolerated, much less designed,
such an outcome.

The Solution 5

Ana García Sanz's proposed reconstruction of the five Adoration (altar)
tapestries on the south (liturgical west) wall of the present-day chapel

Finally, and by no means least, Ana García Sanz’s solution leaves
no place in the chapel--then or now--for the one tapestry Rubens took the
most care to redesign: the Abraham and Melchisedek, for which he
painted two finished modelli. She concludes that it must have hung
outside the chapel, in the cloister. But Rubens would hardly have taken
such pains to design a ‘one-off’, especially since it is clear that from the
start—bozzetto and first modello—he intended to display that first
prefiguration in the chapel proper, together with its two other traditional
companions (the Elijah and the Moses).

6 The Solution

Nonetheless, she is surely correct in placing the smaller tapestry of
David Playing the Harp above the organ (where the first Abraham and
Melchisedek was to hang) and the pair of Evangelists and Eucharistic
Saints directly opposite on the east (or liturgical ‘south’) wall, consistent
with the evidence of the two bozzetti wall panels. Using the latter as the
starting point for a new reconstruction (an idea first proposed, though not
followed through, by Nora de Poorter), we arrive at the following models
for the two side walls: the arrangement of tapestries are here ‘hung’ within
one of Juan Gómez de Mora’s architectural drawings (Windsor Castle) of
the chapel: the first noteworthy feature is the series of pilasters that run
along both nave and sanctuary (or presbytery) and are interspersed by two
levels of ornamental architectural framings that virtually provide a
blueprint for Rubens’s bi-level construction. One must imagine that he
used just such a drawing as his basis for designing the series with its fictive
architecture. Juan Gómez de Mora had been architect for the extensive
renovations of the chapel in 1612, and so it is likely that his plans would
have been the very ones supplied to the Archduchess and Rubens to
provide detailed information for the designing of so expensive a program
of church decoration.

Juan Gómez de Mora's drawing (Windsor Castle) of the west (liturgical
north) wall of the convent chapel in Rubens's day. The nuns' choir (coro
alto) is the blank rectangle at upper left; the steps at lower right lead to the
raised sanctuary or presbytery where Mass was said at the high altar.

The Solution 7

Let us now consider the liturgical ‘north’ wall to the left of the altar
as the worshippers face it: here my arrangement of the Old Testament
tapestries is superimposed on Gómez de Mora’s drawing:

In this reconstruction, the Triumph of Hope has here been
replaced, as Rubens intended, by the redesigned Abraham and Melchi-
sedek, the ancient Priest-King who now is located directly below King
David in heaven above, surrounded by a heavenly choir of accompanying
angels directly in front of the nuns’ choir and above the organ. This royal
line-up is especially telling in view of Alexandra Libby’s persuasive thesis
that ultimate ‘audience’ for the tapestries was the king himself, Philip IV,
who would have sat—and knelt-- beside these very hangings on a raised
platform or tribune approximately level with the bottom figures.
It is admittedly possible, though I consider it less likely, that
Rubens intended the nave series to hang at floor level, several steps lower
than the two sanctuary pairs; I confess to leaning in favor of Rubens’s
typical preference for architectural unity, as in the Gómez de Mora
drawing, but the alternative must not be entirely ruled out pending more
precise information of the seventeenth-century chapel in Rubens's day.

8 The Solution

In any event, my focus here is not on how the tapestries were in
fact eventually hung, but rather how Rubens meticulously designed them
to be hung. This distinction is of utmost importance, for it may well be
that the tapestries were never displayed in accordance with Rubens’s
designs—whether out of practical considerations or liturgical preferences at
the convent: in other words, Ana García Sanz’s solution may indeed be
closer to the eventual afterlife of these tapestries than my reconstruction of
Rubens’s original plan!
Returning to the liturgical ‘north’ wall, it is clear that here all the
Old Testament prefigurations, now augmented by David (who was not
only a prefiguration of Christ but also an ancestor), remain as one
iconographic and compositional unit at the left. In the sanctuary, to the
left of the priest facing the altar (as he always did, pre-Vatican II), are the
two scenes of ancient animal sacrifices: on the lower level, immediately to
the priest’s left, is the scene of bringing the Ark—the precursor to both the
Eucharistic tabernacle and monstrance—into the Temple of Solomon. At
the right, a series of steps leads to the altar of sacrifice, paralleling the steps
and actual high alter of the chapel where the bloodless sacrifice of Christ
on Calvary is renewed at each celebration of the Mass. Directly above, the
scene of the Victory of the Eucharist over Pagan Sacrifices (once again, the
priest and altar are located up a series of steps, corresponding to their
Christian counterpart in the chapel itself) is the first scene of this wall to
incorporate, literally, the Sacrament approaching the ultimate goal of these
left-to-right moving scenes: the altar which is covered with the two-tiered
scene of the Sacrament held by putti in a monstrance, beaming in heaven
with metaphysical light like a beacon, the artistic and theological focal
point of the cycle. Here again, those tapestries are reconstructed on Juan
Gómez de Mora’s drawing of that altar wall.
Behind these tapestries would have stood Gaspar Becerra’s
monumental, multi-tiered wooden retable, or reredos. The blank space in
the center, which here in the Chicago bozzetto appears to resemble a grill
was surely filled by some other form of temporary decoration during the
hanging of these tapestries. It may even have been an illusionistic grill
designed both functionally to cover that central portion of Becerra’s
retable and symbolically to honor the nuns in clausura who witnessed and
joined in this Adoration through the actual grill in their choir (coro alto)
facing those altar tapestries. In other words, Rubens may never have
intended that detail to be, but rather to represent--as part of his illusionistic
and equally symbolic re-creation of sacred architecture—the actual grill of
the nuns’ choir. The Infanta Isabel, who had herself lived and worshiped
there, would never have permitted Rubens to make such an error in the
location of most basic features of the chapel she knew so well.

The Solution 9

Author's rendering of altar tapestries superimposed on Gómez de Mora's
drawing of the sanctuary and high altar is it appeared in Rubens's day.

10 The Solution

Rubens's bozzetto (Art Institute, Chicago) of the Adoration tapestries as
originally intended to be hung on the north (liturgical east) wall, around
the high altar of the chapel, covering Gaspar Becerra's retable in the
Descalzas Reales during Holy Week and the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The Solution 11

Moving finally to the east (liturgical ‘south’) wall of the New
Testament, the first wall to be seen upon entering from the nuns’ cloister,
the arrangement corresponds in toto with the reconstructed bozzettii.

Starting at the left, the beginning of the procession originating at
the high altar--that is to say proceeding from the consecrated Sacrament--
we find in the sanctuary again a pair of tapestries specifically referring to
the Sacrifice of the Mass at that high altar. On the lower level, that of the
priest officiating at the altar, the personification of Faith carries the Cross,
accompanied by flying putti bearing instruments of the Passion—the
Sacrifice on Calvary. Directly above her, the personification of Truth,
triumphantly elevated by her Father Time over the prostrate figures of
Luther and Calvin—both of whom denied the sacrificial nature of the Mass
and the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation—points to the banderole
inscribed with the very words of consecration: Hoc est [enim] Corpus
Meum—“This is My Body”. Quite apart from their dimensions and unity
as a tapestry quartet, the iconography itself requires the placement of these
four pieces of similar widths (approximately six-and-a-half meters) on each
side of the sanctuary, like opened wings of a giant triptych flanking
Rubens’s monumental altarpiece of visionary architecture woven in
threads of splendor.

12 The Solution

Moving right along the nave, we see Faith preceded in the
procession by the chariot Divine Love or Caritas, whose sacrificial and
Eucharistic significance is underscored by the Christological pelican
feeding its children with its own flesh and blood. Directly above is the
grandest of all the tapestries, the Triumph of Ecclesia, here elevated to the
heavenly tier and realm. She, in turn, is logically preceded by the Four
Evangelists and, on the terrestrial level below, the Eucharistic Saints who
historically proclaimed and defended the Sacrament. In the center of this
illustrious group is St. Clare, founder of the convent’s order, whose face is
most tellingly a donor portrait of the Infanta Isabel, standing directly to her
nephew the King’s right as he knelt on the tribune according to Dr.
Libby’s thesis—and not incidentally!
I have admittedly not located in this present reconstruction the
three smaller ‘framed picture’ tapestries of Divine Inspiration (or
Wisdom), Charity nursing her children, and Eternity (or Papal
Succession). They probably were intended for subsidiary spaces within
the chapel, but precisely where must remain a matter of conjecture.
The two smaller pieces (Wisdom and Charity) may have been
placed at side altars, or perhaps even on either side of the nuns’ grill on
the rear (south, or liturgical ‘west’) wall, which was left undecorated by this
extravagant medium of tapestries for the very practical reason that it was
behind the congregation and thus invisible during the services as they
faced the altar.

Detail of Juan Gómez de Mora's south (liturgical west) wall of the chapel

The Solution 13

Furthermore, the three archways at ground level and the large grill
of the nuns’ coro alto would have severely limited the potential for such
decoration even if so desired. (For the same reason today, neo-Baroque
set designers like Franco Zeffirelli—grand opera’s counterpart to Rubens—
do not extend their illusion to the back wall of the Met or Covent
Garden.) But they could just as easily have been intended to hang above
the two side doors. The taller tapestry, Eternity, may in turn have hung as
a temporary altarpiece for the side altar erected in the empty space to the
right of the west door leading to the nuns’ cloister. But this is mere
speculation and has no bearing on the intended arrangement of the main
architectural tapestries that form the narrative cycle.
There is, to be sure, one woven detail that does not entirely
correspond to Rubens’s scrupulously consistent lighting system for those
architectural tapestries. If the tapestry of David was indeed designed to
hang over the organ—and effectively separated by that organ from the
redesigned lower-level Abraham and Melchisedek—then admittedly its
lighting does not correspond to that of the latter (nor to its predecessor,
the upper-level Abraham and Melchisedek), which is clearly lit from the
right. The David is lit generally, but not strictly, from the left--but then it
was designed to hang alone, above the organ, and it represents a distinctly
different architectural element on high: a mystical window into heaven,
corresponding in its design to the central opening above the altar which
both frames and reveals the duet of putti bearing the monstrance.
Perhaps just as telling is the fact that that smaller altar tapestry
likewise does not entirely conform to the lighting of the surrounding
columned tapestries, as its interior frame is lit slightly from the right,
whereas both tiers of flanking tapestries are evenly lit from a central source
fanning outwards. Perhaps in both these smaller architectural inserts
Rubens was concerned less with applying the rational system of lighting
applied to the sacred architecture of two-storied columns and more with
setting then apart as distinct ‘windows’ opening onto a realm of
supernatural light. In both cases, to be sure, the illusion poses no problem
of inconsistency to the viewer below, especially in the light of the fact that
the window frame of the David may on this high level be understood to be
lit as well from the actual large central fan window on the south (liturgical
‘west’) wall. Rubens was practical. (Of course, if the size of the organ on
that wall precluded hanging any such tapestry there, then there is no
question to be answered: in that case, the David must have been designed
for somewhere else in the convent. But I prefer to give His Ancient
Majesty a preferred place in heaven and in the chapel, near both his fellow
musicians and the Spanish King, until further evidence proves otherwise.)

14 The Solution

Looking back over the past four decades, I confess that I never
expected to tackle again the problem of reconstructing Rubens’s original
plan for his Eucharist tapestries. I owe this challenge and pleasure to the
new generation of scholars who have taken up the study of Rubens’s
grandest religious epic, which has remained too long secluded in its
original home in Madrid. Thanks to the Getty--its sponsoring of
restoration of the Prado modelli and subsequent exhibitions devoted to
Rubens’s Triumph of the Eucharist series--these magnificent tapestries
have finally begun to emerge from cloistered obscurity into the light of
greater appreciation and deserved admiration. Whether the tapestries
were in fact ever displayed in the convent chapel as Rubens originally
intended (and, if so, for how long), I have no doubt that soon enough,
through digital technology and the magic of virtual reality, we shall finally
be able to experience them in their intended context and arrangement as a
whole--in full splendor and spatial illusion. Non novum sed nove--not
something new, but seen in a new way.

Charles Scribner III

Author’s Note: I wish to express special thanks to Dr. Alexandra
Billington Libby for introducing me to the Gómez de Mora drawings in
Windsor Castle, which proved central to my above reconstructions of
Rubens’s tapestries. Her fresh insights, critiques, and suggestions
throughout subsequent conversations proved invaluable, and without her
encouragement and participation this Afterword would not have been
written. Dr. Libby’s own analysis of Solomonic symbolism and
significance in Rubens’s Eucharist tapestries is published in the online
Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art (JHNA).