The Triumph of the Eucharist:

A Royal Commission for a Procession of Tapestries

Peter Paul Rubens' royal patron, the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, was governess of the Spanish Netherlands and daughter of Philip II. The next King of Spain, Philip IV, whose portrait by Velazquez is central to the Ringling collection, was her nephew. In 1625, the Infanta commissioned Rubens to prepare designs for a cycle of tapestries on the theme of the "Triumph of the Eucharist." She wanted at least 20 allegorical scenes, 11 "large" tapestries to form the major narrative of the series and 9 "small" ones, all representing the Catholic Dogma. When woven into tapestries and hung as a group they would appear as a great triumphal procession of the Holy Eucharist. Isabella wanted to present the series to the Poor Ciares, the Franciscan convent of the Royal Discalced Nuns (Las Descalzas Reales) in Madrid.

The sacramental epic is broken into thematic, narrative groups. The first group, portraying Old Testament Prefigurations of the Christian Eucharist which includes The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, The Gathering of the Manna, Elijah and the Angel and The Sacrifice of the Old Covenant. The second set takes the form of historic allegories or the Eucharistic Victories. These include The Victory over Pagan Sacrifices and The Victory of Eucharistic Truth over Heresy. The third group represents allegorical Triumphs and includes The Triumph of Faith, The Triumph of Divine Love and The Triumph of the Church. The final group, comprising the 11 large pictorial narratives of the series as an accompanying entourage, includes two companion images relating diverse saints to the Eucharist doctrine: The Four Evangelists and The Defenders of the Eucharist.

The Infanta was linked to the Poor Clares through Saint Clare, the Infanta's namesake as well as the Convent's patron saint. The Convent was founded by Isabella's aunt, Dona of Austria, the daughter of Emperor Charles V. It became a retreat for the females of the Spanish royal family, and the Infanta herself spent eight months there as a child. Her relationship to the Poor Ciares continued, for after her husband's death in 1621 she wore the habit of a tertiary in their order for the rest of her life.

The subject for the great gift of tapestries to the Convent was a specific one. The nuns of the Descalzas Reales had a special devotion to the Eucharist and held two major processions devoted to the Blessed Sacrament in the Convent each year. The nuns usually borrowed tapestries from the royal collections to decorate the unadorned walls. The Infanta's commission of the series by Rubens provided the Convent with an iconographically suitable and permanent set of hangings for their processions. The other reason for the commission in 1625 may have been the surrender of the Dutch forces after their defeat at the battle of Breda earlier in the year. This was a significant victory for the Catholic South against the Protestant North in Spain's long war in the Netherlands. For the devout Infanta, the event required some offering of thanks to God, and the commission of a tapestry cycle proclaiming the power and triumph of the Eucharist would have served such a purpose well.

The form of the great triumph had precursors in historic literature as well as popular contemporary writings that would have been well known to both the Infanta and to Rubens. The poems of Petrarch and the literature of Dante both contain allegorical triumphs. It may be, however, the publication of Lope de Vega's Triumphos Divinos that may be the most influential to Rubens' designs. This work is a long religious poem published in 1625, the same year as the great commission. The structure of the Triumph of the Eucharist series is very closely related to that of De Vega's poem.

The original tapestries were finished in silk and wool by the weaver Jan Raes in Brussels in 1628, and the Infanta presented the completed set to the Convent in July of that year. Years later, replicas of the tapestries were woven by another Brussels weaver, Jan Frans van den Hecke. Two of these are now in the Ringling Collection and can be seen in this room.

The original series of cartoons were dispersed in the 17th century. Some were sent to Spain in 1649 and were placed in the Church of the Convent of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns at Loeches near Madrid. Later, in 1808 or 1809, during the Napoleonic occupation of Madrid, they were removed from the church. Four of the Ringling pictures were purchased by the Duke of Westminster for his home Grosvenor House in London in 1818, and it was from his descendant that John Ringling bought them. The cartoons were acquired through Julius Boehler, Ringling's personal advisor and dealer, in May of 1926.

About the other huge paintings, little is known. Two cartoons, Elijah and the Angel and The Triumph of the Faith found their way into the Louvre by way of the French General Sebastiani, who had acquired them from English art dealer William Buchanan. Buchanan, through an emissary, was responsible for removing all of the cartoons from the Convent in Loeches. Sometime after 1809, General Sebastiani's two cartoons were exhibited in Paris, in the Musee Central des Arts. They are currently in the Musee des Beaux-Arts, in Valenciennes, where they were deposited by the Louvre in 1957. See photos and read story here.

The remaining cartoons are presumed lost in the 1731 fire of the Royal Palace in Brussels where they were thought to be stored.

Even though the Eucharist series cartoons were meant to function as schemes for tapestries, Rubens developed them into pictures of full-scale and color before sending them to the weaver. In other cases, such as that of the Constantine tapestries now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rubens prepared only small oil sketches. These were sent to the weaver, who then developed his own cartoons. Rubens may therefore have intended the Eucharist cartoons to hang independently, in which case the special place of honor they occupy in the Ringling is fitting.

The Triumph of Divine Love

The second of the Triumphs of the Eucharist series (the cartoon may be seen in Gallery 2) depicts Caritas, or charity, standing on a small processional chariot drawn by two lions. She holds one of her children in a tender embrace as the other two stand at her side. The figure is not only Caritas, however, but an amalgamation of several characters. In her overall pose and demeanor and in the historic blue and red colors of her drapery, she recalls the Madonna. The association is reinforced by her motherly embrace.

At another level of meaning, the two lions pulling the chariot link the figure with Cybele (Gaea), the Mother of the Gods in classical mythology. Such an appropriation of a classical motif for a Christian subject was typical of Rubens. In this case, the reference to Cybele, mother of the
antique gods, reinforces the link to the Madonna, mother of Jesus and Queen of Heaven.

In front of Caritas a pelican pierces its breast to feed its young, a sacrificial gesture symbolizing that of Christ's. A dense halo of flying putti fills the air behind the foreground figures. Three more putti are land-bound. One bends to burn intertwined snakes, traditional symbols of sin and evil, as another raises a flaming heart and a bow. The third putto, astride one of the lions, brandishes an arrow as a riding crop.

The theme of love, sacred and profane, is announced by the putti, with their Cupid's bow and arrow, torch and flaming heart. All three of these attributes recur in Rubens' composition. The spokes of the chariot wheel radiate alternating arrows and shafts of flame. Below the bottom ledge is a flaming heart pierced by two crossed arrows. These details may refer to the ecstasy of St. Theresa, whose description of divine love makes use of the same elements.

The only clear reference to the Eucharist is the pelican feeding its ~ young with its own body and blood. The sacrificial nature of the Mass and the doctrine of transubstantiation, the two Eucharistic dogmas insisted on by the Church and emphasized in Counter-Reformation art, are duly marked. Underlying the doctrine of sacrifice is the theme of divine love. In the description of St. Thomas Aquinas, author of the Corpus Christi sequence, the Eucharist is the "Sacrament of Love."

The doctrine of transubstantiation was ratified by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in 1551 and refers to the change that Catholics believe takes place to the bread and the wine as they become the Eucharistic sacrament. When the bread and the wine are consecrated by the priest Catholics believe a physical change takes place in the substance of the bread and wine and that they become the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist presence, or divine presence, of Christ begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the Eucharist species subsist and is consumed by the faithful.

The Triumph of Divine Love was never accounted for in the historical chronicles of the Convent at Loeches as were the other cartoons. It was therefore presumed to have been destroyed in the Brussels Palace fire of 1731 until the painting was acquired by the Ringling Museum from an English art dealer in 1980. It probably did hang at the Convent and was removed at the same time as the other cartoons, for it turned up at an auction at Phillips in London in 1815 just three years before Robert, Earl of Grosvenor, 1st Marquess of Westminster bought the other four cartoons subsequently purchased by John Ringling in May 1926. This cartoon was never seen in the Convent church, but given the strong reference to St. Theresa, the founder of the Carmelite order and patron saint of the Loeches Convent, it is reasonable to assume that this cartoon was placed in the intimate confines of the Convent and not the church.