Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, ca. 1628
Oil on panel, 66 x 82.5 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of Syma Busiel, 1958.4.1 (1506)

Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

At the center of the scene the patriarch Abraham, returning from his victories over Cherdorlaomer, ascends the steps of a palace to meet Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem or Jerusalem, as described in Genesis 14:17-20. Melchizedek wears the golden, ermine-lined robes of a king as well as a red papal camauro adorned with a laurel wreath, while Abraham has military armor and attire inspired by antique examples and a general's short red mantle. Abraham receives two loaves of bread from Melchizedek, and the latter's retinue distributes additional bread to the helmeted legions with spears who follow their conquering general. Muscular servants at the right bring forth large vessels of wine and an additional basket of bread, while a page attends to the general's charger at the left. The scene is treated as a fictive tapestry held aloft by three putti and fastened with festoons of fruit to architecture consisting of an antique-styled architrave with a Doric column on the right. On the low proscenium in the foreground rests a sculpted base decorated with winged cherub heads and festoons.

This is one of the oil sketches for the tapestry series known as the Triumph of the Eucharist that was commissioned by the pious Infanta Isabella for the Convent of the Poor Clares, the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. The convent was famous for its magnificent celebration of the Blessed Sacrament on Good Friday and during the octave of the feast of Corpus Christi. Rubens's tapestry series was designed in about 1626, woven by the best craftsmen in Brussels, and covered the entire interior of the convent's chapel on these high holy days, embodying in its iconography and complex design a universe of Counter-Reformation belief. The program included four Old Testament subjects that prefigure the Eucharist: in addition to the present work, these include the Gathering of the Manna (see the modello in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Elijah and the Angel (Musée Bonnat, Bayonne), and The Sacrifice of the Old Covenant (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Only the last mentioned is an exceptional thematic choice; the other three are traditional prefigurations of the Eucharist in Northern art; Dirck Bouts's altarpiece of The Last Supper of 1464-67 in St. Peter's church in Louvain, for example, includes all three of these subjects on its wings. In addition to the Old Testament subjects, the series included scenes of the triumphal procession of the Blessed Sacrament.

Melchizedek was generally regarded as a precursor of Christ, and his offer of bread and wine an obvious metaphor for Holy Communion. Old Testament prefigurations were regularly marshaled by defenders of Catholic doctrine, especially the Jesuits, during the Counter-Reformation. However, in the Triumph of the Eucharist series there are no New Testament stories, only allegorical subjects that represent the fulfillment of the prefigurations and Christ's symbolic presence in sacramental form. The series was designed to be hung in two mutually referential rows one above the other, with scenes with Tuscan columns on the bottom and Solomonic columns on the top, as if the entire church interior were hung with fictive tapestries before an illusionistic architectural screen. In working out this complex arrangement Rubens executed a group of bozzetti, including a small sketch in the Fitzwilliam Museum that seems to have been his first conception for the Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. That work has a square format and, unlike the present work, features Solomonic columns, while orienting the scene in the opposite direction (with Abraham on the right and Melchizedek on the left), as it would appear in the final tapestry. As with the Chicago sketch (The Adoration of the Eucharist, the Fitzwilliam sketches, which number six in total, were all once part of a single panel that was then cut into individual scenes, perhaps to help the artist work out their placement, the fall of light, perspective, and harmonious use of wall space (see de Poorter 1978, pp. 83-88). However, unlike the five tapestries depicted in the Chicago sketches, the larger scenes for the horizontal walls depicted in the Fitzwilliam bozzetti were reversed only when Rubens proceeded to the modelli stage.

The subject of the Washington sketch is unique among the sketches for the Eucharist series in existing in a second modello in the Prado. While that work has later additions extending the architecture on all four sides, it too originally employed a narrower, almost square composition and included the Solomonic columns. In this scene, as in the Washington sketch, Abraham and Melchizedek face each other in profile on the steps of a palace and are viewed from below. The Prado sketch's design is elaborated and extended in the composition of the Washington sketch, which adds more soldiers, exchanges the flanking Solomonic columns with an asymmetrical architectural design featuring a single Doric column, and adopts a lower point of view. As both Charles Scribner (1975) and Nora de Poorter (1978) independently concluded, Rubens undoubtedly made these changes when he decided to replace The Triumph of Hope, for which there is a bozzetto in Richard Feigen's collection, with the Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek on the first tier of tapestries. Among the six modelli from the Eucharist series that feature the Tuscan order, only the Washington modello is completely finished in all details of the architecture—the gilded wreaths below, the fluting of the lower half of the shaft of the column, the pittings of the rustication, the capital and its bands and rosettes, the egg-and-dart molding, and the beading of the cornice.

Many of the features of the modelli in Madrid and Washington (e.g., the figures facing each other in profile and the burly servants on the right) were first worked out by Rubens in his own earlier, large-scale treatment of the theme of about 1616 in the museum in Caen. Yet another iteration of the subject with a more radically foreshortened design appeared in Rubens's decorations for the Jesuit Ceiling of about 1620-22, which were destroyed by fire in 1718; the composition is known through a modello in the Louvre. Initials on the back of the Washington panel record that it was manufactured by the artist's favorite panel maker in Antwerp, Michiel Vriendt. As evidence of the popularity of the composition, de Poorter (1978) lists seven copies and engravings after the design.

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