THE MEETING OF ABRAHAM AND MELCHIZEDEK
Peter Paul Rubens / Flemish, 1577-1640. SN 212 , Oil on Canvas. , c. 1625
From: The Pages
Peter Paul Rubens was one of the greatest artists of the 17th century. His canvases were
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.
Abraham's kinsman, Lot, had been taken captive in a war, so Abraham set off to rescue him.
Successful after the Battle of Dan, he returned home; he was met by Melchizedek, King of
Salem & High Priest (Genesis 14:18-24). Rubens' painting depicts the moment when
Melchizedek welcomes Abraham, blesses him, and gives bread and wine to the victorious
army. In recognition of Melchizedek's position as a priest of the God of Israel, Abraham
gave him 10% of the spoils of war. [A further episode in Abraham's life is depicted in Da
Cartona's Hagar & the Angel.]
This painting, the largest and most dynamic of the cartoons, is a prefiguration of the
Catholic Mass. We see the central figures of Abraham and Melchizedek balanced by Abraham's
soldiers on the left, and the servants of Melchizedek on the right. The whole painting is
framed between columns and appears to be on a tapestry held aloft by three putti or
A garland of fruit decorates the top of the scene; the grapes are a reference to the
wine/blood of Christ in the New Testament Eucharist. Large golden vases of wine are being
brought in (below right), and one muscular bearer glares out at us; this eye-to-eye
engagement is a common Baroque device to involve the viewer.
The priest, Melchizedek, stands a bit above Abraham, much as a Christian priest might do
when serving Mass. Abraham reaches for the bread as would a member of a Christian
congregation receiving the bread of the Eucharist. Young boys pass out bread to the
soldiers, suggesting the function of acolytes distributing the wafer during the Mass. The
surging figures approach each other at the center of the composition, dramatically
symbolizing a mystical unity between the Old and New Testaments.
The cycle of eleven paintings of The Triumph of the Eucharist was commissioned by the
Archduchess Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain and Governor of the Spanish
Netherlands. The tapestries were planned in 1625 as a gift for the convent of the
Descalzas Reales in Madrid; they still hang there 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 recently strengthened 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.