Where is the largest collection of Rubens paintings outside Paris, as well as one of the premier collections of Baroque paintings in the U.S.?

In Sarasota, Florida, at the Ringling Museum of Art.

The circus impresario and financier John Ringling (1866-1936) founded this art museum to transform Sarasota into the Southeast’s cultural capital and to leave a family legacy (only the latter was inarguably attained).

John and Mable Ringling, right.

Ringling filled his art museum with a dazzling array of works of art, including:

  • Italian Baroque paintings by artists like Guercino and Pietro da Cortona;
  • portraits by Reynolds, Velazquez, van Dyck, Frans Hals, and Gainsborough;
  • Rubens paintings, and
  • four tapestry cartoons by Peter Paul Rubens, showcased in the Rubens galleries.

We’ll take a look at four of these full-scale models of Triumph of the Eucharist, Rubens’ tapestry series.

The Defenders of the Eucharist

Isabella Clara Eugenia was the oldest daughter of the Spanish king, Phillip II, a devout Roman Catholic who appointed her the governor of the Spanish Netherlands.  Isabella commissioned from their court painter, Peter Paul Rubens, a tapestry series which was both propagandistic and self-serving.

The intent of the tapestries was to advertise the Catholic commitment to the Eucharist, the rite in which wine and bread are transformed by a priest into the blood and body of Christ.  The saints portrayed in Defenders of the Eucharist are those who fervently

Peter Paul Rubens.  The Defenders of the Eucharist, c. 1625-27.  Oil on canvas, 14′ 3″ by 14’7″.  Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL

promulgated the practice and doctrine of the Eucharist; the solitary woman, who grasps the receptacle housing wine for the rite, appears to be Saint Clare, founder of an order of nuns with whom Isabella had lived as a child.

But Saint Clare has the features of Isabella, who chose this mode of memorializing herself.  Upon her husband’s demise in 1621, she rejoined the order. Although she never returned home to her beloved Spain, she sent home this Rubens painting as a reminder of her and her devotion.

The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek

Look how Rubens has created a tapestry within a tapestry here, as the chubby cherubs at the top strive to secure the hefty tapestry.

Peter Paul Rubens.  The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, c. 1625-27.  Oil on canvas, approx. 14′ 7″ by 18′ 8″.  Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL

As Abraham returns victoriously from battle, he is welcomed by the ancient Melchizedek, high priest and king of Salem, who offers the hero loaves of bread while others bring him wine.  It harkens to the rite of the Eucharist.

Despite the swirling energy in this painting – soldiers swarming around Abraham; workers toting bread and wine; onlookers mobbing toward the hero – the focal point is the transfer of the bread from Melchizedek to Abraham as their gazes lock.  It seems, as curator Virginia Brilliant notes,

“… as if they alone know that they hold a potent symbol of mankind’s future salvation, not simply some baked goods, in their very hands.”

Pausias and Glycera

Of these four Rubens paintings or cartoons, this is the most personal — and jarring.

The wreath Glycera swaddles is comprised of blurry and indistinct flowers, a distinct contrast to those sprouting in the grass, and arranged in the basket and vase. These are specimens painted in photographic precision, as if lifted from a botany text. Their meticulous details

Peter Paul Rubens.  Pausias and Glycera, c. 1612 – 1615.  Oil on canvas, approx. 6′ 8″ by 6′ 4″. Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL

crafted with fine, invisible brushstrokes, are another contrast to the broad, painterly brushstrokes of the figures.

The stylistic contrast is perplexing.

The fine print clarifies: Peter Paul Rubens painted the figures and Glycera’s wreath, while the Dutch still life painter, Osias Beert (c. 1580-1624) painted all the remaining flowers.  Their collaboration is echoed by the relationship of between the flower girl and Pausias, a 4th c. Greek painter whose portrait of Glycera solidified his fame.

Achilles Dipped into the River Styx

These smallest of these Rubens paintings, Achilles Dipped into the River Styx recounts the myth of Achilles, whose mother, the sea nymph Thetis, was warned by an oracle that her son would die young.  Desperate for his immortality, Thetis plunged Achilles headfirst into the river Styx, holding onto his heel. This undipped spot — the Achilles heel — left him vulnerable and mortal.

Peter Paul Rubens.  Achilles Dipped into the River Styx, c. 1650-1655.  Oil on panel, 43 5/8″ by 35 5/16″.  Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL

The torch is brandished by one of the three Fates, Lachesis; by most accounts she determines one’s destiny, which surely unfolds here for Achilles. Cerberus, the three headed dog who oversaw the entrance to Hades, is barely visible in the foreground, while in the distance is Charon, the ferryman transporting the newly deceased to Hades.  At the top of the painting is a cartouche shaped like a bat on a dog’s paws from which hangs toadstools and pomegranates, attributes of Prosperine, a diety of Hades.

It’s a hellacious painting.

These Rubens paintings alone are worth a trip or detour – the Ringling Museum of Art has some 10,000 works of art, highlights of which are introduced in Curator’s Choice, by Virginia Brilliant.

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