The Triupmh of the Catholic Faith
by Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish 1557-1640
Tapestry woven by Jan Francois van den Hecke - Flemish 1660-1665

Peter Paul Rubens, along with the Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, was one of the greatest artists of the 17th century. His canvases can be said to define the scope and style of high baroque painting through their energy, earthy humanity and inventiveness. A devoutly religious man, a man of learning and a connoisseur of art and antiquities, 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.

Travels to Venice where he studied Titian, Veronese & Tintoretto freed his artistic talent from rigid classicism. While he did incorporate copies of classical statues in his paintings he always avoided the appearance and coldness of stone. To the contrary, his nudes, for which he became famous, always depicted an ample female form of vitality and good health as well as of sensuousness. His mastery of color along with his knowledge of antiquity is seen particularly in his mythological 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.

This tapestry depicts an allegorical victory procession in which defeated captives are paraded, tied to the rear of a chariot in which the victor rides. The victory is that of the Church over all of the forces which have criticised and challenged her (, philosophy, poetry, nature and Islam).

Faith is shown standing on her chariot holding a chalice aloft as she proceeds in triumph before the defeated personifications of Science, Philosophy, and Nature. The first captive, Science, is represented as a bearded man who holds an astrolabe in one hand and a book in the other. Beside him is Philosophy, shown with the features of Socrates. Just behind him is Poetry, crowned with a laurel wreath. At the side of Philosophy, walks Nature, depicted as a woman with multiple breasts. The rear figure is dark skinned, bearded and wearing an exotic headdress. He most likely typifies Moorish or Islamic Philosophy.

Decorating the chariot with Faith is a globe representing the extent of her rule. In front of this globe is an angel holding a large wooden cross and two cherubs holding the instruments of the passion of Christ. The crown of thorns, loin cloth and the nails of the cross all refer to the sacrifice of Christ's life. One angel holding a torch and pointing the way illuminates the triumphal procession of Faith.

Historical Context:
The cycle of eleven paintings of The Triumph of the Eucharist was commissioned by the Archduchess Isabella who was the daughter of Philip II of Spain and the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands. It was planned as a gift for the convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid in 1625 where it still hangs today. This Franciscan Order of Poor Clares was one with which Isabella was closely associated.

The series is a mixture of allegory and religious propaganda intended to promote the worship of the Eucharist (ie the bread and wine consecrated as the body and blood of Christ and distributed at communion) which had been strengthened recently 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.