The succession of the popes

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The succession of the popes

In the eighteenth tapestry of the series, an old woman, accompanied by three children, appears seated on a rock in an open-air setting. She holds a string in her hand, from which hang several medals with portraits of popes. In this position, she watches an angel-like woman who hands her the string and bursts into the scene carrying a snake, who is bitting its own tail, in her right hand.

An allegory of eternity

An elderly woman, dressed in a white tunic and veil and covered with a blue cloak, appears seated on a rock in an open space, where we can see the cloudy sky and some plants. The women is looking after a young girl, who, like an angel or genie, bursts onto the scene flying, although she is not winged. She is covered by a white gown and with her right hand holds the ouroboros, a serpent wrapped in a circle biting its own tale, to the old woman. This allegorical depiction comes from Antiquity and was often used as an allusion to eternity and time which passes with neither beginning nor end.

Successio papalis

In her other hand, she holds the end of a string which stretches across the whole scene. At the same time, the old woman and three children, like putti, hold the string. It is decorated by at least nineteen medallions, a sort of cameo carving with papal busts in relief. This refers to the theme of successio papalis, the continuity of the succession of popes from Saint Peter onwards, with no interruption through the centuries. This idea was employed by the Counter-Reformation to defend the idea that the Catholic Church was the only true church.

Its function in the series

Rubens conceived this panel, along with the allegorical panels about Wisdom and Charity, in a different way to the majority of the series. As a result, some scholars question whether they belong to the series. Various theories have been proposed on the matter: some think they were made at a later date, and were added to the series later, while others consider them not to be part of the series. However, this latter hypothesis is largely disregarded nowadays.

The creative process

The model for this tapestry is kept in the San Diego Museum of Art, and shows some differences from the tapestry. In the model, the string is replaced by a garland of roses, and in the ouroboros the outline of the figure of the serpent does not appear. Furthermore, the woman’s clothing has different colours: initially, the tunic was a light pink colour, which is cream in the tapestry, and the white cloak of the model was substituted for a more prominent blue.


The marks of the weaver and place of manufacture can be seen in the lower selvage: IAN RAES BdB. The monogram of Hans Vervoert can be seen in the right-hand selvage.

Series The Triumph of the Eucharist

Eighteenth tapestry in the series

Model Peter Paul Rubens, 1626-1628

Manufacture Jan II Raes, Hans Vervoert, Brussels, 1627-1632

Fabric Silk and wool

Size 493 x 250 cm

Location Monastery of the Descalzas Reales

Origin Collection of the Monastery of the Descalzas Reales

On display Hall of Tapestries

National Heritage Inv. 00610326


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