“Spectacular Rubens: the triumph of the Eucharist” – Tapestries larger than they are large, at the Getty
Haven’t you seen it yet? There is still time – and the investment is worth it.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was among the art giants of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and the Getty Center has recognized his work on several occasions, including “Rubens & Brueghel: A Working Friendship â, In 2006, and the last of the yearâ Looking East: Rubens’ encounter with Asia â. This latter show focused on a single chalk drawing while “Spectacular Rubens” highlights several large tapestries, although Rubens remains best known as an action painter – though not quite in the sense that Jackson Pollock is considered an action painter. However, if he had been a director, Rubens could be compared to Ridley Scott or perhaps Peter Jackson. In other words, a big canvas with a lot of stuff.
As Alejandro Vergara notes in the current show catalog, which he co-edited with Anne T. Woollett, âRubens was a master choreographer. The positioning of the limbs suggests actions – most often very expressive or even violent actions. And Woollett herself remarks: âThe Eucharist the series is characterized by powerful characters in action.
This brings us to the portal of this powerful order, which seemed just right for the great artistic appetites of the prolific Flemish master.
Throughout the ages
In 2010, the Prado de Madrid undertook restorations of a group of modelli, these are six detailed sketches painted on panels that Rubens had painted for transformation into large tapestries. Preservation was necessary on the panels because the supports, which had been added sometime after the panels were painted, had started to stretch and warp the panels, causing damage to the painted surface itself. The Getty Foundation provided a grant, and that’s probably a big part of why we can now see them in Los Angeles.
The panels alone would have made a concise little spectacle, but what sweetens the deal for all of us are the four large tapestries of the Eucharist series – the original 20 – that accompanied the ride, as well as related work from other museums, including the Norton Simon, LACMA and the Getty’s own collection.
In the early 1620s, Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia (1566-1633), then Governor General of the Southern Netherlands (roughly where Belgium is today), commissioned 20 large tapestries for the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales in Madrid (i.e. the Convent of the Barefoot Royals), a commission seen as an ex-voto offering in thanks for the victory of the Spanish troops at Breda in June 1625, although the works themselves appear to have been in preparation a few years earlier.
Rubens and the Infanta shared the politico-religious ideals of the Habsburgs, and this vast project, as Woollett describes it, âenvisioned a unified decorative program that would transform the austere church and cloister of the convent during the annual Eucharistic feasts with figurative compositions vibrant in illusionistic architectural frames arranged on two levels.
Isabel’s father was Philip II of Spain and her husband Archduke Albert, so she had made money without having to work in the moonlight as a journalist or museum curator. The Eucharist The series was the most expensive gift of Isabel’s reign, and comparable to a month’s military budget.
The tapestries were woven for around eight years in two of the most important workshops in Brussels, Jan Raes I at the head of one and Jacob Geubels II of the other, with Jacob Fobert and Hans Vervoert as assistants. This was the third of four series of tapestries designed by Rubens, clearly the most prestigious of the four, although I’m not sure if he worked with the same tapestry workshops again.
What were they used for? Where did they go?
Tapestries vary in size, with some of them able to at least cover an entire wall or perhaps the interior of a two-car garage. It was Rubens’ only in situ project even though he had never seen the interior of the convent. Fortunately, he received a fairly fair description of it, with precise measurements (you may recall that Jackson Pollock’s Wall for Peggy Guggenheim didn’t exactly shoehorn easily in her hallway).
The preparatory paintings and therefore the tapestries embody a point of view based on where they were to be hung and how they would be seen. However, things can change drastically over the course of four centuries, the point being that we don’t know exactly where all the tapestries hung – which isn’t to say that there aren’t very good estimates.
âThe series was primarily intended to decorate the Church of Descalzas Reales twice a year,â writes Ana Garcia Sanz: âGood Friday and the Octave of Corpus Christi. Both focused on the exaltation of the sacrament of the Eucharist. And so, not only were the tapestries unrolled and rolled up year after year, but they were often dragged outside and hung there too.
Now, as everyone knows, sunlight loves few things better than bleaching artwork, photographs, and the spines of your favorite books. Even direct sunlight is damaging. So the tapestries are quite faded, some are even a bit disappointing when looked at, although they must have been breathtaking to see when they were first pulled from the delivery van and unrolled on the floor. Rubens modelli give us a good idea of ââtheir former dynamism.
As for the drawings themselves, they are cleverly illusionist in that trompe-l’oeil manner so widespread in the Baroque period. As Vergara notes, âthe main scenes of each tapestry take place in a simulated tapestry suspended from fictional architecture or placed behind the columnsâ. That is, we have tapestries in tapestries and the sense of architecture in architecture – all symbolic in the sense that the Eucharist is the symbolic flesh and blood of Christ.
A visual fanfare
One can only imagine what it looked like in its heyday, with a processional sense – the movement of the scenes flowing from left to right – that suited the liturgy of Eucharistic ceremonies. Just look at the work and consider how each would have “sounded” if the scene had been performed: sniffing horses, angels blowing horns as if they were John Coltrane or Miles Davis, chariot wheels crushing cars. shouting infidels, the rustle and rustle of clothesâ¦ What a delicious heckling!
This is all a spectacle and does not work so subtly as the propaganda for the spread of Catholicism (against Protestantism, of course). Some of us will become believers, but not so much for the power of the Church as for the power of Art.
Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist is on view until January 11 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Also to see: Drawing in the time of Rubens. Hours, Tuesday to Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Mondays. To free; parking $ 15. Call (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu.