The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek
Peter Paul Rubens
Around 1625, Peter Paul Rubens received an important commission from the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, Governess of the Southern Netherlands (1566–1633) to design a tapestry series of The Triumph of the Eucharist for the royal convent of the Poor Clares in Madrid. The tapestries were to be hung during the feast days of Good Friday and Corpus Christi, which celebrate Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The subject had profound meaning for the Poor Clares, who were particularly devoted to the Eucharist—the bread and wine of the Mass that Catholics believe miraculously transubstantiates into the body and blood of Christ when consecrated by a priest. Rubens focused on Old Testament prefigurations of the Eucharist and allegorical subjects symbolizing triumph of the Catholic Church over the forces of evil and heresy.
The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizidek is a highly finished modello, or sketch, for one of the Old Testament prefigurations of the Eucharist. This story from Genesis tells of the gifts of bread and wine that Abraham received from the Priest-King of Salem, Melchizedek, after returning from a victorious battle (Gen. 14: 17-20). Catholic theologians viewed Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine as a prefiguration of the Last Supper, and even saw Melchizedek, whose name means “king of Justice,” as a prefiguration of Christ. In Rubens’s vivid portrayal, the scene unfolds on an illusionistically painted tapestry held aloft by putti before an architectural framework. Abraham, in armor standing at the head of his band of soldiers, appears in the center, gratefully receiving loaves of bread from Melchizidek. As the two men lean toward one another, they lock eyes as though they have a premonition, unshared by the others, that the bread and wine have significance beyond bodily sustenance.
Rubens reinforced the momentousness of the encounter not only through compositional devices, but also through his exuberant style. His vivid colors, rich textures, and expressive brush imbue the scene with a feeling of grandeur. In this way Rubens both signals the importance of the prefigured Eucharist in the Old Testament and suggests its continued centrality to the Catholic Faith in his own time.