I recently visited the Museum of Fine Arts to see a hero of mine: Peter Paul Rubens. In the 17th century, a member of the Spanish royal family commissioned him and his workshop to create elaborate and expensive tapestries for her favorite nunnery. The tapestries’ theological themes were meant to be a giant shout-out to the Catholic Church during the Post-Reformation. Rubens didn’t make the tapestries himself, but he made modelli, or oil-on-panel studies, which were used to visualize and fine tune scenes of Catholic glory for the tapestries. While the final products were impressive, the modelli captured my attention the most. The tumultuous tangle of figures, horses, and fabric were contained by the precisely painted architecture surrounding the scene. The classical columns looked like drudge work to me and I’d guess the workshop apprentices got that chore. But it did made me feel as if the scene took place in a tiny stage in front of me. I was impressed because this was point. The Church wanted art that was both awe-inspiring and accessible to the laypeople. I understood this theological stuff was a big deal at the time but I couldn’t help geeking out over these little guys. Ruben sure was good at this because his paintings are still captivating.
I found myself getting caught in the whirlpool of flesh. I noticed that he left some parts unfinished and let the panel texture and color act as skin tone. I admired the tiny but loose brushstrokes and it was clear that he was having a lot of fun painting. It looks like someone took Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel frescoes, gave them a good shake, and rolled them back together. I’m thinking to myself, “I want that!” Rubens never fails to get me excited about painting.
The tapestries looked stiff to me after that. That’s ironic because they were the whole point of this “I Heart You Favorite Nuns” project. I read on the wall text that the royals spent on the tapestries the equivalent of keeping an army fighting for an entire year. Whoa. (I tried to imagine how much art could be created with a military budget today and this threw me into a tizzy. I could feel myself starting to hyperventilate and I didn’t want to have a freak out moment in the middle of a museum and so I stopped thinking about it). Anyhow, I’m glad these Spanish royals splurged because I had some paintings to freak out about right in front of me.
And Rubens was a bad-ass painter.