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The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish

The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647). National Gallery of Ireland – Dublin. 1620-1625.

Giovanni Lanfranco was born in Terenzo, close to Parma in Italy, in 1582. He died in Rome in 1647. He is a representative of the Italian early seventeenth century. This was a period when Italian art was less famous than their counterparts in the Netherlands, France and Spain. Yet from all over the European world painters came to Rome to study antique examples and the Baroque style. The Italian painters of that century worked in various towns and more than before travelled in their country, going to where their fame called them. Lanfranco worked with the Carraccis of Bologna in Rome. He worked together with Il Domenichino on the decoration of the church San Andrea della Valle in Rome. Annibale Carracci, Il Domenichino and Lanfranco worked all in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, which is a marvel of a palace and now the French Embassy of Italy. The Palazzo Farnese perpetuated the tradition of Italian palaces decorated by the geniuses of their times.

In Rome worked two of the greatest French painters. Nicolas Poussin had arrived in 1624 and Claude le Lorrain in 1634. Another important painter in Rome was Pietro da Cortona who had come in 1612. At the same time Guido Reni painted in Bologna, Procaccini in Milan and in Rome, Cesare Dandini in Florence. Giovanni Barbieri, called Il Guercino, was in Rome in the 1620’s working for the Pope, but from 1623 on he returned to Cento and Bologna. In Venice worked Bernardo Strozzi and Johann Liss. All these painters were influenced by what Caravaggio had revolutionised in the beginning of the century and by the new Classicist style of the Carraccis. There was much competition in Italy among the painters, but also so much wealth accumulated in the cities of Rome, Bologna, Genoa, Naples and Venice, that the artists could work together on major decorations. The great Flemish Baroque masters Rubens and van Dyck were of course also known and had travelled in Italy. Van Dyck worked for some years in Genoa and in Palermo of Sicily. At the end of his life, from 1634 on, Lanfranco was for more than ten years in Naples. In that town had worked from 1618 the Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera.

Lanfranco painted many religious decorations for churches and palaces in Rome. The ‘Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes’ was commissioned for the Blessed Sacrament chapel in the Basilica of Saint Paul Fuori le Mura, outside RomeR1. Lanfranco made eight canvases for this chapel on the theme of the Eucharist. The scene of the miracle is seen in perspective from below, so the painting was intended to hang high.

Matthew tells that when Jesus received the news of the beheading of John the Baptist, he withdrew by boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. But the crowds heard of this and, leaving the towns, went after him on foot. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd and he took pity on them and healed their sick. When evening came, the disciples went to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and time has slipped by; so send the people away and they can go to the villages to buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.” But they answered, “All we have with us is five loaves and two fish.” So he said, “Bring them here to me”. He gave orders that the people were to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. And breaking the loaves he handed them to his disciples who gave them to the crowds. They all ate as much as they wanted, and they collected the scraps left over, twelve baskets full. Now about five thousand men had eaten, to say nothing of the women and children G38 .

Lanfranco’s painting must be looked at as a professional production, one picture among many in a series. It is not the masterpiece of a painter who saw this picture as the foremost expression of his faith and grandest conviction. Lanfranco continued the Roman style in which volume was all-important as created by the play of light and shadows. But line and form inherited from the Florentines were still important for him and suited the story that had to be told to the churchgoers. Thus, his figures are clearly delineated as can be seen in the figure of Jesus. The wonderfully bright Jesus stands out against the darker tones of the people who have come to hear the Messiah. Jesus shows the loaves to the people, reassuring them. He towers above all and the view of the devoted faithful in the chapel must have fallen immediately on him. Look at all the detail in which the figures are drawn. All are in a different pose with sometimes theatrical movements of hands and heads. The gestures remain believable however. It is always a tour-de-force in such anecdotal pictures to have the figures move, point, show surprise and agitation, yet keep the gestures natural without too much sentimentality, and to keep them still credible. Lanfranco succeeded in this feat.

A person coming to pray under Lanfranco’s pictures entered a world well populated and credible. Such a person could stay a while and ponder at the scene and the spiritual message of the miracle, which was that God always takes care of its faithful. Jesus felt close to the people. He was lonely and sad after the departure of John the Baptist. Jesus did not want the people to leave and kept them with him. Therefore he had to give them food. He had to sustain them. This closeness with Jesus was exactly what devoted people sought when they came to pray by Lanfranco’s picture. Lanfranco succeeded in creating a natural, living world, which could interest viewers and capture their imagination. Lanfranco succeeded in a difficult feat to show a vivid crowd and make the viewer feel as if he could have been part of that. Thus he merits great respect, not just as an artisan but also as a thinker.

Giovanni Lanfranco respected his commissioners. Lanfranco did probably not need to deliver such a lively scene with so many precise details, but he did. There is even a scene within a scene. For an apostle is handing out the fish and the bread to the poor on the right. The miracle happened after the Sermon on the Mount, and Lanfranco referred somewhat to this preaching for he set the right scene on the flank of a hill. This then gave the painter an occasion to add a beautiful landscape of trees.

Lanfranco was a master in creating space. The figures on the left are near the viewer. The scene on the right is more far off. So, the figures on the right are smaller. In this seemingly easy picture, made by a painter who is not that well known, we find a masterpiece of narration, of colour and of space, which fits perfectly the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

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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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