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”.

I’ll 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.

Describe painting:
Let’s 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 let’s 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 soldier’s 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 isn’t? 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 brother’s son, named Lot, who was also well to do. There had been a bit of rivalry between Abraham’s and Lot’s 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 year’s 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 (today’s 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 God’s 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 let’s 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.

Let’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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”. God’s New Testament’s son, next to his Old Testaments son. Those paintings gave fodder for long discussions.

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 God’s own doing. Who wouldn’t 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 message.

It is not without reason that Rubens is called “The King of Baroque”.

Let’s now go into the next gallery and talk about Renaissance paintings and their history.