Presentation mode for Rubens
Abraham & Melchizedek painting.
By: Willem van Osnabrugge, April 11, 2000
We have already talked about the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugena, the Habsburg ruler of
the Southern Netherlands in the early 17th Century and her commission for Rubens to design
11 paintings for tapestries to depict The Triumph of The Eucharist.
Ill be going into more detail on the painter and this subject later. This is one of
the 11 paintings and as I told you before, they are called cartoons. This is my favorite
one because of the way Rubens interpreted and executed the subject.
Lets first look at the painting. Just left of the middle we see a man in some kind
of a military uniform and behind him half a dozen soldiers and a black horse. Just right
of the middle we see a man in a lustrous cloak and behind him half a dozen people,
carrying loaves of bread and others holding metal vessels. At the top of the painting we
see three children with wings, holding some kind of a carpet. The people are framed by
columns, which are part of some elaborate architecture.
Now lets study them a bit more closely. There are obviously two important men in
this painting. The one on the left, with the black beard has the most elaborate uniform of
all the soldiers. He wears a protective short skirt, made from metal mesh, decorated at
the hem in bronze or even gold. He wears a metal chest and back protective type of shiny
armor and a belt decorated with bronze rosettes and a sword with a bronze hilt. But the
most striking garment, which makes him different from all the other soldiers is the fiery
red cloak around his shoulders. All this clearly makes him the leader of the soldiers. In
his hands he holds two loaves of bread, which he has received from the man on the right.
The other soldiers wear similar armor, but not as nicely decorated. Some wear helmets,
with or without plumes and all the soldiers have a lance. The black horse is being held by
a young boy, who does not wear a soldiers outfit.
The man on the right, with the white beard, stands just a little higher than the soldier.
His right hand has just handed over two loaves of bread to him. He wears a white
satin-type of under garment, decorated at the hem with golden fringes. Over that he wears
a light blue silk-like jacket, decorated with golden stitch work along the ends. Over all
this he wears a satin yellow cloak, lined and set off with ermine fur and the train is
held by a young girl in a white dress He has a wreath woven into a red headdress. He looks
like he is some kind of a king. On his side and behind him are 4 women, who are handing
out bread to the soldiers. One of the soldiers is already eating. The others are accepting
the loaves. A man comes from a building behind them with a basket with more bread on his
shoulders. The two men in front seem to come from a lower level, maybe a cellar and are
putting shiny metal and bronze vessels at the feet of the white bearded man. Throughout
the painting there are nicely decorated, architectural columns and borders.
The 3 flying cherub-like figures are holding a tapestry. It looks heavy. The edge of the
tapestry is decorated with golden fringes and ornamental embroidery with red precious
stones. Clouds are woven into the backdrop and some hills and the reddish sky. But if the
sky is woven in, then maybe the pillar in the middle and the soldier eating the bread is
also. And if we accept that then maybe all the people are woven into that tapestry.
However, if we look at the outer right column, that one cannot be part of the hanging
tapestry, since it falls outside the carpet. But it stands on a marble floor, which could
be part of the tapestry. It is confusing. What is real and what isnt? It is like
looking at one of those Escher drawings, where you see water streaming upwards. Your eyes
see it, but your mind knows it cannot be true.
Read label and tell story:
The label mentions that this painting depicts the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. It
is a story from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Abraham was a powerful man. He had lots
of property, cattle and a large community, living around him who saw Abraham as their
leader. He was like a king, but without the tile. Even though he was here probably 70
years old, and his wife 60, they did not have children. But, he liked his brothers
son, named Lot, who was also well to do. There had been a bit of rivalry between
Abrahams and Lots camp, but Lot had moved to the Jordan valley, near the towns
of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham had moved west. The kings of S&G had been suppressed
in a 12 years war by 4 kings from the north but they rebelled and started a war of
independence. Anyway, it did not go so well, because the Northern army plundered S&G
and took Lot and all his possessions with them on their way to Damascus in the north. When
Abraham heard about this he took 318 trained men (todays commandos) from his
household and followed them north. He attacked during the night and defeated the main
king. He came back victorious with Lot and all his possessions and other spoils. On his
return everybody paid him homage. Melchizedek, King of Salem (later Jerusalem) brought out
bread and wine and Abraham gave him a 10th of everything.
So, who was this mysterious Melchizedek? The bible says very little about him. They call
him Priest of God Most High. But Abraham gave him a tenth of his plunder. In
those days you only gave that to the gods. So Abraham recognizes him as a god. Today
biblical scholars believe that he was Gods own son. Certainly many people in the
Netherlands in the 17th Century believed that. The printed text in the margins of their
bible made references to that fact.
Now lets go back to the reason these paintings were commissioned. The theme was
The Triumph of the Eucharist, which by the way is a different word for
the Holy Communion. The Calvinist Protestants did not believe the Catholic
interpretation that during the communion service the bread and wine they eat and drink
actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ. These paintings or tapestries were
part of a Counter Reformation effort and meant to renew faith in the Catholic Church and
to reassert its power against its enemies, specifically the Protestant reformers, by
upholding the central doctrine of faith in the Eucharist.
Lets see how Rubens tackled his task. He is at the height of his career. He is rich
and famous and his work is in demand by all the kings and queens of Europe. For this
Triumph of the Eucharist theme Rubens takes the story of Abraham and
Melchizedek. Both people are highly regarded by both faiths. Abraham has just come back
from the battle.
Rubens puts Abraham a step lower than Melchizedek. He has taken his helmet off. He almost
pays homage to the king. He doesnt quite bow, but he acknowledges that M. is the
superior one here. Rubens paints Melchizedek as a true king. He is crowned with a laurel
wreath. The blue dress and ermine coat portray royalty and godliness. He has just offered
Abraham bread and wine.
Rubens uses allegory to tell us the significance of this story. That means he
uses one story to tell us another. People loved that in those days. Trying to figure out
double meanings or symbolism in the paintings. This also goes for the content on the
fabric, carried by the flying cherubs. As we mentioned before, you dont know what is
real. The imposing columns can be interpreted in many ways (pillars of the temple, church
etc.) The tapestries could reflect the curtains of the tabernacle. The vine, coming from
the hanging fruit could refer to Jesus words I am the true vine. Gods
New Testaments son, next to his Old Testaments son. Those paintings gave fodder for
But the overall message is brilliant and very clear. Rubens depicts Gods own (old
testament) son, giving the Eucharist ceremony (bread and wine) to good old, even respected
by the Protestants, patriarch Abraham. So, the message clearly is that the Catholic
Eucharist is Gods own doing. Who wouldnt be part of that.
Rubens painted this in his own famous style. Painters in Europe and especially Italy had
already moved away from the quiet, balanced and carefully executed paintings, which people
later called The Renaissance. We will talk about that style in the next
Gallery. But by now a looser style had evolved and more dramatic. Rubens had worked in
Italy and had seen work of the famous Renaissance painters and his contemporaries, but he
gradually developed his own style in the new movement, which people (some 100 years later)
called Baroque. These paintings are excellent examples of this style. It is dramatic and
sensuous, has grandeur, richness, drama, movement and tension. Art on steroids. Look at
the strong colors, the movement, the light and how he used allegory to give us the
It is not without reason that Rubens is called The King of Baroque.
Lets now go into the next gallery and talk about Renaissance paintings and their