Peter Paul Rubens|
Charity Enlightening the World, ca. 1627-28
Oil on panel, 36.8 x 29.4 cm
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Museum Purchase, acc. no. AC 1961.142
Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton
Wearing a red bodice that exposes one breast
and a gray skirt, Charity is seated with three
small children. One lies in her lap, another in blue drapery clings to her thigh, while the third
is led by Charity's guiding hand toward a sphere that she illuminates with a torch.
This painting is a modello for one of the tapestries constituting the Triumph of the Eucharist series that Rubens executed in about 1627-28 designed for and preserved in the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid (on the series, see
The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek). It is one of three studies for smaller tapestries, all of which have the same egg-and-dart frame, dealing with allegorical subjects that have alternatively been seen as complementing the Eucharist theme (see de Poorter 1978,
pp. 42-45, 384-401, nos. 18-20) as "marks or characteristics of the True Church" (ibid., p. 398) or as "doubtful additions to the original cycle, perhaps constituting later commissions by or
gifts to the Infanta" (Scribner 1977/82, p. 105, a judgment earlier voiced at least in part by Ludwig
Burchard, Elias Tormo, and Julius Held; for a review of their various opinions, see de Poorter 1978, pp. 42-45). According to the latter theory, the three images have no connection within the original iconography and, given their smaller proportions, can only be explained as "fillers" within the larger original tapestry cycle.
However, Nora de Poorter has made a persuasive case for the three allegorical works being integral to the original commission that would have consisted of twenty tapestries, the sketches for which were all completed about 1626 and the tapestries delivered to the convent in 1628. The first of these, The Succession of the Popes (Successio Papalis) in San Diego, presents few interpretative challenges. It depicts an elderly seated female figure looking up at an angel who holds a snake biting its own tail to form a hoop, the symbol of Eternity. Beneath them are three putti who hold a long chain that the angel has handed to the old woman. While the chain is inexplicably strung with roses in the sketch in
San Diego, in the final tapestry it is decorated with a string of small portrait medallions embodying the successio papalis (succession of popes). This concept was central to the Counter-Reformation argument that the unbroken line of popes was the legacy of an apostolic succession that proved that Catholicism was the one true Church. The second, for which there is a bozzetto in the museum in Tournai (de Poorter 1978,
no. 19a and fig. 212) and a modello that was sold in 1931, depicts a seated female figure with a quill pen in her hand, a book in her lap, and an angel at her side holding an inkwell. She places her right foot on a square stone and looks over her shoulder at a dove. Citing Cesare Ripa's emblematic representations as well as similarities to personifications on frontispiece engravings after Rubens, de Poorter argued that the figure personifies History or, rather, Historiography. The dove represents the Holy Spirit that imparts divine inspiration to the writer, and the cherub with the inkstand is derived from the angel who often is represented inspiring St. Matthew the Evangelist. However, she allowed that there
was no certainty about the subject in this case, which has been identified by others as Holy Wisdom Inspired by God (Tormó), Theology (Müller Hofstede), and the Allegory of Sacred Wisdom (Held).
The present work also undoubtedly has a strong theological message. Since the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Charity had been depicted as a maternal figure with children, often three in number, and sometimes in conjunction with a flame (ignis caritatis, the fire of love). Charity also came to be associated with both love of God and love of man (see R. Freyhan, "The Evolution of the Caritas Figure in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 11 , pp. 68ff.; and Edgar Wind, "Charity: The Case History of a Pattern," Journal of the Warburg Institute 1 , pp. 322ff.). However, the torch and globe have been interpreted variously. Tormé (1943, p. 301 [see de Poorter 1978]) concluded that the scene depicts the Allegory of Charity Enlighted by Dogma, while Burchard (in a letter sent to T. P. Grange in 1956 [de Poorter 1978]) suggested dubiously that the torch symbolized the enlightenment of pre-Christian Caritas by the institution of the Eucharist. More plausibly,
both de Poorter (1978, p. 397) and Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 165) suggested that the key to the interpretation of the image is in the large sphere toward which the nude child walks. Both noted independently that a similar sphere, again illuminated by a female personification with a torch, appears in Rubens's title-page designs for volumes 1 and 2 of F. Haraeus's Annales Ducum seu Principum Brabantiae totiusque Belgii (Antwerp, 1623) (see Julius Held, Rubens and the Book: Title Pages by Peter Paul Rubens [Williamstown, 1977], figs. 27-28) and for the Opera by Luitprandus (Antwerp, 1640). In the prints, the
woman holding the torch embodies History or Faith, while the sphere is clearly a terrestrial globe. Thus in the present context Charity may be seen as illuminating and possibly warming the world with the dual aspects of her love for both God and man.
In discussing the tapestry in Descalzas Reales, Elías Tormó (Los tapices: la apoteosis eucharística de Rubens [Madrid, 1945], p. 63) mistakenly rejected Rubens's authorship of the design, assigning it to a pupil. Although it has been lost, there once existed a bozzetto that preceded the present work. It is recorded, with its pendant, Historiography, in a drawn copy in the museum in Braunschweig. The drawing depicts a woman seated in the clouds holding a torch and resting her other hand on a globe that rests on her knee rather than beside her. Rubens left space all around
the present composition for the framing with egg-and-dart ornamentation that appears in the final tapestry. A narrow strip has been added at the left; the size of the actual image is 32.9 by 25.7