The Gathering of the Manna

Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

The Israelites went through the desert of Shur to Elem. From there they entered the desert of Sin, lying between Elim and Sinai. This was on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had left Egypt. The Israelites had nothing to eat. They feared starvation. But God through Moses promised to provide for them. In the evening after several days quails flew in and covered the camp. When the dew lifted the next morning, the surface of the desert was covered with something fine and granular. It was small and round, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. The House of Israel called this man-hu or manna, meaning ‘what is it’? It was the edible secretion of the insects. Moses told the people to collect it and eat this manna as much as he or she needed. Yahweh told not to keep it until the following day. If it was kept longer than one day it bred maggots and smelt badly. Only when Moses told the day before the Sabbath to collect it and keep it until the next day, for on the Sabbath God sent no manna, only then the heavenly dew stayed edible. It was like coriander seed. It was white and its taste was like that of wafers made with honey. The Israelites ate manna all the time they stayed in the desert and until they reached inhabited country G38 .

The picture of the ‘Gathering of the Manna’ by Peter Paul Rubens in the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is a cartoon for a tapestry, even if it is an oil painting that could be hung for decoration as well as a tapestry. The Archduchess Isabella, Governess of Flanders and Brabant ordered twenty designs of cartoons called generally ‘The Apotheosis of the Eucharist’ around 1625 from Rubens. The tapestries were made in Brussels, woven in 1625 to 1628 in the workshops of two of the best Brussels weavers, Jan Raes and Jacob Geubels. They were ready three years later and the Archduchess Isabella donated the eleven major scenes to the Carmelite Convent of Las Descalzas Reales in Madrid. The cartoons were put on the back of the tapestries for weaving, so the scenes of the oil painting are seen in reverse.

Rubens finally made four scenes from the Old Testament, and two scenes of victories of religion over paganism and heresy. Two further scenes are from the New Testament and Rubens also made three triumphal processions. Rubens worked occasionally for cartoons of tapestries. He had designed the ‘Story of Decius Mus’ (now in the Palacio Real in Madrid) around 1616 and the ‘Story of Constantine’ between 1622 and 1626 (The Philadelphia Museum of Art). Still later, in 1630-1635, he made cartoons for the ‘Story of Achilles’ woven for a Milanese merchant living in Antwerp between 1649 and 1669 (five of these tapestries are in the Musée du Cinquantenaire of Brussels) G70 .

In the ‘Apotheosis of the Eucharist’ Rubens enhanced the effect of decoration and of grandeur by treating his scenes as tapestries within tapestries, hung in an architectural framework of columns. Thereby he created an illusion that even more stresses the imaginative character of the scenes. The paintings themselves hung first at least partly in the Archduchess’ palace in Brussels. Six cartoons were sent to the church of Las Descalzas Reales in Leoches near Madrid in 1648 and these were brought to England in 1808. John Ringling bought four cartoons, among which the ‘Gathering of the Manna’, from the estate of the Duke of Westminster in 1925. Peter Paul Rubens had a large workshop in Antwerp with an enormous output, so little is known of just how much he painted these cartoons himself. But the style and design is obviously his own.

The ‘Gathering of the Manna’ is a very Baroque and a very true Rubens design. Since manna was sent from heaven, the Israelites hold their baskets high. Moses on the right calls on God to send down the manna by which the people could survive. On the left is a woman with child, maybe Zipporah and Gershom. In the central scene are four figures. One is crouching to gather manna from the ground; one is of middle height and two hold a basket above their heads in a frantic movement of hope. Typical for Rubens and Baroque are the movements of all the figures, the curved lines of the clothes and the sinuous lines of the whole scene. Rubens used broad and full, generous colours and of course he showed voluptuous nudity, as was almost his proper brand. He added sumptuous decoration in the heavily worked-out columns and the way the tapestry of the background is hung. Rubens brought all the paraphernalia of Baroque together.

Moses and Zipporah are seen standing out of the background tapestry; the other four figures form part of that background. Thus we have a tapestry in a tapestry, an illusion in a painting that is always in itself an illusion since only a representation of reality. The cartoon scene is decorative and exaggerated in figures and theatrical gestures. We forget then that the scene is eminently spiritual. The Eucharist was the living Jesus, who was God come down to earth. Jesus was the spiritual bread of the Eucharist and also literally present in the host of the Eucharist. In the same way, Yahweh sent his manna, his bread down for the Israelites to eat. The manna was as much material food as spiritual solace. The ‘Gathering of the Manna’ was an illustration of one of the main themes of the ‘Apotheosis of the Eucharist’, not chosen by accident.

Rubens’ painting was an ode, a triumphal glorification of the Eucharist and of the Catholic Church, shown in all grandeur and pomp as the Counter-Reformation could deliver at its best in the beginning of the seventeenth century. Rubens tried to convince the people by his grand pictures that the true Roman Catholic Church was the only true church and that this truth was prevailing in the splendour of Jesus. His style of Baroque painting could not be grandiose, as Rubens himself was. He was a man of the world, who moved among kings. He was an ambassador, a courtier but also an independent and free-minded lord who must have radiated with confidence in the world and in his convictions. His convictions were for the Catholic faith, as Antwerp had remained Catholic. So much is clear from the very many pictures he made for Catholic kings. But as we remarked in the ‘Gathering of the Manna’, this did not mean that he remained shallow. He represented very spiritual themes in the grandest, most resplendent way possible.

http://www.theartofpainting.be/AOT-Moses_Manna.htm

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