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Rubens - VM - Ana Debenedetti

Peter Paul Rubens: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes

Fishers of Men

by Ana Debenedetti

Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebʹedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. Luke 5:4–11, Revised Standard Version

The fishmonger guilds of the city of Mechelen in Belgium commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to paint this altarpiece triptych for their chapel in the Church of Our Lady-across-the-Dyle. The triptych is one of the few works by the artist still in situ and, from atop its altar, towers over the viewer (who will often approach it as a communicant at Mass).

The choice of this biblical scene by the Mechelen fishermen’s guild has been interpreted as a tribute to their devotion to the Roman Catholic faith at a time when many Flemish fishermen emigrated to the Protestant north. Early documents suggest that members of the guild were portrayed by Rubens as the fishermen-disciples, conceivably enhancing their identification with Christ's first followers and especially their patron saints, Peter and Andrew.

In this light, Rubens composed an image that gives prominence to the fishermen in action, locating Simon Peter kneeling before Christ just right of centre. Dynamic diagonal lines structure the whole composition, enlivened by touches of strong and contrasting colours. The red cloak of Christ is echoed in the red jacket of the man pulling up the net from the shore. On the opposite axis, from upper left to lower right, the bare-torsoed fishermen in their drably-coloured clothes form a second diagonal that plunges towards the sea. Above them, a threatening sky is reflected in the silvery waves from which big gleaming fishes emerge. This asymmetrical, albeit masterfully balanced, composition focuses on the contrasting elements and wild nature which the fishermen attempt to tame in their struggle for survival. Simon Peter and Christ appear therefore almost like a vision, estranged from this marine combat.

The central panel of the Draught of Fishes is flanked by two painted hinged wings which depict Peter and the Tribute Money on the left (Matthew 17:24–27) and Tobias and the Angel on the right (Tobit 6:1–12). They illustrate two further ‘miraculous catches’ of fish: Peter catches a fish which contains in its mouth the coin to pay a tax collector’s levy; Tobias, following the angel’s instructions, catches a fish that will cure Sarah’s curse. These complementary scenes can be construed as two further acts of obedience and submission which help human beings to move forward on the path of life.

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First published as Ana Debenedetti. 2022. ‘Fishing for People: The Reinvention’, in The Visual Commentary on Scripture ed by Ben Quash. (London: The Visual Commentary on Scripture Foundation). [Accessed 23.02.2022] https://thevcs.org/fishing-people/reinvention?first=5581

The Visual Commentary on Scripture (VCS) is a freely accessible online publication that provides theological commentary on the Bible in dialogue with works of art. It helps its users to (re)discover the Bible in new ways through the illuminating interaction of artworks, scriptural texts, and commissioned commentaries. The VCS combines three academic disciplines: theology, art history, and biblical scholarship. While the project’s main commitment is to theology, it is responsibly informed by the latter two disciplines. Each section of the VCS is a virtual exhibition comprising a biblical passage, three art works, and their associated commentaries.  The virtual exhibitions of the VCS aim to facilitate new possibilities of seeing and reading so that the biblical text and the selected works of art come alive in new and vivid ways. https://thevcs.org

Peter Paul Rubens: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1618, oil on panel, 301 x 447 cm; central panel: 301 x 235 cm; wings: 301 x 106 cm, Church of Our Lady Across the River Dyle in Mechelen, Belgium.

Ana Debenedetti is an art historian specializing in Florentine art, artistic literature, patronage and workshop practice in the Renaissance. From 2013 to 2021 she was Curator of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, responsible for the collections of paintings, drawings, watercolours and miniatures. Since 2021 she has joined Culturespaces as the new Director of Exhibitions and Culture and is responsible for the cultural programmation of the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris and the Hotel de Caumont at Aix-en-Provence. She is also acting as consultant for the Des Lumieres network, which presents immersive art experience in France and abroad. https://vam.academia.edu/ADebenedetti 

References

Bulckens, Koen. 2017. The Ministry of Christ Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard xiii/2, pp. 104 ff.

Lawrence, Cynthia. 1984. ‘The Iconology of Rubens's “Miraculous Draft of Fishes”’, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 14.1: 24–35

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