'The Triumph of the Eucharist' Makes Rare Appearance at the Getty

Spectacular Rubens Show - H 2014
Jordan Riefe

Spectacular Rubens Show - H 2014

Peter Paul Rubens' restored masterpieces are on display till Jan. 11

Although Peter Paul Rubens is recognized as one of the baroque period's greatest artists, no woman wants to be called Rubenesque, a term describing the overly healthy figures that populate his work, like the meaty angel of truth in "The Triumph of Truth Over Heresy," or the round-shouldered women in "The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert." Both are in the Getty's unique new exhibit Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist, on display through Jan. 11.

Rubens and "Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia" go all the way back to 1609, when he was appointed court painter for her husband, Albert VII of Austria. Widowed in 1621, Isabel, a devout Catholic, turned to her faith and to Rubens as a confidant, even sending him on diplomatic missions, including spying on the French. It was during this period she handed him one of the biggest commissions in Europe, and certainly a landmark in his career: a series of 20 tapestries celebrating the glory of the Roman Catholic Church. Woven of silk and wool, and weighing hundreds of pounds, they took roughly eight years to finish, (Belgian weavers, the finest in the world, could take a year to complete one square meter). Donated by Isabel to Madrid's Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (Convent of the Barefoot Royals), installation was completed in 1633.

Plans for the massive tapestries, measuring an average of 15-by-22 feet, were painted on modelli, smaller wooden panels measuring 2-by-3 feet, six of which are on display along with four of the 20 tapestries, allegorical depictions with titles like The Triumph of Divine Love, in which Charity, pulled by lions in a chariot, is encircled by cherubim, and The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, an Old Testament depiction of Abraham receiving bread and wine, a symbol for the body of Christ. Painted on oak wood, the modelli are nuanced works in their own right requiring four years of restoration courtesy of the Getty Foundation's $2 million grant as part of their panel paintings initiative, working in conjunction with Madrid's Prado Museum.

Read more: Jackson Pollock's Most Important Painting Restored and on Display in L.A.

"The most common method was to put a cradle on the back of it, which is a lattice structure, and that keeps it from moving," explains curator Anne Wollett about the difficult process of restoring the modelli. "But it also puts stress on the original wood panel." And as climates vary, the wood will naturally expand or contract. Held rigid by the cradle, it inevitably cracks and splinters as a result.

"It's a very complicated restoration," offers the Prado's Alejandro Vergara. "The restorers were worried about doing it because you have to remove cradles from the back. So you're physically tampering with objects that have been together for 400 years." In the end, restorers removed the cradles from the back of the panels and replaced them with new cradles that would accommodate micro movements in the wood and still hold the artwork flat.

Back at the Convent of Barefoot Royals, when told of the Prado's request to borrow some of the tapestries to show alongside the modelli, the Mother Superior wondered why they didn't just bring the modelli to the convent. It was a reasonable suggestion unless you consider a 2010 Rubens exhibit at the Prado drew over 300,000 art lovers.

"Our job in a museum is to conserve and to study and to let people know about art," Vergara recalls how he explained to the convent why the Prado was a more appropriate venue. "A project like this, we're drawing people into the museum and allowing them to enjoy it. When a museum does something, a lot of people come to see it."