Few tapestries woven in Europe during the Renaissance surpass in sheer beauty, technical mastery and narrative charm one that Pieter Coecke van Aelst designed in 1548.
It depicts God accusing Adam and Eve of perfidy in the Garden of Eden. Like a cinematic epic boiled down to one riveting scene, the tapestry’s got everything — sex, terror, wit, splendor and betrayal, as gutless Adam responds to an angry God by pointing his finger straight at Eve in a gesture that fairly shrieks, “She did it!”
Then, 75 years after Coecke’s death, came “The Triumph of the Eucharist,” a group of 11 monumental and nine smaller tapestries woven in Belgium for a royal convent chapel in Madrid. Virtually no work of art made in the Baroque era by the astounding polymath Peter Paul Rubens is more brilliant. His paintings can certainly match their achievement. But the genius is staggering in Rubens’ fusion of formal invention with conceptual substance in the tapestry designs.
Tapestry exhibitions are rare. Now coincidence has brought two superlative shows, one in New York and one in Los Angeles, each with an excellent catalog. They examine Coecke (pronounced COOK-ah), the greatest Flemish tapestry designer of the Renaissance, and Rubens, the greatest Flemish tapestry designer of the Baroque.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry” is a sprawling powerhouse, presenting 19 of the monumental tapestries his preeminent Brussels workshop made for the royal courts of Europe. (Most have been lent from royal collections and European state museums.) They’re illuminated by a selection of 36 drawings and prints and seven panel paintings, including a large altarpiece from Lisbon centered on the drama of Christ being lowered from the cross.
The Getty show is much smaller and more sharply focused but no less riveting. “Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist” displays an intense slice of one monumental project the artist produced at the request of his powerful patron, the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia. Daughter of Philip II of Spain, she became governor-general of the Netherlands after the death of her husband, the Habsburg Cardinal and Archduke Albert.
Isabel had spent some of her youth at Madrid’s Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales — the Convent of the Barefoot Royals, a cloister whose destitute name declared the humility of the sisters, known as the Poor Clares. Poverty belied the sumptuousness of the tapestries the Infanta commissioned from Rubens.
Four of the chapel’s 11 monumental tapestries are in the show, together with six of the luxuriously painted wooden panels in which Rubens worked out their designs. The tapestries are still used by the convent, while the panels have been lent by the Prado Museum. (A small selection of related paintings, including portraits of Isabel, completes the display.) Unlike large paintings or murals, unwieldy or impossible to move, tapestries enjoyed great prominence at Europe’s courts because they could be rolled, stored and transported as needed.
Isabel is thought to have conceived the project around 1622. She hired Rubens in 1625. The eminent Brussels workshops of weavers Jan Raes I, Jacob Genbels II, Hans Vervoert and Jacob Fobert translated the oil studies into wool and silk. It took eight years to complete.
The tapestries cost a fortune.
Isabel spent the equivalent of her monthly budget of military expenditures on the commission, according to a catalog essay by Getty curator Anne T. Woollett, who ably co-organized the show with the Prado Museum’s Alejandro Vergara. For comparison, in the United States today that would equal the expenditure of roughly $250 billion on a single art project.
The huge expense was part of the point. Tapestries were propaganda. An enormous outlay flaunted the patron’s power while gilding the sovereignty of the Catholic Church, whose authority was being celebrated. What the Infanta got for her money is breathtaking.
The tapestries’ subject is the Eucharist. At Communion, the consecrated bread and wine not only represent the flesh and blood of Christ, they also embody it. Called transubstantiation, this central mystery of the Roman Catholic Church was a miracle accepted even by a dissenter like Martin Luther.
Combating Protestantism was a prime goal of Baroque art. Zeroing in on a point of doctrinal agreement pulled the rug out from under dissent.
In dramatic scenes of great verve and over-the-top theatrical spectacle, Rubens’ designs celebrate the Eucharist’s defenders (including Isabel), its truth in the face of heretics (including Luther) and its triumph over idolatry. The translation from oil paint, with all its splendid brushwork and subtle gradations of color, into tight threads of wool and silk woven sideways, backward and in sections on a loom, is something to see.
Some of the tapestry stories prefigure the Eucharist, such as the allegorical tale from Genesis in which Melchizedek, embattled king of Salem, rewards the victorious general Abraham with a feast of bread and wine. Rubens framed the picture with architectural details — columns, pilasters, entablatures — to correspond with its planned location inside the chapel.
And this is where the works’ genius is found: The images within the tapestries are shown as tapestries themselves. Rubens went all meta, designing tapestries of tapestries.
Winged cherubs at the top of the scene are shown struggling to haul the Melchizedek and Abraham tapestry onto the elaborate wall depicted behind them. Rubens then enhanced the layered illusion by unfurling the picture of a sumptuous tapestry down its right side, letting it spill into the viewer’s actual visual space.
The result is a tapestry showing a tapestry to be hung within a room also depicted in it. The Getty proposes that this type of double image incorporates into the scene a memory of the Rubens oil sketch on which it is based. (Two versions of the sketch hang nearby.) Illusionistic doubling is a witty, quintessentially Baroque theatrical display.
Perhaps, but I would go even further. The doubling is more than delightful formal play. I’d say it is essential to a visceral understanding of the Eucharist.
Rubens’ work represents a tapestry, but it also is one. The bread and wine at Catholic Communion represent the body and the blood, but simultaneously they also are the body and the blood. The theological mystery of transubstantiation finds its artistic equivalent in Rubens’ imaginative pictorial device.
Rubens’ achievement with “The Triumph of the Eucharist” would be unthinkable without the history of Flemish tapestry design, which gave social prominence, cultural authority and technical expertise to the medium. Pieter Coecke van Aelst, subject of the Met exhibition, was responsible for much of its distinction.
He too designed a monumental tapestry showing “The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek,” made just less than a century before Rubens’ similarly huge tapestry on the theme. (Coecke’s, lent by Queen Elizabeth II, is nearly 16 feet high and more than 25 feet wide, while Rubens’ is roughly 16 feet by 19 feet.) The differences are stark. Both are extravagant, as befits the material. But Coecke represents the meeting as a heroic encounter taking place within a cleverly articulated space.
His tapestry’s top and bottom borders are architectural friezes, which visually anchor the tapestry to the wall on which it hangs. The right and left borders show figures inside shallow niches, which begin to open an illusion of space. The meeting of king and soldier in the tapestry’s center is a dramatic foreground scene, behind which a vast and lively landscape opens up.
Coecke’s sophisticated spatial entertainment is a product of his training as a painter in the fashionable Mannerist style, which represented courtly learning and refinement. He traveled widely, to Italy and the Near East. (Coecke died suddenly in Brussels of unknown causes in 1550, just barely 48.) The spatial game is the foundation on which Rubens would later erect his explosive theatrics.
The most riveting Coecke tapestry, masterfully woven by Jan de Kempeneer and Frans Ghieteels, comes at the end of the show, which was smartly organized by Met curator Elizabeth Cleland. It has been preceded by tapestries both excitedly melodramatic (a fiesta of bloodshed and beheading in the martyrdom of St. Paul) and somewhat tedious (a dense, surprisingly dull scene of the fall of Jericho). There’s also a powerful episode of heretical book-burning in Turkey commissioned by Henry VIII — who was having his own heresy problems as head of the Church of England — in which ethereal billows of smoke are achieved with stupefying skill.
But “God Accusing Adam and Eve after the Fall” (circa 1548), one of seven works in Coecke’s “Story of Creation” series delivered to Cosimo I de’ Medici and Eleonora di Toledo in Florence, is reason enough to see the show. Simplified composition focuses the riveting narrative.
The scene is divided down the center by the tree of life. Eden, lush and sheltering, is at the left; the world, too vast and vaporous to take in, unfurls at the right.
The serpent slithers down the tree trunk, heading our way. His body’s sinuous curves echo those of the crimson and gold cloak that billows above around God, who has suddenly swooped into the scene.
He points to the tree’s missing fruit. Below, Adam points to buxom, voluptuous Eve, completing an accusatory chain.
At the right, a secondary image shows a stern if benevolent God clothing the expelled pair. (Apparently thus was born the world of fashion, frivolous playground of the fallen.) But back in Eden, Coecke, in one of his more remarkable pictorial decisions, has placed Adam’s left foot so that it subtly breaks the picture plane. Tiny toes stick out just over the edge of the frame.
Adam is stepping into our world. The devil is in the details, and so is the mastery of Coecke’s ravishing art.
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