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 Ecclesiastical Hierarchy in Adoration, ca. 1626
Oil on panel, 66.7 x 46.7 cm
The Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, Gift in memory of George W. Norton IV, by his mother, Mrs. George W. Norton, Jr., and his aunt, Mrs. Leonard T. Davidson, 1966.16


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

Between a pair of rusticated Tuscan columns, a group of ecclesiastical dignitaries kneels and stands in adoration of the Eucharist. At the far right is a bishop, wearing a richly embroidered cope; immediately to the left is a pope, his papal tiara resting on the ground before him. Beyond him is a cardinal, clasping his tasseled hat, and a Dominican monk, his hands upraised in prayer. Standing behind these figures are a man holding the triple-cross staff of the papacy, another with a crozier, and a third figure of whom only the head can be seen. All of the figures look to the sky, where two putti hover in the clouds and gesture toward the left.

The object of the ecclesiastics' worshipful attention is revealed in Rubens's maquette, which plots the original placement of this composition amid five of the tapestries he designed for the chapel in the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid (the bozzetto now in the Art Institute of Chicago). This set of tapestries was originally hung around the chapel's high altar on the feast of Corpus Christi and Good Friday (Scribner 1977/82, p. 93). The putti in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy direct the figures' gaze toward the scene at upper center of the ensemble, where two cherubs bear a monstrance that contains the consecrated Host and emits a brilliant light. As a whole, the scenes in the composite sketch depict the adoration of this instrument of the Eucharist by the entire fellowship of the Church, including an upper tier of music-making angels and earthly dignitaries from the secular and ecclesiastic realms.

While the companion scene of The Secular Hierarchy in Adoration, which appears at the lower left in the Chicago sketch, features identifiable likenesses of members of the ruling Spanish and Austrian houses of the Hapsburg dynasty, Rubens probably did not intend to portray specific individuals in this sketch (pace Julius Held [1968 p. 18, and 1980, vol. 1, p. 161] who identified the pope as "the still youthful Urban VIII"). Nor do they, as was previously assumed, represent the Fathers of the Church (see, among others, Rooses 1904, vol. 2, p. 432; and the description of the painting in the 1965 sale catalogue). Rather, the generic personalities embody different degrees and branches of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, united in worshiping the sacrament.

Among the approximately sixteen tapestries designed by Rubens for the Eucharist series are eleven large narrative scenes (including the Abraham and Melchizedek, The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek) depicted on fictive tapestries hung from an elaborate architectural framework. As Nora de Poorter has explained (1978, vol. 1, pp. 181, 187, and passim), these illustrations and prefigurations of the Eucharist are intended to be read as "depictions" adorning an illusionistic architectural construct. The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy in Adoration and the other scenes surrounding the chapel's high altar, by contrast, are presented without the distancing device of a fictive tapestry: they inhabit the same space as the viewer and thus occur in "reality." Rubens employed this strategy of differentiation to emphasize the idea, crucial to Counter-Reformatory dogma, that the sacrament of the Eucharist miraculously united the faithful with heavenly things, eradicating barriers between earth and heaven.

Comparison of the Louisville modello with the bozzetto now in Chicago reveals how Rubens modified his initial conception of the subject. In the bozzetto, the heavenly message is conveyed by a large angel, which in the modello has been replaced by two putti. An acolyte (originally shown kneeling between the cardinal and the pope) and another shadowy figure standing behind have been eliminated from the group of large figures, reducing their number from nine to seven in the Louisville sketch. In the Chicago bozzetto the pope wears a long ocher cloak and swings a censer; in the modello, his hands are crossed in prayer and he wears the short cape (mozzetta) and fur-trimmed camauro (cap) of his office. Forms and gestures are grander, more expansive in the modello, overwhelming the sliver of landscape visible at the right of the scene and extending beyond the enframing column. As Held noted (1980, vol. 1, p. 161), the configuration of the Louisville sketch is simpler, more monumental, and the cast of characters more dignified than in the bozzetto, reflecting Rubens's constant process of refining his compositions for greater impact and narrative clarity.

The large cartoon from which the tapestry was woven has not survived, but the tapestry woven in Brussels by Jacob Geubels shows only minor differences from the modello. In the modello the architectural surround is only schematically indicated (and is in fact one of the least finished of the series); the tapestry introduces egg-and-dart molding at the capitals and fluting on the lower portion of the columns. The Dominican's hand is no longer hidden behind the column, and in general the figures appear more compressed in the space between the columns.

The early provenance of this sketch (prior to 1807) seems likely but cannot be confirmed; the sketch that passed from the Julienne and Horion collections is mentioned by John Smith and Max Rooses but not connected by them with the Eucharist series. A later owner of the picture, Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, fifth baronet (nicknamed "Bubble"), was the son of a serious collector and patron of the arts; the younger Williams-Wynn also acquired some notable works for the collection, including, in addition to the present painting, Rubens's Forest at Dawn with a Deer Hunt, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. 1990.196).


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