The restoration of the Prado’s six oil sketches for Rubens’s Eucharist Tapestries, partially funded by the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative, was the occasion for an exhibition at their home museum: the newly glittering modelli were paired with four of the tapestries based on them, still owned by the Descalzas Reales convent in Madrid. In Los Angeles, these ten works were supplemented by a handful of additions from American collections. A small exhibition in object-count, then, but large in their size and suggestiveness. To have four huge Rubens tapestries hung alongside the perfect little sketches afforded the chance to think closely about idea, scale, color, and process in ways often difficult in more elaborate tapestry shows. And both exhibition and catalogue presented new angles on the commission that made thoughtful viewing a rewarding experience.
First, a good argument is made that the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia commissioned these tapestries from Rubens earlier than we had thought, right around the tumultuous year of 1621 when both her husband Archduke Albert and her brother Phillip III of Spain died and the 12-years’ Truce expired in The Netherlands. Isabella’s request to return as a royal widow to the Descalzas Reales was turned down by Philip IV: continuity and stability in Brussels, and a trusted hand at the helm, were more important than his aunt’s retirement plans. So instead of making a personal retreat to the convent, she resolved to make a gift at once personal and political. This new dating means that the Eucharist Tapestries did not follow the Constantine series in Rubens’s history of tapestry designs: the two sets were instead done simultaneously.
The Constantine series is so much more normal. Grand battles – a favorite subject for tapestries – alternate with other scenes from the life of an ancient hero, Rubens’s own specialty. The cartoons were sent to Paris for weaving, and although Peiresc reported to Rubens on their arrival and reception, essentially the artist lost all control over his work after the cartoons left his studio. Weaving workshops added different borders to his designs, and the textiles’ splendor was enhanced by the use of metal-wrapped thread. These were truly works that would be, as Rubens once explained of tapestry, priced by the yard rather than (as with paintings) by the quality of the design. Such loss of control over product and relative devaluing of his role as designer would not happen with the Eucharist series. Woven in nearby Brussels without costly metallic threads, this series was also to be produced without tapestry’s traditional borders; in fact, Rubens’s designs made the whole notion of borders redundant. He famously planned the Eucharist series as fictive secondary tapestries hanging within an architectural framework so that when placed end to end in two horizontal rows, the illusion would be of a complete built environment within which heavy textiles were mounted, folding against columns and draping over ground-level ornament. The plays between levels of illusion in this series are often commented upon; but the Los Angeles exhibition asks us to add to that the observation that if, as tapestries, these works lack some of the standard excitement of that art form, they instead stand in uniquely easy correspondence to their modelli. The pairing of plan with product demonstrates how Rubens’s mind, if not his hand, fully determined the visual impact of these tapestries.
Another revision, suggested by Ana Garcia Sanz in her catalogue essay and taken up in the exhibition with a wonderful digital reconstruction, concerns the hanging of the tapestries. While evidently the works were often hung in different parts of the convent (even on the facade!) and out of their intended order, such an order did exist and Rubens had carefully planned for it. But what was it? Garcia Sanz’s elegant solution is to suggest that only eight of the large tapestries, rather than all ten, were destined for the long walls of the convent church. One of the two spares she places, somewhat problematically, above the altar, since it is the only tapestry designed to be seen frontally. The second outlier – Abraham and Melchizedek – is and was even more difficult. There are three preparatory sketches and they register some dramatic changes. The tapestry was resited from upper to ground level and, less often noted but just as significant, in the final version the feigned tapestry on Abraham’s side entirely obscures the architecture so that, for once in the main works, architecture fails to contain the secondary illusion. The suggestion made here is that this scene hung outside the church proper, commander Abraham forming a connector to the tapestries that Rubens was rivaling with his masterpiece: Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen’s famed Conquest of Tunis tapestries, twelve massive Renaissance masterpieces which decorated the convent’s courtyard on the same occasions when Rubens’s works adorned its church. Two tales of Catholic triumph, one presented in terms of history and the other in terms of allegory, complemented each other in celebrating the royal convent’s feast days.
The Infanta’s gift to the convent, like Rubens’s design for it, was an emulation of a great predecessor – in her case her aunt Juana of Portugal, daughter of Charles V, who had owned the Tunis tapestries and specified that they be hung on special occasions in the convent she herself had founded. Isabella’s role in the creation of the Eucharist tapestries is another highlight of the Getty show. It is her image that doubly greets the visitor in the entry room. First there is a picture of her in full Habsburg princess regalia, a young woman known for her wit, athleticism, and strong character. Next to it hangs her portrait by Rubens in the habit of a Poor Clare, which she adopted immediately upon the death of her husband and wore for more than a decade as she functioned as sole governor of the Spanish Netherlands. These are two of the Getty’s additions to the original exhibition. Each of the new objects is chosen to make a point: the Getty Entombment to remind us that all this fuss is about the body of Christ; the second Abraham and Melchizedek oil sketch from Washington to show the thinking process behind this complex point of the cycle; Isabella’s portrait from the Norton Simon to emphasize the particular character she assumed at the time she commissioned the tapestries; two Eucharist Tapestry oil sketches from LACMA and San Diego to fill out the array of preparatory works; and an oil sketch from the Getty’s collection mounted so that we can examine it as a three-dimensional object and appreciate what a delicate job the Prado restorers had with their six works. These smart additions also show how unexpectedly rich American, even Californian, collections are in this material, enabling the Getty to put on a show that nuances the story told by modelli and tapestries from Madrid.
Elizabeth Alice Honig
University of California, Berkeley