The Succession of the Popes (Allegory of Eternity)

Peter Paul Rubens. Ca. 1626
Oil on panel, 66 x 34.3 cm
San Diego Museum of Art

Seated in a landscape on a rocky formation is an older woman wearing a pale rose dress with a white drapery wrapped over her left shoulder and across her lap; her head and shoulders are covered by a thin yellow veil. She turns her worried face to the genius that hovers overhead in a swirl of drapery. The genius holds in his left hand a large hooplike form and with his right extends the end of a cord held also by the old woman. The cord crosses the woman's lap and is grasped by the putto standing at her knee; two additional putti carry the cord in the foreground of the scene. Pink roses are strung along the middle segment of the cord's length.

The San Diego painting is the modello for one of the smaller tapestries belonging to the Triumph of the Eucharist cycle.
In de Poorter's interpretation, the airborne genius passes the cord to the old woman, entrusting her with "paying out" the vicars of Christ in an unbroken progression. The string of medallions is caught up and carried forward by putti whose youth represents the future.
The idea of the successio papalis was, of course, a major thrust in the Catholic Church's efforts to counteract the Protestant heresy in the age of the Counter-Reformation. To defenders of the Catholic faith, the unbroken succession of popes from St. Peter to the present day was proof that theirs was the one true Church, while Protestants, by contrast, denied that the popes embodied a true apostolic succession. The rock on which the woman so solidly sits in Rubens's composition may be a further reference to Peter, the metaphoric rock on which the Church was built. 17