Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Gathering of Manna, ca. 1626
Oil on panel, 64.8 x 52.3 cm
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Frances and Armand Hammer Purchase Fund, inv. M.69.20

Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

A fictive tapestry is suspended by a cord with tassels from three lions's heads attached to two Solomonic columns and an architrave. On the right is the figure of Moses in a red mantle with his identifying horns of light emanating from his head, holding his rod in his left hand and lifting his right hand heavenward in a gesture of appeal or thanksgiving. Before him and on the left, the Israelites gather manna in baskets and sacks. On the left a woman in golden-ocher drapery holds the hand of a child in her right hand while balancing a large basket of manna on her head. Another woman bends her head low to receive a second basket hefted by the man behind Moses, while another woman catches the falling manna in her skirt. In the foreground a man squats to lift a heavy grain sack filled with the miraculous substance. Just visible to the right of Moses is the head of a man with a beard, who may be Aaron. In the sky flecks of white manna continue to fall.

The biblical subject is based on Exodus 16:14-16, which records that the Israelites had become restless under the leadership of Moses and Aaron when they were threatened in the desert with starvation. However, God promised to provide for them, "and in the morning . . . when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground." It tasted "like wafers made with honey." A substance unknown to them, they called it "manna," perhaps from the Hebrew for "What is it?" Since the manna was said to have fallen to the earth like dew, it was often depicted as a precipitate caught by the Israelites from the air, as here depicted by Rubens. The Old Testament subject had long been regarded as a prefiguration of the Eucharist. The miraculous food that God caused to rain down on the Jews to sustain them in the wilderness symbolizes the heavenly bread of the New Covenant that nourishes mankind on its journey to salvation. As Nora de Poorter observed (1978, p. 295), the biblical term "heavenly bread" (Psalms 78:24-25) referred to manna and was also adopted to describe the Eucharist. Christ identifies himself with manna as the "true bread from Heaven" that will bring everlasting life: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (see John 6:31-32, 48-51).

The present modello was preceded by a bozzetto now in the Musée Bonnat, Bayonne in which the composition was reversed as it would appear in the final tapestry. While some of the figures' positions are already established (e.g., the woman with the child and basket, as well as the second woman who is assisted by a man to place the basket on her head), other details would change. At this preliminary stage a woman kneels in the foreground to gather manna in a basket, Moses gestures with his rod to heaven, and the column on the left was still covered by the fictive tapestry. The most important changes between the bozzetto and modello, however, were to increase the prominence of Moses and make all the figures more monumental by enlarging them and grouping them more tightly. The final cartoon for the composition is preserved in the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota. In addition to minor changes, it moves the figures still closer together, further compressing the space. The final tapestry by the weavers Jan Raes, J. Fobert, and H. Vervoert, like the others in the series, is still preserved in the Convent of the Descalzas Reales, Madrid (de Poorter 1978, no. 8, fig. 132). The narrower format of the Gathering of Manna indicates that in Rubens's overall design for the Eucharist tapestry series, it was paired among the various prefigurations with a scene of Elijah with the Angel (1 Kings 19:4-9), for which there are again a bozzetto as well as a modello in the museum in Bayonne (de Poorter 1978, nos. 9a, 9b, figs. 138, 139). The prophet Elijah was also sustained by heavenly food and drink and hence became a popular type for the Eucharist.

At some point in its history the present panel was enlarged on all four sides to create a panel measuring approximately 120 by 88 centimeters. The expanded areas were painted with an architectonic border, and part of the scene itself was overpainted with an oval "stone" cartouche decorated with cherubs and garlands of flowers and fruit (see de Poorter 1978, fig. 135). In this state it was long believed incorrectly to be by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Rubens; however, Max Rooses correctly observed that the border of garlands was a later addition and suggested that they might be by the flower specialist Pieter Gysels (active c. 1650). The added parts were removed after the picture was sold in 1938.

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