THE GATHERING OF THE MANNA
Peter Paul Rubens / Flemish 1577-1640. SN 211, Oil on
From: The Pages
Peter Paul Rubens was one of the greatest artists of the 17th century. His canvases can be
said to define the scope and style of high baroque painting through their energy, earthy
humanity, and inventiveness. He was also a man of the world who succeeded not only as an
artist, but as a respected diplomat in the service of Isabella and Albrecht of the Spanish
Netherlands. While Rubens did incorporate copies of classical statues in his paintings, he
always avoided the appearance and coldness of stone. His mastery of color along with his
knowledge of antiquity is seen particularly in his mythologic paintings.
As court painter and confidant to the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Rubens
recognized the role art was to play in the Counter Reformation. His genius found
expression in his designs for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestries which he and his
assistants completed between 1625 and 1628. Knighted by two monarchs and master of a
successful workshop, Rubens became rich and famous in his own time. Having executed over
3,000 paintings, woodcuts, and engravings of all types, he died the most respected artist
of his time in 1640.
This painting depicts the story told in the Old Testament (Exodus 16: 14-35) of the
Israelites receiving food from heaven as they wandered in the desert.
The painting is conceived as a tapestry hung between columns which are of a composite form
with Ionic capitols and twisted shafts, so-called "Solomonic" columns, derived
from the Temple of Solomon. The "tapestry" is suspended from a support rope and
spills over the bottom apron of the "stage." Small beads of manna rain from
heaven, to the amazement of Moses (in a bright red cloak) who stands at the right,
gesturing toward heaven in thanks with his right hand while holding a rod in his left. He
is balanced by a female Israelite whose sturdy arms and back support a basket overflowing
with manna. She is modeled on a painting by Raphael. Other Israelites gather manna, which
is a prefiguration of the bread/body of Christ in the Eucharist of the new Testament (
Matthew 26:17-30, Luke 11: 1-4 and John 6: 27-35).
The cycle of eleven paintings of The Triumph of the Eucharist was commissioned by the
Archduchess Isabella, who was the daughter of Philip II of Spain and Governor of the
Spanish Netherlands. The tapestries were planned as a gift in 1625 for the convent of the
Descalzas Reales in Madrid, where they still hang today. The series is a mixture of
allegory and religious propaganda intended to promote the worship of the Eucharist (i.e.,
the bread and wine consecrated as the body and blood of Christ and distributed at
communion) which had been strengthened recently by the Council of Trent, and which
constituted an important element in Counter Reformation Catholicism.
This was a time of great concern on the part of the Catholic church as it attempted to
correct not only the abuses of the clergy, but also to reaffirm its tenets/dogma in the
face of attacks by the Protestant Reformation.