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The Miraculous Fishing

The Triptych of the Fishermen of Bruges

Pieter Pourbus (1523/1524-1584). Musée de l’ Art Ancien – Brussels. 1576.

The Triptych of Pieter Pourbus was ordered in 1576 by the Guild of Fishermen of the town of Bruges, to be hung in the chapel of Saint Christopher. Who better could be commissioned in Bruges than the respected citizen and past deacon of the Guild of Painters, than this Pieter Pourbus? Pieter worked at the panels with his son Frans. He let his son paint the grisaille images of Saint Andrew and the Virgin Mary on the opposite side of the main pictures.

The opened triptych shows in the middle panel a scene that was the ultimate to please the Guild of Fishermen, the ‘Miraculous Fishing’. Jesus was on the lake of Gennesaret tells Luke, when he got into one of the boats and taught the crowds from there since they occupied the shores.

When he had finished speaking he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch.” Simon replied, “Master, we worked hard all night long and caught nothing, but if you say so, I will pay out the nets.” And when they had done this they netted such a huge number of fish that their nets began to tear, so they signalled to their companions in the other boat to come and help them; when these came, they filled both boats to sinking point. G38

Pieter Pourbus showed exactly this moment to please the Guild. Jesus can be seen in the boat while the catch is on in a quite violent sea. This last element refers also to another miracle, the ‘Calming of the Storm’. A fully loaded boat is on the coast and is being offloaded. The miraculous fishing causes quite a stir. Fishermen come running to the surprise. One such fisherman links the two scenes. The boat on the coast is simply a later instant of the story, for Jesus is here too but on the shore. This is still the first boat; the second boat remains in the water with full sails.

Pieter Pourbus worked for the Guild of Fishermen, but he delivered a beautiful work. Witness to that is the marvellous landscape he painted in the background, the detail of shells on the sand beaches and the wonderful bay with the boats.

The left panel shows the calling of the first apostles, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew. The brothers wash their nets and get the last fish out. Peter and Simon hold the same big fish to Jesus. This panel emphasises the fact that the two first apostles, among whom the illustrious Simon Peter – and upon whom Jesus founded his church - were fishermen. How pleased must have been the Guildsmen of Bruges and how proud for the recognition and respect shown by the master painter of their town for their profession! The right panel could represent the ‘Calming of the Storm’ and its aftermath the miracle of ‘Jesus Walking on Water’. But Pieter Pourbus really knew how to please his townsmen, so he left preponderance to the fishermen. The panel shows Peter, a fisherman, walking the waves. The panel does not show the act of Jesus. Every fisherman would have liked to walk on the sea, but the event also taught the men to have faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Matthew and Mark related this particular event.

Jesus had gone into the hills to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, while the boat, some furlongs from land, was hard pressed by rough waves, for there was a head wind. In the fourth watch of the night he came towards them, walking on the sea and when the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost”; they said and cried out in fear. But at once Jesus called out to them, saying “Courage! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” It was Peter who answered. “Lord”, he said, “if it is you tell me to come across the water.” Jesus said, “Come.” Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus across the water, but then noticing the wind, he took fright and began to sink. “Lord”, he cried, “save me!” Jesus put out his hand at once and told him, “You have so little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And as they got into the boat the wind dropped. The men in the boat dropped down before him and said, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” G38

The three panels are very anecdotal. They show stories in an uncomplicated, simple, instantly understandable way and thus are part of Bruges’ folklore.

Pieter Pourbus was Dutch, born around 1523-1524 in the town of Gouda, the cheese capital of the Netherlands. He settled in Bruges however, quite young. Bruges was still a rich city with a long tradition of patronage for painters. Pourbus was member of several guilds of Bruges from 1543 on and a member of the managers of the guild of painters. He was twice the deacon of these artists. He worked for the office of the mayor of Bruges. He drew several maps of the town and was thus known as a cartographer. Pourbus founded a workshop in Bruges and his son and grandson also were famous painters of the town. Pieter himself married the daughter of another very interesting painter of Bruges, Lancelot Blondeel. Generation kept traditions alive this way. In all respects, Pieter Pourbus was a venerated citizen of Bruges. He participated in its ceremonial, public communal life. He was charged for instance in 1541 with the decoration for the Joyous Entry in Bruges, for the official state visit of the prince Philips of Spain who would be as Philips II the King of Spain after Emperor Charles V. Bruges eagerly adopted men of talent, even if they came from other regions.

Bruges was over the height of its fame by then. In the last part of the fifteenth century its waterway to the sea, the Zwin, became more and more clogged up with sand. Canals were dug, but ships had to pass sluices and large tonnage ships could not reach its interior port anymore. Large Venetian galleys had to be offloaded further from town and all this meant lost time and money. Mainly Spanish ships still came to Bruges. But during the years 1528 to 1529 and during 1552 to 1554 this traffic also was partly paralysed because of the danger for Spanish ships of French pirates. Around 1540 Bruges fell to the position of fifth important port of the Netherlands. Since 1480 the town of Antwerp had taken over its status of sea metropolis. Bruges had in these years 1480 waged a war against its overlord, Emperor Maximilian, which had resulted in sieges of the town. Maximilian added taxation, devaluation of its mint and communal sanctions. Bruges’ seaport of Sluis was the victim of pirating during the conflict, Bruges was encircled, and its neighbouring villages were sacked. Foreign merchants were ordered then to leave the town. A same fate would befall on Antwerp much later, and just as for Antwerp these hard measures sounded almost the dead toll for Bruges. Yet the town retained a good part of its wealth throughout the fifteenth century and considerable capital still had its base in Bruges, even if the merchants traded from Antwerp.

Pieter Pourbus’ importance lies in this continuance of a tradition of citizen-painters of Bruges, the old guildstown, more than in artistic innovation. Pieter Pourbus’ picture of the Fishermen’s Triptych is a witness of the rich, proud tradition of the Bruges guilds who at times fought ferociously for their independence. Pieter Pourbus was a skilled painter and his portraits can favourably be compared with the very best that was produced in Italy and the Netherlands. But he did not show the originality of a Pieter Bruegel, of a Barend van Orley or of Jan Sanders van Hemessen who all were his contemporaries. Pieter Pourbus was the foremost painter of Bruges however and the ‘Triptych of the Fishermen’ needs to be considered in this view.

This picture, ordered by the Guild of Fishermen, is an example of the general consideration of Bruges’ townsmen for Christianity. Religion still pervaded public life in devote Flanders. The guildsmen could imagine no better picture to display their importance and self-respect than by a religious scene. This was a desire of transcendence, a desire to dedicate their work to the heavens. The guildsmen paid homage to the Church and recognised its preponderance in communal life. At the same time they ostentatiously expressed their pride and dignity.

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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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