A Roman Holiday for the Senses: Spectacular Rubens at MFAH

“The world of high principles and intense feelings that he [Rubens] creates is so well forgotten, so complete, so definitive, that it takes on the aura of the canonical… It is Rubens’ pictorial language that seduces us.”
— Alejandro Vergara, senior curator of Flemish and Northern European paintings, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

They fly, twisting and turning in space, as if carried by a powerful wind. All you notice at first is a swirl of arms and legs, muscular and expressive, and then the bodies to which they belong come into focus. People, animals, demons and angels seem to be seized by the same frenzy, unable to cope with the unknown force that controls them. As we stand in front of this breathtaking scene we can almost feel the flow of the same energy running through our veins. We become a part of the drama which is unfolding in this 17th century tapestry, “The Victory of Truth over Heresy,” created after the designs by Peter Paul Rubens.

This spring, Houstonians have a rare chance to experience the awesome power of the most striking example of the Counter-Reformation art ever created. MFAH is one of only two American venues (the other one being the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Calif.) to host a special exhibition from Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, “Spectacular Rubens.” The exhibition features four large-size tapestries, along with Rubens’ six paintings, called modelli, and preliminary oil sketches on the subject of the “Triumph of the Eucharist.”

The Atrium of the Caroline Weiss Law Building, which houses the display, is barely recognizable. Instead of the familiar white walls, visitors are welcomed into an interior of the deepest blue. This somber background provides a striking contrast to the predominantly light brown, gold and yellow colors of the tapestries. From a distance it seems as if the tapestries are levitating in front of the walls.

Famous Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) needs no introduction. He is one of the greatest in the history of West-European art, standing next to such giants as Michelangelo and Titian, who were his near predecessors. Even those of us who have never have laid eyes on his paintings are familiar with the term “rubenesque,” which describes a voluptuously-shaped woman.

It is a well-known fact that quite a few paintings that came out of Rubens’ workshop were painted by his assistants, with the master adding a finishing touch, which was a common practice of the time. This makes the paintings that are known to be painted by Rubens himself very special. The six modelli now on view at MFAH have this distinction.

Peter Paul Rubens, "The Victory of Truth over Heresy," top, c. 1625, oil on panel, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and  "Woven by Jacob Geubels II after designs by Peter Paul Rubens, The Victory of Truth over Heresy," above,, c. 1625–33, wool and silk, Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Victory of Truth over Heresy,” top, c. 1625, oil on panel, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and “Woven by Jacob Geubels II after designs by Peter Paul Rubens, The Victory of Truth over Heresy,” above,, c. 1625–33, wool and silk, Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales.

The tapestries which were created after Rubens’s designs also are unique. Not only are they among the largest ever produced (their dimensions vary from 196 x195 inches to 193 x 295 1/2 inches), their quality is unparalleled. The weavers of two prominent workshops in Brussels, one run by Jan Raes I and the other one by Jacob Geubels II, managed to achieve the unimaginable: they recreated Rubens’s complex compositions, with their nuanced light and shade technique and subtle color variations, in the medium of dyed wool and silk. The weavers used a low-warp loom which allowed them to produce a horizontal strip of only a few inches wide at a time.

Tapestries were the most expensive art works of the time. So who was the patron and what was the occasion that demanded that the best artist and the finest weavers in the land devote themselves unconditionally to this lofty project?

It was Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia (1566-1633), daughter of Phillip II of Spain and the governor-general of Southern Netherlands, who commissioned the set of 20 tapestries. It is estimated that she paid an amount equaling her monthly budget for military expenditures. The set was Infanta’s gift to the Franciscan Monasterio de las Dezscalas Reales (Convent of the Barefoot Royals) in Madrid. Today the tapestries still belong to the convent while at the same time they are cared for by Patrimonio Nacional (National Heritage Agency.)

The convent was a place of retirement for noblewomen, including members of the royal family, who wished to join the Order of Saint Clare, popularly known as “The Poor Clares.” It also served as a residence for the queen and royal children when the king traveled to other regions of the country. Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia spent her young years in Dezscalas Reales surrounded by powerful, devout women who actively participated in the affairs of the state. Later in life, after becoming a widow, she took vows as a poor Clare herself, although at the request of the new king, her nephew Phillip IV, she stayed in the Southern Netherlands as governor-general.

Rubens painted a portrait of Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia in the poor Clare’s habit in 1625, the same year she commissioned him the “Triumph of the Eucharist” tapestry set. Although this portrait is not in the exhibition at MFAH, the face of the artist’s august patron is looking at us from the modello titled “The Defenders of the Eucharist.” Rubens gave Infanta’s features to St. Clare of Assisi, the only woman in the scene. While other saints are arguing the doctrine of transubstantiation (the transformation of bread into Christ’s body during the mass), St. Clare seems uninvolved. Standing in the center of the composition, with a monstrance in her hands, she is looking directly at the viewers. Her face is serene and confident: she seems to be one step ahead of the rest of the group — her decision has already been made.

There is evidence that the tapestries were commissioned by Infanta as an ex-voto — an offering to the church in fulfillment of a vow — after the Spanish army captured the city of Breda, thus having sealed a crucial victory over Protestant forces, in June of 1625. “Triumph of the Eucharist” was conceived as a celebration of the ultimate victory of the Counter-Reformation. Following his patron’s vision, Rubens, himself a devout Catholic, created allegorical tableaux which glorified the Catholic Church and cast into infamy its enemies – Protestants and adherents of other religions.

Peter Paul Rubens, "The Triumph of the Church," top, c. 1625, oil on panel, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and "Woven by Jan Raes I after designs by Peter Paul Rubens, The Triumph of the Church," above, c. 1625–33, wool and silk, Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Triumph of the Church,” top, c. 1625, oil on panel, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and “Woven by Jan Raes I after designs by Peter Paul Rubens, The Triumph of the Church,” above, c. 1625–33, wool and silk, Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales.

Today it may seem ironic that Rubens turned to images from the pagan antiquity to convey a Christian message. The female figure that symbolizes the Catholic Church in the tapestries looks like a Roman goddess as she drives a chariot which is pulled sometimes by lions, sometimes by horses. People in her entourage have the athletic figures of ancient heroes that decorate pediments, triumphal arches and columns. If it were not for Latin inscriptions that make references to the Eucharist and such symbols of the Christian faith as monstrances, one might assume that the artist portrayed some kind of a Roman holiday.

However, for Rubens and his contemporaries, there was no contradiction. In fact, the artist followed a long-established tradition of West-European religious painting that held Greek and Roman art as the highest standard. Rubens saw the goal of his art in bringing back the grandeur of antiquity for the glory of the Christian faith.

The artist’s knowledge of antique sculptures allowed him to conclude that ancients were physically and, hence, spiritually superior to modern people. Therefore, he freely applied Greco-Roman artistic formulas to portray Christian saints and biblical characters, casting them as superheroes of antiquity.

Rubens’ ideas of beauty were based in Pythagorean numeric relations found in nature. Since mathematical beauty implies clarity, he identified it with truth and moral honesty. His heroes always look orderly and proportionate while the evil ones are contorted and disorderly. In “The Victory of Truth over Heresy,” the perfect female figure of Truth is being carried through the air by a winged male figure of Time. The graceful movement of their intertwined bodies reminds us that the artist often chose his models among dancers.

By contrast, the figures of heretics — Calvin, Luther and Tanchelm of Antwerp — as well as those of a Muslim, a Jew and an iconoclast, are unnaturally twisted and lumped together in a shapeless mass as they try in vain to flee from the relentless advance of Truth.

Rubens frequently uses visual metaphors to underscore his point. In the same scene, in the foreground, he portrayed a lion and a fox engaged in a mortal combat. The muscular lion, his brow furrowed in the expression of an extreme mental and physical concentration, is holding in his grip the limp body of a fox whose tongue is sticking out as if the animal is gasping for air. Rubens was undoubtedly familiar with the writings of St. Augustine and St. Jerome in which heresy was compared to a cunning fox. However, one does not need to read these sources to understand the meaning of the allegory. In the popular mind, the lion is associated with everything noble and brave, while the fox represents deceit and malicious backstabbing.

Other visual metaphors are seen in “The Triumph of the Church,” the largest of the twenty tapestries. As the culminating scene in the story, it probably occupied the central place above the altar of the church at Dezcalas Reales. Rubens depicts a festive procession which evokes associations with Roman parades in celebration of an important military victory. The Church, epitomized in the female figure holding a monstrance, is riding in a golden chariot surrounded by a jubilant crowd.

Her victory over heresy is complete, as the last recalcitrant adversaries are being crushed under the gem-studded wheel of her chariot. Next to the wheel, two men are walking looking glum and withdrawn. One of them, with a cover over his eyes, is bound with ropes while the other has donkey ears. They are oblivious to the light of the burning lamp in the hand of a woman behind them. The meaning of this metaphor is clear: only a blind or an ignorant person would continue to refuse to see the light of the true creed.

But figuring out the stories and visual metaphors, exciting as it is, is hardly the most rewarding part of the experience when we are in the presence of Rubens’ work. The beauty of his painting technique affects — or rather attacks — us on a physiological level. We are mesmerized by the luscious and luminous flesh, rich and almost palpable textures, and the glowing colors that look so vibrant as if the artist applied them yesterday.

In comparison to the paintings, the textiles look washed out — some dyes faded so much that only traces of the original color are still visible. The red pigment has been all but lost, surviving only in the areas where the tapestries suffered the least light exposure. Nevertheless, they haven’t lost any of their commanding presence and are still capable of making us feel small and insignificant, which was undoubtedly the vision of the artist and his royal patron, Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia.

It is an exciting pursuit to look for differences between the paintings and the tapestries. For starters, we notice that the tapestries show Rubens’ paintings in reverse. However, the compositions that the artist intended for the viewers are actually the ones we see in the tapestries. Rubens was well aware of the fact that we, Europeans, were “culturally programmed” to reading scenes from left to right. Therefore, in his modelli, he deliberately painted the movement as unfolding from right to left, so when the scenes were reversed during the weaving process, we would see them “the right way.”

One cannot but marvel at the ingenious ways by which Rubens maintains the balance between illusion and disbelief. On one hand, all characters in the tapestries are extremely lifelike and the space seems to be three-dimensional. On the other hand, at a closer look, we notice that each scene is painted on a curtain which is being held at the edges by putti. The lower edge of the curtain is rolled up and sometimes pushed aside to reveal an object, such as a globe, or fighting animals.

In some cases, Rubens painted a shadow cast by a putto on the curtain, to reinforce the impression that we are looking at the painted surface. At the same time, a character occasionally appears to be “stepping off” the curtain, his foot precariously hanging over the ledge, thus supporting the illusion of reality.

The columns that frame each scene are depicted in amazing detail. One can imagine that when the tapestries were displayed at the church, these columns must have blended with the surrounding architecture and looked convincingly real.

However, Rubens is not a painter of trompe-l’oeil. He is not interested in luring us with a perfect illusion of reality. He creates complex compositions, with a painting within a painting within a painting, and challenges us to discover multiple layers of artistic and religious contents while staging a Roman holiday for our senses.

“Spectacular Rubens” is on view at MFAH through May 10. For more information, visit www.mfah.org.

Elena Ivanova

ISSUE Staff Writer