Celebrating Rubens

Triumph of the Church tapestry, 6.65 m x 6.10 m – St John’s Co-Cathedral Museum.Triumph of the Church tapestry, 6.65 m x 6.10 m – St John’s Co-Cathedral Museum.

Two exhibitions organised in the last few months focused on Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the artist who has long been celebrated as the master of baroque exuberance.

The most recent exhibition is Rubens and his Legacy at the Royal Academy in London (open until April 10). The exhibition surveys the 17th-century court painter’s experiments with colour and movement and his in-fluence on Van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough .

The other exhibition on the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series is now open at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts until May 10 after transferring from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and from the John Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

This exhibition focuses on the restoration of six oil-on-wood modelli which Rubens famously created for a series of tapestries depicting the Triumph of the Eucharist. Large cartoons were then prepared from these modelli for tapestry weavers to follow.

The tapestry series of the Triumph of the Eucharist made for the church of Descalzas Reales in Madrid was woven between 1625 and 1628. It is recognised as one of the most revolutionary events in tapestry weaving.

The modelli that belong to the Prado had, over time, cracked and warped out of shape. Their successful conservation took two years, in a joint-project with the Getty Panel Painting Initiative. In the current shows, the modelli are exhibited together with their corresponding tapestry.

This arrangement helps a better reading of Rubens’s thinking behind the final tapestry compositions that we see today. But the tapestries make pale comparison to the modelli. Like me, many would compare the Rubens modelli with Malta’s owns tapestries, now hanging in the museum of St John’s Co-Cathedral.

Malta’s Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series was woven at the end of 17th century by Judocus de Vos in Brussels. They were commissioned by Grand Master Ramon Perellos as his gift to St John’s Co-Cathedral.

St John’s tapestry series shows some compositional departures from Rubens’s original modelli. Yet, the St John’s tapestries immediately display Rubens’s recognisable key characteristics: kaleidoscopes of ruby red satins, opulent gold brocades and sparkling sapphire blue skies.

Open seams had to be reinforced and lined

The action-packed scenes have his signature whirlwind of twisting bodies and luxuriously plump females. The tapestries also capture the force of expression and dramatic spirit of this great Antwerp artist.

These particular features are all the more important because the St John’s set was the largest, as well as the last, synthesis of Rubens’s artistic contribution to tapestry production.

The Descalzas set of tapestries were very much a product of the Counter-Reformation as they were of artistic creativity. The mystery of the Eucharist was one of the themes rejected by Protestants.

The Roman Catholic Church fiercely defended this central tenet of Christianity.

Rubens’s Triumph of the Eucharist series became a key part of Counter-Reformation image-making of the 17th century. The tapestries were ordered at around 1622 by the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, Archduchess of the Netherlands. They were a gift to the convent where she wanted to retire after the death of her husband Albert of Austria.

Significantly for Malta, the issue of the Eucharist remained important enough for Grand Master Perellos to commission a series of 29 pieces soon after his election in 1697. At St John’s Conventual Church, the tapestries were hung during the feast of Corpus Christi, as in the case of the Descalzas convent and especially for the feast of St John.

At the entrance of the church, the portrait of the grand master was displayed, the design of which he had taken a personal interest in. This is well documented in his correspondence with the general agent of the Order in Brussels, Fra Charles de Fourneau (in office between October 1699 and 1700).

In a letter from May 1700, Fourneau informed the grand master that a portrait sent from Malta was not good enough to be worked into a tapestry. It seems that the portrait was not of a good artistic standard.

In addition, Perellos’s portrait was not rendered in reverse. In all likelihood, the cartoon for the Perellos tapestry would have required a revision or even the creation of a new version of the portrait sent from Malta. This means that Mattia Preti could not have produced the final cartoon of the Perellos portrait tapestry as was previously believed. Preti had, in fact, died in January 1699, just short of a year and a half before the alterations to the Perellos portrait were made.

After 300 years of use, the tapestries showed signs of deterioration. Delicate silk threads were lost and several seams appeared as a result of the weight of the tapestries. Remarkably, however, the colours of the tapestries retained their original brilliance and they defied the dangers of perishing.

The restoration of the entire set on the initiative of the St John’s Foundation that started in 2006 will now ensure their survival. The technical restoration that was required is specific, delicate and time-consuming. Apart from cleaning the tapestries, losses and open seams had to be reinforced and lined in such a way as to strengthen and support the magnificent weavings so that they can hang again.

Once the restoration is complete, the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation plans to exhibit the tapestries based on Rubens’s modelli together as a set ,as was originally intended.

Cynthia de Giorgio is curator at St John’s Co-Cathedral.

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