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Caesar’s Due

The Tribute Money

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Galleria del Palazzo Bianco – Genoa. 1625.

The Tribute Money

Tiziano Vecellio (ca. 1488-1576). The National Gallery – London. 1568.

Anthony van Dyck was a genius painter of portraits. But he needed examples for his pictures. He must have lacked imagination to design scenes and artistically strong compositions by himself. He needed proto-images for his pictures, and these could either be the sitters for his portraits, or older paintings of the great masters. Van Dyck’s need for examples was of course especially the case in his younger years. Van Dyck was twenty-six years old when he made the ‘Tribute Money’ and he copied the design of a picture made by Titian on the same subject. As he did often, van Dyck inverted Titian’s original scene and painted Jesus on the left instead of Titian’s Jesus on the right. He used the same colours, the same figures and only slightly changed details. Titian’s canvas was in Spain whereas van Dyck worked in Italy when this picture was made, in Genoa. Van Dyck must have seen a painted copy for he applied the same colours as Titian. The ‘Tribute Money’ represents a parable of the New Testament.

The scribes and the chief priests of Jerusalem awaited their opportunity and sent agents to pose as upright men, and to catch Jesus out in something he might say and so enable them to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. They put to him this question. “Master, we know that you say and teach what is right, you favour no one, but teach the way of God in all honesty. Is it permissible for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus was aware of their cunning and said, “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and title are on it?” They said, “Caesar’s”. He said to them, “Well then, pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and God what belongs to God.” They were unable to catch him out in anything he had to say in public; they were amazed at his answer and were silenced G38 .

Van Dyck painted the figures of the ‘Tribute Money’ parable with more expression in their faces than Titian. Thereby he announced the genius portrait artist he would become in his later years. The head of Jesus is that of a younger man than in Titian’s picture. Titian pictured a more wise and softer man. Van Dyck made a triumphant Jesus. His Jesus radiates holiness. Van Dyck’s Jesus is more melancholic and sad. The painter brought the shadow of Calvary on the bright face of Jesus, with more feelings and sentiment. The figures of the scribe and priest also are more expressive and so are the movements of the hands. Van Dyck’s scribe is holding and showing the coin and Jesus is further from the scribe than in Titian’s picture, indicating more the isolation and distance of the Messiah. Van Dyck created a more dynamic, lively picture. Titian showed a more restrained and intimate one. We find us spontaneously more involved in van Dyck’s scene of the parable.

Anthony van Dyck arrived late in the year 1621 in Genoa, having come there from his native Antwerp where he had been a student in the workshop of Pieter Paul Rubens. He had settled as an independent artist around 1615 already. He had worked on his own from 1615 on, some with his friend Jan Brueghel the Younger. But van Dyck also continued to work together with Rubens until 1620, just before he left for Italy. Rubens may have spoken to his young aid of the years he had worked in Italy and in Genoa. Rubens may have told of the fame he had obtained there, of the advantages for young painters to travel and learn in Italy, and thus put the idea of an Italian adventure in van Dyck’s head. Van Dyck travelled to Genoa in November 1621 and stayed there in the house of two friends from Antwerp, the brothers Cornelis and Lucas de Wael. Although he painted for the Genoese noblemen such as the Balbis, the Brignole-Sale and the Lomellini, he travelled also to Rome and Florence, to Venice, and he remained for a time in Palermo of Sicily. Van Dyck returned only to Antwerp in September of 1627. He had remained six years in Italy and returned with the reputation of a great master. His painting the ‘Tribute Money’ dates from his later years in Italy.

The ‘Tribute Money’ indicates the tension between the two realities of Jesus. The denarius presented by the scribe is a symbol of the world that we perceive with our senses. Jesus was a human too, born of a human, but he possessed a double nature. Jesus points to the heavens, to the transcendent world that humans cannot perceive but that was part of his nature. Jesus told in his parables that this unseen world was very real also and the aim of his testimony was to show humans what that world was about. It was a world of adoration of God, of love and justice.

Van Dyck and Titian pledged to their belief in this transcendent world of Jesus. They seem to say that indeed this is a reality beyond mind-images and dreams. They expressed their faith by the gesture of Jesus. Titian painted Jesus humbly, undisturbed, taking for granted that the spiritual world existed. Jesus is depicted almost surprised that his could be put to the question. Van Dyck did not go as deep in his thoughts. Van Dyck made Jesus radiate glory and he showed him as a king of the heavens. The scribe on the extreme right of Van Dyck’s picture holds his glasses in an extraordinary but vain effort to capture the truth. However sceptic we may be says van Dyck, the glory of the other world does exist. Here lies the fundamental ever-unproven truth to which Jesus came to teach and the basic mystery of the venue of the Christ.

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