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