Abraham and Melchizedek

A Critical Analysis of
Peter Paul Rubens’s Painting

Florida Gulf Coast University - Humanities 2510, Internet Section

ruby.fgcu.edu/Courses/lcrocker/Painting1.htm. June 22, 1999

This is a critical analysis of the Peter Paul Ruben’s tapestry, Abraham and Melchizedek. This work was viewed at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Sunday, June 5, 1999. The Ringling Museum of Art is internationally acknowledged for its Baroque paintings. This tapestry series Triumph of the Eucharist is the only painting cycle by Rubens to be found outside Europe.

Rubens’s 17th century tapestry is a representational portrayal from the Old Testament foreshadowing the coming of Christ. Given this, in order to better understand his chosen materials to create an expression of his time and himself --to communicate--in a way that conveys attention to design, composition, color, and style ? some historical context as well as a brief description of tapestry painting will be necessary. Reference to the historical context from which the painter came will assist in perceiving the content as Rubens expressed it; so that the participants can better experience the place and time, to situate the sensuous in the specific objects and events of the tapestry.

Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish painter, was born in 1577 at Siegen, Westphalia, what we now know as Germany. Rubens’s family had converted from Catholicism to Calvinism prior to his birth and fled their homeland of Antwerp, a city of northern Belgium, because of persecutions against Protestants. In 1587, the family, following the death of Rubens’s father, moved to back to Antwerp, where they again became Catholics (Triada Online). Rubens’s upbringing reflected the profound religious antagonism of his time--- a fact that was to be of crucial importance in his artistic career. A devout Roman Catholic, he colored his religious paintings with the emotional tone of the Counter-Reformation as can be seen in his Abraham and Melchizedek.

The Archduchess Isabella Eugenia of Spain was a loyal Catholic who supported the Counter-Reformation. She commissioned The Triumph of the Eucharist from Rubens around the year 1625 Abraham and Melchizedek is one of the major scenes in a series of eleven tapestries. Rubens’s grand canvases defined the scope and style of high baroque painting. The terms tapestry and painting will be interchanged throughout this analysis because Rubens used tapestries as his canvases to paint this epic symbolic representation of The Eucharist as the embodiment of the rift between Catholicism and Protestantism through out the Baroque Period (The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art).

Abraham and Melchizedek hangs on the North wall in the Rubens Gallery. The physical structure of this gallery, more than thirty feet long with cathedral ceilings sets the atmosphere of majestic wonderment with its mahogany walls and elaborate domed ceiling. It is if the viewer is drawn towards this painting by its enormous size (175 ? x 224 ?). As the spectator moves closer to the tapestry, the awe and reverence created by the size of hall and painting are joined by a sense of movement, energy, and tension.

The tapestry depicts Melchizedek blessing Abraham and offering a sacrifice of bread and wine to God after Abraham was victorious over the invaders of Sodom. Sacrifices were offered constantly to God, however they were usually that of an animal. Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine was a new kind of sacrifice, a pure sacrifice unlike that of an animal, as they could have some form of illness or defect and such would be an abomination to the Lord (Dt 17:1). The pure and spiritually exalted elements of bread and wine in Abraham and Melchizedek foreshadow the events of the life of Christ. God would send his only son, Christ, as the ultimate sacrifice of himself for his people through the presentation of bread as his body and wine as his blood at the Last Supper (The Book of Hebrews, 259-260).This powerful symbolism in Rubens’s tapestry stirs the spectator’s soul.

Abraham and Melchizedek are presented in the foreground of Rubens’s scene. Abraham is portrayed as a man while Melchizedek’s figure is presented with the dual manifestation of man, physical and spiritual. This could be interpreted as Abraham symbolically representing one of Christ’s apostles and Melchizedek representing Christ’s duality of physical and spiritual.

Through the use of line, definition and color, Rubens captures the appearance of human flesh with a clear feel for the underlying anatomy of Abraham. Abraham’s right arm and legs muscles are defined and protruding, giving the viewer a sense of movement, strength and the structure of the human form. Rubens paints Melchizedek with the same style represented in Abraham but creates an illusion of a transcendent spiritual being with his use of yellows and white and with his strategic positioning of Melchizedek as hovering above the ground. This illusion is enhanced by the angelic figure behind Melchizedek holding his robe. Golden and pearly colors produce highlights and subtle gradations of reflected light surrounds the angelic figure. Through the use these colors and presence of the angelic figure Rubens communicates an atmosphere of humanity and spirituality --- the immortal joining with the mortal --- in the tapestry.

This experience is further accentuated as the viewer moves his or herpoint of reference to the left and right of the foreground. The guards, young boy, and older man behind Abraham are draped in brown hues and black with a hint of rustic orange in their skin tone and in the young boy’s cloak. These deep earth tones produce darker shading on the left side of the work. In contrast, the figures that surround Melchizedek on the right side of the tapestry (though clearly human in their form) are colored with hues that reflect rather than absorb the light. The right side of the painting appears to radiate light whereas the left absorbs it as a result of the contrasting color schemes on either side. Rubens’s use of contrasting color schemes tricks the eye to see darkness on the left and light on the right.

The horse in the bottom left corner further illuminates the experience of the dualism of humanity with spirituality. The representation of the horse as prostrating itself to Melchizedek provides the viewer with an impression that even the animals of that time were sensitive to the concept that human beings have two basic natures, the physical and the spiritual. The horse may also be interpreted as a symbolic unworthiness of animal sacrifice. Horses are normally perceived as standing tall with a sense of pride and worthiness. By painting the horse bowing, Rubens may have been emphasizing beasts’ inadequacies as offerings to God.

Rubens’s tapestry also furnishes the viewer with a feeling of depth. The illusion of three-dimensional form is dramatically strengthened by the use of columns and hovering angles in the background and the platform and staging in the foreground. The vertical lines on the mantle above the columns gives the tapestry an upright, stand-tall appearance, emphasizing its height. The horizontal lines contained in this mantle take the viewer across the scene, drawing the visual field around or on a path of movement from one point to the next. The outline of figures in the foreground are curved lines that draw the visual field inward and spiraling upward toward the hovering angels. As the viewer is drawn into and upward, the lines that draw the archway and the spiraling lines of the cloud composition, curving inside themselves pulls the viewers into the tapestry. The sharp lines that make up the platform on which Abraham stepping on create a sense three dimensionality and the curves that outline his body, coupled with the muscles in his legs defined and protruding, create a sense of movement.

The man at the bottom right serves to further the viewer’s sense of realism. Rubens places him sitting on the platform that supports the front column, his head is turn and he appears to be looking out at the viewer. The lines that make up the composite of his face are well defined and elicit the appearance of questioning the intrusion of the viewer. This figure also communicates to the observer a feeling of events occurring beyond the scope of the tapestry.

The exceedingly rich colors, dynamic compositions and depth in Abraham and Melchizedek enhance the dramatic effects of this work of art. Rubens’s use of contrasts of light and shadow, lines and detail elicits intense emotional responses of spirituality, immediacy, and individualism for the viewer. In this work Rubens clearly communicates the contradictions of the era through humanism, that union of faith and learning attacked by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (The Ringling Museum of Art).