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Miraculous Draft of Fishes by Peter Paul Rubens
La Pêche aux poissons des abysses (The Whale) by Giulio Romano
Miraculous Draft of Fishes by Peter Paul Rubens

Raphael

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (Luke 5:1–11), c.1515–16, Bodycolour over charcoal on many sheets of paper, mounted on canvas, 320 x 390 cm, Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 912944, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

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), 211 x 368 mm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, INV 3560, Recto, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Peter Paul Rubens

Miraculous Draft 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, Jozef Sedmak / Alamy Stock Photo

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary

Comparative Commentary by

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.