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 Glorification of the Eucharist, ca. 1633-35
Oil on panel, 71.1 x 48.3 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Ogden Mills, 1929. (37.160.12)
www.metmuseum.org


Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

Christ, wearing a rose mantle, stands atop a globe encircled by a serpent, crushing beneath it a human skeleton. In his right hand he holds aloft a chalice with the Host; in his left is a banner. In the sky to either side are several putti bearing symbols of the Eucharist: cross, candle, ewer and napkin, missal, censer, and a paten with cruets of water and wine. God the Father is seated in the clouds at the top of the composition, and the dove of the Holy Spirit hovers between him and Christ. To Christ's right are Melchizedek, in yellow and red, and Elijah, wearing olive green; to his left, St. Paul and St. Cyril of Alexandria, the latter wearing the white habit of the Carmelite order. Although the panel has been reduced at the top and to either side (by about 30 cm in height and 15 cm in width, sometime after 1771), portions of the altar surround framing the composition are still visible. Sketched in thin brown paint are Rubens's different options for the design of the altar: a Corinthian column and pilaster at left, and a twisted Solomonic column to the right. Above the arched top of the altarpiece are strapwork scrolls and remnants of the legs of two angels, flanking the vestigial base of a niche.

Rubens's portrayal of Christ shares some iconographic elements with depictions of the Resurrected Christ Triumphant over Sin and Death (as represented by the globe, serpent, and skeleton beneath Christ's feet) but places particular emphasis on the Eucharist as the primary agent in the Redemption. The two Old Testament figures to Christ's right—Melchizedek and Elijah—were commonly invoked as prefigurations of the eucharistic sacrifice (see The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek), while the saints to his left were celebrated for their steadfast defense of the sacrament. At far left, Melchizedek holds a loaf of bread in his left hand and an amphora in his right, representing the bread and wine given to celebrate Abraham's victorious return from battle. The prophet Elijah receives bread and water from the angel who gave him succor during his exile in the desert. Elijah was especially revered by the Carmelite order (Held [1980, vol. 1, p. 530] calls Elijah their "pretended founder") for his triumphant defense of Judaism against the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. St. Paul, immediately to Christ's left, was among the first to bear withess to the eucharistic sacrifice (I Cor. 10:16) and also outlined the parallels between Christ's pastorate and that of the priest Melchizedek (Heb. 5-7; see de La Croix 1969, p. 190). St. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 380-444), kneeling at lower right with his cardinal's hat and archbishop's staff on the ground before him, is best remembered for his defense of the orthodox doctrine of the Eucharist at the Council of Ephesus in 431. He had recently been claimed by the Carmelites as an early member of their order, a claim disputed by many during the early seventeenth century (among them the ecclesiastical historian Cardinal Cesare Baronius). Cyril's inclusion in this august company was intended to emphasize the illustrious role of the Carmelite order (described by its adherents as the oldest monastic order, traced all the way back to Elijah) as historic defenders of the faith. Finally, nimbly filling the space between figures rooted in the earthly realm and God the Father in heaven, putti bearing accoutrements of the Eucharist present a graphic message of the indispensability of that sacrament in achieving redemption.

As Ludwig Burchard (exh. cat. New York 1951) was the first to observe, the present sketch represents Rubens's design for the high altar of the church of the Calced (Shod) Carmelites in Antwerp, located just a short distance from Rubens's home on the Wapper. The altar was commissioned by Sibilla vanden Berghe to fulfill the request of her late husband, Filips de Godines (d. 1633), lord of Cantecroy and receiver general of finances in Antwerp (on the history of the altar, see especially Baudouin 1983 and 1991). Although scholars have suggested dates ranging from as early as 1615 to 1635 for The Glorification of the Eucharist, the sketch is unlikely to predate Godines's death. The building of the marble altar was begun in 1637, completed by Easter 1638 at a cost of 6,500 guilders, and concecrated in 1642. The sculptural decoration of the altar was begun by the sculptor Hans van Mildert (1588-1638), a close friend and neighbor of Rubens who worked with him on numerous occasions (see St. Norbert Overcoming Tanchelm), and completed after van Mildert's death by his son Cornelis. The central painting, The Glorification of the Eucharist, was executed from Rubens's design by Gerard Seghers (1591-1651); given that the altar structure was completed only in 1638, the painting may not even have been begun until after Rubens's death (see Baudouin 1991, pp. 46-47).

The Carmelite church and cloister in Antwerp were abandoned in 1795 following the dissolution of monasteries during the French Revolution. The buildings, as well as the marble altar designed by Rubens and the painting it contained, were destroyed in 1798 (see Baudouin 1991, pp. 22-23). Unfortunately, we do not have complete information about the final appearance of the altar. A drawing by Gaspar Moens dated 1732 shows the high altar in the Carmelite church decorated for a feast day; the decorations (including a painted canvas draped over the central image) alas obscure much of the structure. Nonetheless, it can be seen that of the two options presented by Rubens in his oil sketch, the Corinthian columns were selected for the altar, and that they were flanked by figures of women bearing baskets on their heads (canephorae). The slim remnant of such a figure can be seen at the left edge of the oil sketch, indicating that it figured in Rubens's original conception of the ensemble. Surmounting the altarpiece was an aedicula containing a statue of the Virgin and Child, flanked by two angels bearing palms. The design of this feature closely resembles Rubens's sketch for analogous elements on the high altar of the Jesuit church in Antwerp, a design created almost twenty years earlier.


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