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The Finding of the Tribute Money

The Apostle Peter finding the Tribute Money in the Fish’s Mouth

Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). Statens Museum for Kunst – Copenhagen. 1620-1625.

When Jesus and his disciples reached Capernaum, the collectors of the half-shekel (a yearly tax on all Jews for the upkeep of the Temple) came to Peter and said, “Does your master not pay the half-shekel?” “Yes”, he replied, and went into the house. But before he could speak, Jesus said, “Simon, what is your opinion? From whom do earthly kings take toll or tribute?” And when he replied, “From foreigners,” Jesus said, “well then, the sons are exempt. However, so that we shall not be the downfall of others, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that rises, open its mouth and there you will find a shekel; take it and give it to them for me and for yourself.” G38

Jacob Jordaens’ picture of this miracle dates from the seventeenth century and Jordaens worked in Antwerp. At the end of the sixteenth century a war waged between Catholic Spain and the Protestant Netherlands. Brabant and Antwerp were still Catholic, but just under half of the population of Antwerp was Protestant. War was mostly fought in the Southern Netherlands, in Flanders and Brabant and since the fighting armies were neither Flemish nor Brabants they did certainly not spare the country or its crown jewel, Antwerp. In 1576 the Spanish troops that had remained unpaid for long, sacked the town. The army plundered the richest city of the Netherlands. Because of this so-called ‘Spanish fury’ Antwerp chose the side of the Dutch Prince of Orange. But Orange had called in the help of a French mercenary army led by the Duke d’Alençon. This Duke, a younger brother of the French king, was not much pleased by the minor role that Orange had promised him, which was merely to become Duke of Brabant. D’Alençon went for power and tried to take Antwerp in his turn. So the town knew now a ‘French Fury’. But the Antwerp citizen troops could beat the French Duke. The romantic nineteenth century historical painters of Belgium took up these events as themes for pictures. For sixteenth century Antwerp it only meant that the town was spoiled, its works of art destroyed, and death and fear fell on its citizens.

While these events happened in the war, General Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, who had taken over command of the Spanish troops, advanced steadily in Flanders. He took Bruges and Gent and soon stood before Antwerp. The town led by its mayor Marnix van Sint Aldegonde defended itself ferociously. The townsmen tried to break out several times in hard fights. They even sent burning fire ships devised by the Italian Giannibelli against the Spanish naval blockade of Antwerp’s access to the sea, the river Schelde. Alexander Farnese was strongest however and the mayor started negotiations. Antwerp capitulated in August of 1585.

By that time there were more Protestants living in Antwerp than in Dutch Amsterdam. But the Counter-Reformation had won in Antwerp and though Farnese was generally mild, the Spanish General made Antwerp a Catholic town again. Between 1585 and 1589 Antwerp lost half its population. Most significantly, its most dynamic merchants and industrials immigrated to Amsterdam. The river Schelde ran to the sea through Dutch territory after Antwerp, so the Schelde was closed. This meant that ships had to pay additional taxes to transport goods on the Schelde and all goods for Antwerp had to be trans-shipped on Dutch territory before Antwerp.

Nevertheless, as in Bruges of the fifteenth century, Antwerp of the seventeenth knew a renewal of the arts based on the remaining capital and wealth. Only one third or so of the original traders had remained in the port, but this proved sufficient for Antwerp Baroque art to thrive and come to international prominence. Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and his student Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) were the most famous painters in a town in which also the sciences and literature revived. Immediately after Rubens and van Dyck came in fame Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), Jan Brueghel (1568-1625), David Teniers (1610-1670), Frans Snijders (1579-1657) and many others. We learn from history however that the most prominent artists of Antwerp travelled to become rich and famous in other countries of Europe. Rubens had worked in Italy. Van Dyck equally spent several years in Italy and he became the royal court artist of England. Talent travels to where the money is, and that in every century as the nature of man is universal and does not change much over time.

Jacob Jordaens learnt his profession in the workshop of Adam van Noort. He became a member of the Antwerp guild of painters, the Saint Luke guild, in 1615. He knew Rubens and van Dyck in the town and was most influenced by Rubens’ unique flamboyant baroque style. Jordaens had also seen paintings by the great Italians like Caravaggio. He developed a very personal, forceful, original style next to Rubens’ way of painting. Just as Rubens he opened an important workshop in Antwerp and all themes of antiquity, of religious or of secular scenes, as of genre scenes were his. Jordaens could be as aristocratic as Rubens could, and as princely distinguished as Van Dyck. But he painted also images, which were more rooted, in the popular life of his town. Some of his pictures are on the edge of vulgarity although a moralising tone then always joins in the scenes. Jordaens did not shy away from showing in full front of a frame a woman wiping the bottom of her child. Jordaens could be rougher than Rubens, more close to life, closer to nature in his landscapes and less heroic.

Jacob Jordaens’ ‘The Apostle Peter finding the Tribute Money in the Fish’s Mouth’ is a painting of the young artist, as he was then only around 25 to 30 years old. The influence of Rubens is all there, but the roots of Jordaens in popular themes are soundly developed already. The picture is also called ‘The Ferryboat to Antwerp’ and both themes of the miracle and the ferry are indeed immediately perceived. The miracle theme is on the right. Peter is taking the first fish out of the river Schelde and finding the coin. Since tax still had to be paid to the Dutch for the boats navigating to Antwerp over the river Schelde, Jordaens may have hinted at this ‘foreigners’ tax’ just as Jesus did in the Gospels story.

The boat is a ferry taking cows and horses together with people to the other side. The boat is filled to the trim with lustful ladies, babies, old men, and a Moor, weeping children, youths and apostles. Four apostles are around Peter. Rubens and Jordaens loved anatomy, preferably of men and women of mature age and full in flesh. Jordaens finds his pleasure in the two ferrymen, one driving the boat and the other raising the sail. They are naked to the waist, showing their powerful muscles and chests. Rubens however would never have painted falling trousers; Jordaens’ sailor is losing his shorts, they fall down on his buttocks in full sight of the viewers. This is the Jordaens of the people of all characters and upbringings. Jordaens did not seek to refine the image of the people of Antwerp. He tried to say, “Look how Antwerp people are in reality, all different, yet in the same boat and liking to be together whether elegantly clad or naked.” The figures are basic, solid images as warm, fleshy humanity.

The painting has symbolic value. It might be the boat of the Church led by Peter the first Pope. It might be the boat Antwerp on the waves of history in which all together just keep abreast of the storms, all floating together on the waves of time. This is a large sized picture, so we can suppose it was made for a guild, maybe a fisherman’s guild or the guild of ferrymen. Just as in Bruges, scenes of Jesus’ water or sea miracles were more popular than other scenes in the seaport of Antwerp.

Jordaens was a man of the earth and so were his pictures. He did never forget however the laws of art. There is a strong composition in the picture, with a left and right scene and the two ferrymen in between as the vertical link. The two side scenes start low, and then rise on each side to the top of the frame. Night seems to be falling, so colours are harmonious and rich but on the dark side. The sky is menacing, danger looms and the people are frightened. The ferrymen cannot comfort the voyagers so they just do their job and hope for the best.

So is life. All of us together, rich and poor, left to the vagrancies of life and time. We are thrown to the left and to the right without able to steer our boat and master the elements of fate. This is the message, maybe sad, but also represented in a somewhat comic way, that Jordaens felt and put to image. Again, Jordaens joined the Flemish-Brabant tradition of bringing religion very close to the people. We have seen this tradition in paintings of Bruegel and of many other Flemish and Netherlands painters before. This art was always closer to the common people than the intellectual art of Italy. The spirituality of the theme is forced to the background to enhance the human moral lesson.

Other paintings:

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