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The Defenders of the Eucharist (c. 1625),
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)
Saints assembled under one theme
In this painting, Peter Paul Rubens presents us with a panoply of saints richly attired. Their procession across the canvas exudes a Baroque triumphalism that characterizes the confidence regained by Counter- Reformation Catholicism after the Protestant revolt of the 16th century.
Whole nations had broken away from Rome; monasteries had been despoiled and sacred dogmas denied. A central debate in that conflict was the belief in transubstantiation, the miracle of the Mass wherein bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.
In Ruben’s painting, the solitary woman, the central figure of the group, carries a splendid monstrance in her hands. It is the receptacle in which the consecrated Host is contained for public adoration. Holding it is the Franciscan saint of great renown, Clare, who once saved her monastery from destruction by brandishing the Eucharist from its ramparts to halt the invading forces that had come to plunder Assisi. Hers was but one Eucharistic miracle among many, and Rubens placed her among saints from different eras who are all connected by one singular theme: they were all eminent defenders of the Eucharist. And this is the title given to the painting.
The four great Fathers of the Western Church, whose writings helped delineate Catholic doctrine, are represented in the assembly of the seven. Saint Ambrose leads the way, while Saint Augustine, with his back to the viewer, and Saint Gregory the Great turn to gaze upon Saint Clare as she holds the Blessed Sacrament. The red- robed Saint Jerome, dressed in the traditional attire of a cardinal, concludes the procession while immersed in reading his Vulgate translation of the Bible. In front of him, dressed in white, stands Saint Norbert, an itinerant preacher and founder of the Premonstratensian Order, who quelled Tanchelm’s anti-Eucharistic heresy in Antwerp in 1124. Next to Clare stands the Dominican theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, who not only wrote eloquently about the theology of the Eucharist, but also composed hymns and an office for the feast of Corpus Christi, the liturgical celebration of the doctrine.
The dove of the Holy Spirit radiates mystical light from the center of the painting, while its outstretched wings unite the horizontal line of human figures to the celestial cloud breaking above their heads.
Framed by Tuscan columns, with cherubs flying above hanging bountiful garlands, and a mound of writing materials piled below that include a
table, books, quills, and an oil lamp, the painting represents the fusion of human intellect and faith with divine revelation.
The infant who commissioned the work
As the eldest and favored daughter of King Philip II of Spain, the gifted Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia was known to have assisted her father in the governance of his kingdom. When she was of age, she married her cousin Albert VII, archduke of Austria, and they were appointed co-sovereigns of the Spanish Netherlands. Their Hapsburg reign ushered in a Golden Age bringing peace, stability, and prosperity to a land that had long been wracked by war. They became patrons of the arts, and appointed Peter Paul Rubens as their court painter. When Albert died in 1621, Isabella joined the Third Order of Saint Francis. Since her marriage had produced no offspring, the country reverted to the Spanish crown. Nevertheless, Isabella was appointed governor of the Netherlands and continued to exert influence over the politics, finances, and military affairs of the land. And she did all this while dressed as a nun. Rubens painted her portrait in the black veil, white wimple, and gray habit of a Franciscan tertiary, and she herself posed as Saint Clare in this painting wearing that very same habit. Isabella had been born on the feast of Saint Clare, and she had a lifelong devotion to her patron saint.
The painting was part of a larger commission for a number of great tapestries focused on the theme of the Triumph of the Eucharist, which were to be designed by Rubens and manufac- tured in Brussels. They were made as a gift to adorn the Franciscan convent of Descalzas Re- ales in Madrid, which was favored by members of the royal family and had been frequented by ColleCtion of the John and Mable Ringling MuseuM of aRt. the state aRt MuseuM of floRida, floRida state univeRsity.
Isabella in her youth. The royal family often at- tended Mass there; royal widows often retired there. While Isabella would never see her home- land again, the extravagant gesture was seen as a defense of the Faith through the medium of art made by a very devout and powerful woman.
Saint Clare as role model
Perhaps Isabella’s successful tenure in the Hapsburg Netherlands can be attributed to the example of humility and faith that her role model inspired in her. Isabella governed a nation for over thirty years; Saint Clare governed San Damiano convent for nearly forty. And when Saracen mercenaries hired by Emperor Frederick II were scaling that convent in which Saint Francis had appointed her abbess, Clare placed the reserved Eucharist on a parapet where all could see it. Prostrating herself on the ground before the Sacred Host, she prayed aloud, “I beseech thee, good Lord, protect these whom now I am not able to protect.” According to a contemporary chronicler, Thomas of Celano, a voice reassured her as lightning emanated from the monstrance, confounding the invaders, who then fled in fear.
Just as Saint Clare, when under attack, placed all her faith in the Real Presence, so did Isabella Clara Eugenia reinforce through visual splendor the power of that central mystery, which was disputed in her own day. This painting by Rubens and the subsequent tapestries that were modeled from his designs provide an eloquent and lasting expression of the power of art to preach and defend the Faith in the service of the Church.
Father Michael Morris, o.p. Professor, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Berkeley, CA.
The Defenders of the Eucharist (c. 1625), Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, USA.
Vestimentum tuum candidum quasi nix, et facies tua sicut sol
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)
Vestimentum tuum candidum quasi nix, et facies tua sicut sol 
Born in the mid-16th century, the Baroque style illumined the arts like the sun until, in the 18th century, it died, as the stars do, in an explosion of masterpieces. This ultimate, sublime manifestation of an art aimed at inventing paradise was pejoratively termed “Rococo” by those unwilling to accept the possibility of anything greater than their own mediocrity. Tiepolo was the movement’s greatest genius, his work constituting an absolute summit of painting. Allowing his unbridled imagination every audacity, he raised his art to such perfection as to succeed in making us believe the impossible is possible for human beings. However, his refined taste enabled him to transcend with supreme elegance what, in the hands of anyone else, would be no more than affectation and extravagance.
In 1759, Tiepolo painted in fresco the Assumption that adorns the cover of your Magnificat. Admire the harmonious sophistication of the composition conceived by this virtuoso of stage design. Explore the artistry of the creation of upward movement through the drawing of the gestures, the poses, and the drapery. See how the systematic use of pastel colors opens the perspective to a transparency and gives the impression that the scene is totally bathed in heavenly light. Notice how the shadows themselves are radiant, lending the work its luxurious sumptuosity. Let yourself be caught up in the celestial space, opening onto an invisible world peopled by cherubs. Give thanks to God for this admirable creature, whom he gave to himself and to us as Mother. You are all-beautiful, O Mary, clothed in the radiant whiteness of transfiguration, and cloaked in the blue mantle of the baptismal waters in which you have been as though immersed from the moment of your conception. Your welcoming arms extend open hands: blessed are you who bore your God, who now bears you to his bosom. By your maidenly visage, graced with a noble gravity, you reveal to us a little of the infinite majesty of the God of Love, whom your eyes already contemplate.
 Your clothing is white as snow, and your face as radiant as the sun.
The Assumption (1759), Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Oratory of Purity, Udine, Italy. © De Agostini Pict. Lib. / Scala, Florence.