Peter Paul Rubens / Flemish, 1577-1640.  SN 212 , Oil on Canvas. , c. 1625

From: The Pages

Peter Paul Rubens was one of the greatest artists of the 17th century. His canvases were said to define the scope and style of high baroque painting through their energy, earthy humanity, and inventiveness He was also a man of the world who succeeded not only as an artist, but as a respected diplomat in the service of Isabella and Albrecht of the Spanish Netherlands. While Rubens did incorporate copies of classical statues in his paintings, he always avoided the appearance and coldness of stone. His mastery of color along with his knowledge of antiquity is seen particularly in his mythologic paintings.

As court painter and confidant to the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Rubens recognized the role art was to play in the Counter Reformation. His genius found expression in his designs for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestries which he and his assistants completed between 1625 and 1628. Knighted by two monarchs and master of a successful workshop, Rubens became rich and famous in his own time. Having executed over 3,000 paintings, woodcuts and engravings of all types, he died the most respected artist of his time in 1640.

Abraham's kinsman, Lot, had been taken captive in a war, so Abraham set off to rescue him. Successful after the Battle of Dan, he returned home; he was met by Melchizedek, King of Salem & High Priest (Genesis 14:18-24). Rubens' painting depicts the moment when Melchizedek welcomes Abraham, blesses him, and gives bread and wine to the victorious army. In recognition of Melchizedek's position as a priest of the God of Israel, Abraham gave him 10% of the spoils of war. [A further episode in Abraham's life is depicted in Da Cartona's Hagar & the Angel.]

This painting, the largest and most dynamic of the cartoons, is a prefiguration of the Catholic Mass. We see the central figures of Abraham and Melchizedek balanced by Abraham's soldiers on the left, and the servants of Melchizedek on the right. The whole painting is framed between columns and appears to be on a tapestry held aloft by three putti or cherubs.

A garland of fruit decorates the top of the scene; the grapes are a reference to the wine/blood of Christ in the New Testament Eucharist. Large golden vases of wine are being brought in (below right), and one muscular bearer glares out at us; this eye-to-eye engagement is a common Baroque device to involve the viewer.

The priest, Melchizedek, stands a bit above Abraham, much as a Christian priest might do when serving Mass. Abraham reaches for the bread as would a member of a Christian congregation receiving the bread of the Eucharist. Young boys pass out bread to the soldiers, suggesting the function of acolytes distributing the wafer during the Mass. The surging figures approach each other at the center of the composition, dramatically symbolizing a mystical unity between the Old and New Testaments.

The cycle of eleven paintings of The Triumph of the Eucharist was commissioned by the Archduchess Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain and Governor of the Spanish Netherlands. The tapestries were planned in 1625 as a gift for the convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid; they still hang there today.

The series is a mixture of allegory and religious propaganda intended to promote the worship of the Eucharist (i.e., the bread and wine consecrated as the body and blood of Christ and distributed at communion), which had been recently strengthened by the Council of Trent and which constituted an important element in Counter Reformation Catholicism.

This was a time of great concern on the part of the Catholic church as it attempted to correct not only the abuses of the clergy, but also to reaffirm its tenets/dogma in the face of attacks by the Protestant Reformation.