Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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The Church Triumphant
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Succession of the Popes (Allegory of Eternity), ca. 1626
Oil on panel, 66 x 34.3 cm
San Diego Museum of Art (Gift of Anne R. and Amy Putnam, 1947; funds for Nazi-era restitution settlement provided by the estate of Walter Fitch III, 2004), inv. 1947:8


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

Seated in a landscape on a rocky formation is an older woman wearing a pale rose dress with a white drapery wrapped over her left shoulder and across her lap; her head and shoulders are covered by a thin yellow veil. She turns her worried face to the genius that hovers overhead in a swirl of drapery. The genius holds in his left hand a large hooplike form and with his right extends the end of a cord held also by the old woman. The cord crosses the woman's lap and is grasped by the putto standing at her knee; two additional putti carry the cord in the foreground of the scene. Pink roses are strung along the middle segment of the cord's length.

The San Diego painting is the modello for one of the smaller tapestries belonging to the Triumph of the Eucharist cycle, commissioned by the Archduchess Isabella for the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid in about 1625. The modello differs from the woven tapestry in several key respects that affect our understanding of the subject: in the tapestry, the hoop held by the genius is more clearly rendered as a snake biting its tail; and the cord connecting the figures is decorated with portrait medals of the popes, rather than roses. Partly because of an imperfect understanding of the subject represented, and a difference in size between the tapestry made from this design and the "major" pieces in the series, some authors have questioned whether this design was part of the original Triumph of the Eucharist commission, one of three subjects added to the project at a later date, possibly about 1630 (as in Goris and Held 1947) or even as late as 1635 (Burchard, in catalogue of sale 1935), or whether it should be connected with the series at all (for a summary of scholarly opinion, see de Poorter 1978, pp. 42-45, and Charity Enlightening the World). Nora de Poorter (1978), however, has convincingly demonstrated that The Succession of the Popes and two other "problematic" designs—Charity and Historiography—were not only part of Rubens's original conception but in fact central to its interpretation.

Erwin Panofsky (in New York 1942) identified the central figure as an allegorical representation of Eternity (Aeternitas), described by Cesare Ripa as a matronly woman with a veil covering her head and shoulders, with her attribute a snake biting its tail, symbolizing time without beginning or end: this identification underlies all subsequent interpretations of the scene. Although in the modello the figure is shown holding a cord strung with roses, the string of papal portraits depicted in the tapestry appears to identify her more specifically as a personification of successio papalis, the uninterrupted succession of the popes (de Poorter 1978, pp. 385-86). In de Poorter's interpretation, the airborne genius passes the cord to the old woman, entrusting her with "paying out" the vicars of Christ in an unbroken progression. The string of medallions is caught up and carried forward by putti whose youth represents the future. Rubens had earlier treated the subject in his design for the title page of Dionysis Mudzaert's De Kerkelycke Historie (Antwerp, 1622), which exhibits much of the same iconography. The idea of the successio papalis was, of course, a major thrust in the Catholic Church's efforts to counteract the Protestant heresy in the age of the Counter-Reformation. To defenders of the Catholic faith, the unbroken succession of popes from St. Peter to the present day was proof that theirs was the one true Church, while Protestants, by contrast, denied that the popes embodied a true apostolic succession. The rock on which the woman so solidly sits in Rubens's composition may be a further reference to Peter, the metaphoric rock on which the Church was built.

Although de Poorter assumed the cord passed from the genius, through the hands of the old woman, to the putti representing the future of the Church, the positioning of the putti suggests that they are progressing toward, rather than away from, the old woman. This lends support to Charles Scribner's description of the cord as passing from Youth to Old Age to Eternity, representing the doctrine of apostolic succession "as a continuous line connecting the past, present and future of the Church and as our one link to Eternity" (Scribner 1977/82, p. 104).

Julius Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 162) preferred a slightly broader interpretation of the image as An Allegory of Ecclesia Aeterna, seeing in the matronly figure a representation of the Church itself, "not in the state of triumph but as the body that has passed through periods of suffering and strife." Rather than receiving the cord representing the succession of popes from the genius (as proposed by de Poorter), she offers up to this heavenly messenger the symbolic line of ecclesiastic continuity, represented by a string of images of popes and saints.

Rubens seems to have conceived The Succession of the Popes, along with the related allegories Historiography and Charity, as an adjunct to the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series, although the exact relationship of these designs to the cycle may never be clear. De Poorter has reasonably suggested that the pieces may express the Marks of the True Church, emphasizing the apostolic lineage of the Catholic Church and the spread of the Catholic faith through written doctrine and acts of charity (de Poorter 1978, p. 212).

As de Poorter (1978, p. 390) has remarked, the San Diego sketch "presents a curious problem in that its composition agrees with the final tapestry but its subject does not." The substitution of roses for papal medallions in the modello prompted purely secular interpretations of the composition—ranging from "The Origin and Destination of Man" (Smith 1842) to H. Möhle's suggestion (1931-32) that it represented one of the Fates and was connected to Rubens's designs for the Life of Henry IV cycle—which further obscured its relation to the Triumph of the Eucharist cycle. It is unclear why Rubens did not depict the papal portraits in the modello. He may have originally intended a more generic allegory of eternity in relation to the Church and only later decided to address the more specific theme of apostolic succession (compare a similar transformation in the conception of Charity), or it may have been a more pragmatic choice, opting for the simpler floral elements so as not to belabor the swift execution of this vibrant modello.


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