Art Dei Series
The Defenders of the Eucharist
by Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish 1577-1640
SN 214 Oil on Canvas c1625
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 painting shows seven saints, all of whom were considered to be defenders of the doctrine of Transubstantiation an integral tenet of the Catholic Church. From the right the figures represent –
(1) St Jerome, (Feast Day 3 September) noted for his translation of the bible from Hebrew into Latin;
(2) St Norbert, (Feast Day 6 June) a German archbishop and saint, who preached against dissenters who attacked the Christian sacraments and official clergy;
(3) St Thomas Aquinas, (Feast Day 28 January) a medieval theologian of the Dominican order, whose writings became the basis for much of the doctrine of the Catholic Church;
(4) St Clare, (Feast Day 11 August) the founder of the Poor Clares, was a Franciscan heroine who repulsed the Saracens at Assisi by confronting them holding the Host in her hands;
(5) Gregory the Great, (Feast Day 3 September) who established, as Pope, the form of the Roman liturgy;
(6) St Ambrose, (Feast Day 7 December) renowned as both theologian and statesman of the Church, who in an age of controversy, was instrumental in crushing Arianism, a doctrine concerning the relationship of God the Father to Christ which was considered heresy and in direct opposition to orthodox teaching about the Trinity; and
(7) St Augustine, (Feast Day 28 August) perhaps the Church’s most celebrated and influential theologian.
Seven Saints, including the four Latin Doctors of the Church, progress with great dignity from right to left, their heads seen in different views in a fashion similar to the heads of the Four Evangelists. The Dove of the Holy Ghost hovers protectively over the saints in the very center of the composition emitting golden light that illuminates the procession. Above the dove, a putti holds two trumpets to herald the message of the Church Fathers.
Leading the procession are Sts. Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great, all wearing elaborate gold copes. The first two are crowned with bishop’s mitres, while the third wears the papal tiara. In the center of the procession, St. Clare carries a monstrance and looks directly out at the viewer. Rubens has shown his patroness, the Archduchess Isabella as St. Clare garbed in the black and white habit of the Discalced Carmalites, clothes she wore at the Convent of the Discalzas Reales in Madrid when she was a girl and later as a widow after her husband the Archduke Albert had died in 1621.
St. Thomas Aquinas follows, a large book under his arm wearing a gold chain from which is hung a blazing sun. Behind Aquinas is a monk in a white habit who is St. Norbert. Last in line is St. Jerome the fourth Doctor of the Church dressed in red as a cardinal, intensely reading from a large book. In the centre of the bottom of the composition, below the apron of the “stage” is a burning lamp (the lamp of truth), open books and writing supplies of ink pots and quill pens, all in reference to the writings of the Church Fathers.
All seven saints were known as defenders of the Eucharist, particularly the Four Doctors of the Church who developed the doctrine of transubstantiation and defended it against heretics.
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 evangelisation intended to promote the worship of the Eucharist, 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.