In the literature that has been devoted to Rubens’s The Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series, Charles Scribner III has long been one of the most important contributors. His 1975 Art Bulletin article on the series’ complex illusionistic conceit (in a masterful display of Baroque illusionism Rubens designed the narrative scenes of the tapestries to appear on trompe l’oeil tapestries), followed by his 1977 dissertation, which was published in 1982, made enormous inroads into our understanding of the series within the broader context of Rubens’s large-scale commissions — both woven and painted —, the iconographic precedents for each of the narrative scenes, and the theological significance of the tapestry within tapestry motif. Thirty-two years later Scribner has reissued his book with a new afterword excitingly titled “The Solution” (pp. 225-238).
Because Scribner has reissued rather than revised the 1982 text, which is somewhat problematic, failing as it does to reflect newer thinking on certain issues, this review focuses on “The Solution” in which seeks to resolve the question of how Rubens intended the tapestries to hang in the church of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. The question has eluded scholars for decades. Although many have offered hypotheses, including Nora de Poorter in her essential Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard volumes on the series (1978), the church underwent renovations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that were believed to have altered the space so significantly that a true reconstruction was impossible. However, elevations and cross-sections drawn between 1614 and 1617 by Juan Gomez de Mora, who renovated the church, have recently come to light, and prove integral to Scribner’s arrangement. Although the drawings do not give any measurements or indication of scale, they show key architectural elements: the windows and doors within the church, the original pilasters that ran along the nave and presbytery, and the molding that bisected them. According to Scribner, they provide a virtual “blueprint” for Rubens’s installation (p. 230), and thus enabled him to arrive at his solution.
On the east, altar wall, Scribner places the two-tiered scenes of the Sacrament held aloft by putti and worshipped by celestial and terrestrial figures. These tapestries are commonly associated with the altar wall owing to the representation of the Sacrament and also to a bozzetto in the Art Institute of Chicago that pictures these tapestries together — the only oil sketch to show an ensemble — arranged around a large, dark, gridded space that many have interpreted as the altar. On the north wall (stage right of the altar), he places the Old Testament scenes and ancient animal sacrifices, all of which would appropriately foreground the bloodless sacrifice of Christ at the Mass. The two tapestries within the presbytery adjacent to the altar, further contain sets of stairs and priests at altars in echo of their “Christian counterpart” (p. 232). On the south wall, Scribner places those tapestries showing figures processing away from the high altar and consecrated Host. Appropriately, they all feature New Testament figures as well as those bearing references to Christ’s sacrifice — in one a personification of Faith carries a Cross, in another an elevated personification of Truth hovers over the figures of Calvin and Luther, men who denied the sacrificial nature of the Mass. Scribner does not imagine any tapestries hung on the west wall, which contains a grille that leads to the nuns’ choir. He suggests that it may have been left undecorated since it would have been behind the congregation. Scribner’s hypothesis is well-reasoned and persuasive. The arrangement bears consistent angles of lighting within each tapestry, perspectival orientation, alignment of architectural details, and unified iconographic groupings. Together, his progression of figures and tapestries tells the story of a triumphant procession of the old and new Church joined by the high altar of the Descalzas Reales. There is only one problem: it does not appear to fit.
Here I must pause to say that I introduced Scribner to the De Mora drawings. In the summer of 2014 I shared with him my recent dissertation on the series, which reproduces the drawings. I, in turn, had learned of them from Ana García Sanz, the long-time curator of the Descalzas Reales, who generously shared them with me following a Eucharist series symposium I co-organized in 2012 at the John and Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota. At that symposium Sanz presented her thoughts on how the tapestries were installed. She later published her ideas in the catalogue to the 2014 Prado and Getty exhibition Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist Series(Alejandro Vergara and Anne T. Woollet, eds.; reviewed in this journal April 2015) in which she revealed that the basic elements of the church spaces — its footprint and dimensions — has not changed significantly since the seventeenth century. To that end, she measured the height and width of walls and reported that the altar wall measures 7.5 meters wide. In Scribner’s reconstruction, he places tapestries on the altar wall that measure 9.55 meters wide. He negotiates the discrepancy by saying that the chapel is today “sheathed in wood paneling [from] the 19th century and altered in many places,” which is true (p. 228). But could that account for an extra 2 meters? The west wall of the nuns’ choir, on the other hand, is 9.5 meters wide by Sanz’s measurements. Based on this width and the fact that there is a bozzetto showing the tapestries around a gridded, grille-like space, Sanz has reasonably concluded that the so-called “altar wall” tapestries instead belonged on the choir wall.
Scribner, however, finds Sanz’s solution unimaginable since it means that scenes celebrating the Eucharist would occur behind the congregation and, moreover, that the central panel of the putti holding the monstrance aloft would be raised above the illusionistic cornice of the ensemble (to accommodate the height of the grille). Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Rubens sanctioned the illusionistic break given how carefully he coordinated the tapestries. However, it is not hard to imagine that measurements got muddled during this pan-European project that involved an artist in Antwerp, tapestry weavers in Brussels, and a church in Madrid. There is, in fact, evidence of such confusion: there are two modelli for the panel The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizidek that vary significantly in composition and size. In its earliest conception the scene would have hung at the top of the two-tiered arrangement, while in its second conception it would have hung on the bottom tier. As Sanz has shown, Rubens’s revision was caused by the fact that he didn’t realize a church organ had been installed in the spot where he initially intended the scene to go. In other words, though Sanz’s installation might not have the same iconographic focus of Scribner’s plan, her research into the space should not be discounted. Scribner does acknowledge this fact by offering the caveat that her account is perhaps how the actual installation took place while his is how Rubens intended it, which is certainly plausible.
Although I find the physical possibility of Scribner’s reconstruction vis-à-vis Sanz’s research problematic, his “Solution” is a major contribution to the recent, renewed interest in Rubens’s Eucharistseries. It not only revives but also revitalizes a debate at the heart of the commission — Rubens’s vision — while at the same time raising questions about design versus execution, intent versus implementation, and reminding us of the myriad factors that brought to bear on commissions such as this. Along those lines, one hopes that as the conversation continues it will expand to also include all the important work being done on the tapestry industry and production, Spain, patronage, women in religious communities, and the series’ great patroness, Isabel Clara Eugenia, whose influence has long been overlooked, but who played a critical role in the conception and design of this Baroque masterpiece.
National Gallery of Art