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The Books of Maccabees - Mattathias

Mattathias kills a Jew that worships Idols as well as an Officer of King Antiochus, who forced the People to sacrifice to Idols, and he destroys the Altar

Michel-Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié (1735-1784). Musée des Beaux Arts. Tours. 1793.

The Books of Maccabees are a record of the resistance of Judaism against Hellenistic influences. It is a history of the years from about 167 BC to 151 BC. Attempts to impose Greek religion and culture were successful everywhere in Near Asia, but the Jews opposed themselves to the change.

Antiochus Epiphanes, son of King Antiochus, reigned over the kingdom of the Greeks. During his wicked times, a gymnasium was built in Jerusalem and some of the Jews disguised their circumcision, abandoned the covenant and submitted to gentile rules. Antiochus conquered Egypt, routing Pharaoh Ptolemy and then advanced on Israel and Jerusalem. He broke into the sanctuary of Jerusalem and stole all the silver and gold. Two years later he sent the Mysarch through all the cities of Judah and these armies settled in the city of David, storing arms and provisions and proving themselves a great trouble. The king then issued a proclamation that his entire kingdom had to become one nation; each nation had to renounce its particular customs. In Jerusalem the king built an idolatrous altar on top of the Jewish altar of burnt offerings. The Books of the Law were torn up and burned. Women who had their children circumcised were put to death with their babies hung around their necks.


At that time Mattathias, son of John, was a priest of the line of Joarib. He left Jerusalem and settled in Modein. The king’s commissioners wanted to force Mattathias to conform to the king’s decree, but Mattathias refused and when he saw a Jewish man coming forward to offer sacrifice on the altar of Modein, he killed the man and the commissioners. Many people left then to the desert and hided there. A strong detachment of soldiers from Jerusalem pursued them, attacked the Jews on the Sabbath itself and they were all slaughtered, a thousand of them. When Mattathias heard of this he rallied his friends and the Hassidaeans, stout fighting men, joined them. Mattathias used his armed force to overthrow the foreign altars, to circumcise the boys they found uncircumcised in Israel and to wrest power from the control of the gentiles.

Michel-Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié was born in a family of pictorial artists. He first studied engraving with his father François-Bernard Lépicié (1698-1755). His father also wrote on art and his mother, Renée-Elisabeth Marlié Lépicié (1714-1773) was an engraver too. Michel Lépicié later studied painting in the studio of Carle Van Loo, the most famous painter of his generation. He entered the French Royal Academy as a member in 1764 and made historical en religious pictures. He became an assistant professor of the Académie Royale in 177O and a full professor in 1777. He had a large workshop in Paris, in which many Parisian painters of the second part of the eighteenth century were trained.

Lépicié painted four vast pictures on historical themes just a year before his death, commissioned by the Superintendent of Buildings of France, the Count Angiviller. These paintings were destined for the official Salon exhibition of Paris, and they had to inspire virtue and patriotic feelings in the public. The paintings were also destined to be used as cartons fro the Gobelin tapestry manufactories. They were rejected there however in 1794 for being of too fanatic a subject F31 .

Mattathias son of John, son of Simeon, a priest of the line of Joarib lived with his five sons in Modein. The king’s commissioners enforced apostasy also in Modein. The king then was Antiochus Epiphanes of the line of Alexander the Great’s general Antiochus. Antiochus Epiphanes wanted the countries he had conquered all to follow Greek customs in religion. Mattathias however refused to forsake the covenant of his ancestors. When everybody had gathered in Modein, a Jew came forward to sacrifice on Modein’s pagan altar, according to the royal decree. Mattathias then became fired with the holy zeal and he killed the Jew on the altar. He also slaughtered the king’s commissioner who was there to enforce the sacrifice. Mattathias tore down the altar. He thus revolted against Antiochus Epiphanes openly, called all the Jews of Modein together and fled with his sons and people into the hills. Thus started the revolt of the Jewish people against foreign customs and against Antiochus Epiphanes. Michel-Nicolas Lépicié made a picture of this scene of religious upheaval and of revolt against foreign kings that wanted to impose Greek, pagan philosophy upon zealous Jews. The painting and the scene are propagandist in nature, and in favour of the Bible and of Christian religion. The picture had to remind the French people of the virtues of religion and it had to urge the people to stay true to religious traditions in the wake of the Rationalist revivening of the French Philosophers.

In the painting, Mattathias towers over a crowd of Jews. He stands on the dais of the pagan altar of the square lined with Greek and Egyptian architectures. The idolatric Jew and Antiochus’ officer lie dead at his feet. Mattathias still brandishes the stone with which he has executed the two men while with his left arm and hand he holds back the Jews from interfering. Mattathias makes a powerful, imposing figure. He is massive in his anger, tall, strong. He wears a square white beard, the sign as well of wisdom as of strength. He is determined, strong-willed and certain of himself. He stands robustly with legs spread for support. He does not waver but dominates in his fanatic zeal for Yahweh. Michel-Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié showed the two murdered men lying one on top of the other, without dignity. The crowd then gesticulates wildly and shows its emotions of hatred, of surprise and of acclamation of the deed of Mattathias, their new leader. Jews are tearing down the pagan altar.

Lépicié situated his scene among buildings of Greek style and we also see an Egyptian obelisk. Also, the round tower in the far makes one think of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo, even if that mausoleum was not build yet in Antiochus Epiphanes’ times. These were for Lépicié the symbols of the Greek philosophers, the teaching of which Antiochus wanted to impose on the Jews. Lépicié obtained quite an epic effect by placing Mattathias against this grand landscape. Behind the buildings we see high mountains and a darkening sky with large, sombre clouds that seem to announce the fires of revolt.

In composition, Lépicié formed a pyramid structure around Mattathias and he enhanced the effect of the tallness of Mattathias by placing the high Egyptian obelisk right behind him. Most of the other figures around Mattathias are shown in slightly tilted poises and more oblique directions, which are indications for movement, are shown in arms and hands. It is by the movements of the arms, which go in all directions, that Lépicié evokes the chaos of the crowd and the strong emotions of the people. This then contrasts with the austere, straight lines of the architectures. A clear direction also goes from the boy in the lower left long the left diagonal of the frame, over Mattathias, to the alter and high up towards the upper right and to the point of the obelisk. This line forced the elevating impression that was often sought by academic painters.

Michel-Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié used overall warm, brown hues. But lower down he applied dark green and dark blue areas with jus few but strong colours. These dark tones balance well the dark sky in symmetry. Between the two areas of sombre tones, Lépicié then placed the bright figure of Mattathias, clad in white robe and light grey cloak so that in these lighter colours Mattathias could become the immediately remarked focus of all viewers. Around Mattathias, in the crowd, Lépicié brought brown and orange colours of almost the same shade so that Mattathias’ figure stands well out, also in colours. These hues he gradually faded to less pronounced hues behind Mattathias, to give the effect of aerial perspective and more illusion of space in the crowd. Lépicié then forced an impression of far depth of vision onto the viewer by the perspective of the architectures, visible in the strongly slanting lines of the buildings. Of course, Lépicié also directed the eye of the viewer since with one hand Mattathias points at the killed men and with the other arm he holds back the Jews, but also seems to order to destroy the altar. At the Jews to which Mattathias points, Lépicié opened somewhat the scene, whereas at the killed men there is a chaos of curved lines and of details, in which we do not recognise se easily the murdered men. So, Lépicié drew more attention or at least more rapid attention to the surprised Jews than on the slaughtered men. He softened therefore somewhat the horror of Mattathias’ act.

Lépicié made a very academic painting and yet the scene seems a natural one, in the spur of the moment of the anger of Mattathias. He applied all his knowledge of the academic style and yet made a fine painting. He knew how to play with the viewer, with his emotions and with how a viewer would look at such a picture. When we learn of the story and the reasons of his painting we are of course taken somewhat aback. Yet, Lépicié was also honestly inspired by religious feelings and put his art to service of the propagation and respect of his faith. His ‘Mattathias is hence not only a fine painting but also an interesting one.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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