Fishing for People
Commentary by Ana Debenedetti
This is the first of a series of ten full-scale designs (known as cartoons) for tapestries that Pope Leo X commissioned from Raphael for the Sistine chapel in Rome. The cycle, titled the Acts of the Apostles, recounts scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul, known as the ‘Princes of the Apostles’. Peter is also traditionally regarded as the first Pope, whose authority has descended to each of his papal successors as the head of the Catholic Church.
The Miraculous Draught of Fishes is a rare subject in art and yet became one of the most famous works created by the master. In this complex composition, Raphael shows the event as a moment of revelation, translating the surprise and submission of the future apostles of Christ into visual form by displaying a wide range of contrasting gestures and expressions. The scene relies entirely on a succession of counterbalancing motions which describe the gradual internalization and understanding of the miraculous event by the fishermen.
Here the miracle is represented at the far right of the composition where James and John are absorbed in pulling up their huge catch into their boat. In a second boat on the left of the composition, Andrew—shown in green—throws his arms out to suggest his amazement but perhaps also his disbelief, while Peter kneels humbly at Jesus’s feet at the left, in recognition of his power and in confession of his own unworthiness (Luke 5:8).
Jesus appears as the fulcrum of the whole composition in his slightly elevated position at far left, his calm attitude contrasting with the movement of the rest of the figures. Zebedee, assuming the pose of an ancient river god at far right, balances the figure of Christ opposite him.
More traditionally, we might expect the narrative and composition to be oriented from left to right making this appear unusual. However, Raphael had anticipated that his design would be reversed through the weaving process as low-warp looms typically produce a mirror image, just like engraving does, placing Jesus in the position of honour at the right.
There is something unintentionally apposite about this, for this whole biblical episode is one of reversals, as a night of no fish becomes a day of groaning nets, and fishermen are commissioned as Christ’s special emissaries.
Shearman, John. 1972. Raphael Cartoons in the Collection of Her Majesty: The Queen and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel (London: Phaidon), pp. 50–51
Under the Influence
Commentary by Ana Debenedetti
Giulio Romano made this small preparatory drawing for one of sixteen medallions in the Sala dei Venti (Room of the Winds) in the Palazzo Te in Mantua. The medallions themselves were painted by his large team of collaborators, and represent human activities governed by the signs of the zodiac. This one depicts a group of men straining under the weight of a whale that has been caught up in their nets.
Drawing from two late antique astrological texts, the Mathesis of Firmicus Maternus and the Astronomica of Manilius, the room’s decorative scheme illustrates the influence of the stars on human activities. Its programme is explained in an inscription painted on the wall: Distat enim quae sydera te excipient (‘There is a difference depending on the stars that look over you’). The whale-fishing scene is located under the zodiacal sign of Pisces and its constellation, the whale, which predestines men born under their influence to become fishermen.
Giulio was a pupil of Raphael who must have studied the master’s large composition of the Acts of the Apostles, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, when he joined the workshop in about 1516. Ten years on he clearly still recalled his master’s composition, transforming it to represent a completely different subject. Here, his large net appears almost solid, carefully designed with the same shape as the boat hulls in Raphael’s design. The figures, although more numerous than in Raphael, are similarly distributed along these ‘hulls’ while their vigorous gestures in dragging the net exaggerate Raphael’s invention.
Giulio depicts a daily activity as a heroic venture, and fuses together heroes and ordinary men into a single entity striving for survival. Although it may be that Giulio was also responding here to the art of Michelangelo, especially the famous cartoon for the Battle of Cascina (since destroyed), it seems that the small composition (the final fresco is not much bigger than the preparatory drawing) expresses a highly personal vision that is reflected throughout the whole decoration of the Palazzo Te for Federico Gonzaga, the ruler of Mantua.
Giulio’s fusing of the quotidian with the exceptional is just as much a feature of the Lukan episode which was his master’s subject: the daily activity of Simon, Andrew, James, and John recast by Jesus into the ‘holy heroism’ of their vocation as fishers of multitudes.
Hartt, F. 1958. Giulio Romano, vol. I (New Haven), pp. 85, 115, 296, n.154
Commentary by Ana Debenedetti
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.
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
The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (Luke 5:1–11), c.1515–16 , Bodycolour over charcoal on many sheets of paper, mounted on canvas
Giulio Romano :
La Pêche aux poissons des abysses (The Whale), c.1527–28 , Pen and brown ink, brown and gray wash, black stone, heightened with white (blackened)
Peter Paul Rubens :
Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1618 , Oil on panel
The Extraordinary in the Ordinary
Commentary by Ana Debenedetti
That common human activities can be transformed into extraordinary events is the implicit message delivered by these three works of art. The Miraculous Draught of Fishes—narrated in the Gospel of Luke—is the story of a moment of revelation and a leap of faith.
Moreover, it is an episode that discloses the obedience of the natural world to a divine order—a logic which, to some extent, also applies to the late antique astrological treatises which give the planets and their constellations the power to influence the natural world and human destinies alike.
When Raphael was commissioned to design a tapestry to illustrate this miracle, his first idea was to showcase the ordinary life of the inhabitants of Galilee in the foreground and place the miraculous event in the distance. The artist eventually decided (or was advised) to go back to a more traditional configuration. Raphael presents the apostles in the style of ancient mythological heroes of the type he may have seen in ancient reliefs around Rome and possibly in reference to Michelangelo’s ignudi (nude figures) frescoed on the Sistine ceiling. However, he pays just as much attention to the background figures and landscape, taking full advantage of the use of linear perspective in a way that had not previously been seen in tapestry designs.
For example, in the left background, groups of figures are distributed along the shore, some occupied in their daily tasks and others in a state of alert with their arms outstretched, probably pointing at the miraculous event taking place on the lake. These contrasting attitudes in the distance mirror the counterbalanced poses in the foreground conveying unity and harmony to the whole composition. Such contrasts extend to the animals: the cranes being a traditional symbol of vigilance while the ravens allude to sin and apostasy.
This emphasis placed on the human aspect of the biblical story was taken up by Peter Paul Rubens who turned to Raphael’s prototype to design his own interpretation of the biblical event. Rubens probably knew Raphael’s composition, not just the tapestry version (of which several high-quality versions were produced throughout the sixteenth century) but the cartoon itself which he might have seen in Genoa around 1604. Rubens probably also knew Giulio Romano’s reinterpretation of the subject in Mantua.
Giulio abandoned the secondary scene to focus on the sole protagonists in the foreground, fusing together the ordinary and the extraordinary in the fishermen whose athletic bodies and strength in action were reminiscent of the classical vision inherited from his master Raphael. Rubens followed Giulio’s idea and enhanced it by emphasizing the energetic movements of the elements and men alike. He depicted the scene as a human fight against natural forces while the revelation takes place slightly in isolation from the rest of the figures who are so absorbed in the violent dynamic of the miraculous catch.
The inclusion of real portraits among the future disciples of Christ in Rubens’s work must have had a further impact on the beholders, by making them fully participant in the extraordinary event (while also legitimizing their role and status in society). However, it has been noted that Rubens’s decision to depict the first miraculous draught of fishes, rather than the one narrated in John 21:1–8, which occurred after the Resurrection, is a potentially significant departure from Netherlandish tradition. Christ’s command to his disciples to be those who ‘feed’ others (John 21:15–17) was possibly more appropriate to the very purpose of their professional occupation.
Similarly, the secondary scene in the background of Raphael’s design, including a cityscape reminiscent of Rome, alludes to the future mission of the fishermen as ‘fishers of men’. Raphael draws extensively on this traditional metaphor, the Church itself being personified as a ship, while fish were an early Christian symbol. The followers of Christ were called pisciculi (little fishes) and the symbol of the fish came to stand for Christ himself. In this light, Raphael painted the wildlife in a naturalistic manner with identifiable fishes, among which St Peter’s fish, also known as John Dory, is especially prominent in Peter’s boat.
The metaphor of the journey at sea, the navigatio, was also a powerful poetic trope, made famous by Petrarch in his sonnet ‘Passa la nave mia colma d'oblio’ (‘My ship, full of oblivion, sails’, Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta, 189), alluding to Ulysses’ ten-year maritime journey to return home after the war of Troy. Taking the metaphor further, the ship of life also depicts the journey through the different ages of man from childhood to old age and the choices that he makes along the way. Luke 5 shows the disciples being launched into a new stage of their life’s voyage, to places as yet unknown.