A. Wheelock. Jr., et. al., Anthony van Dyck, exh. cat. Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art, 11 November 1990 – 24 February 1991, New York 1990, pp. 117 (note 8), 118, under no. 15, reproduced;
M.D. Padron and A.P. Mérida, El Siglo de Rubens en El Museo del Prado, Madrid 1995, vol. I, under no. 1637, reproduced in detail, p. 482;
S.J. Barnes, Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, New Haven and London 2004, p. 22, under no. I.3.
The present canvas depicts a scene from The Book of Numbers (21: 4-9), which tells the story of how the discontented Israelites turned away from God during their arduous journey across the desert to the Promised Land. God punished their disobedience and ungratefulness by setting a plague of serpents upon them. When Moses prayed for relief for his people, God told him to fashion a bronze serpent and to raise it up on a pole. Anyone who looked on this brazen serpent would be cured of their bites and the snakes would be sent away. Here, we are confronted with the dramatic moment of salvation. Moses, identifiable iconographically by the horn-like rays of light that emerge from his head, is seen from behind on the left, holding a gnarled branch on which he has suspended his metal snake. Behind Moses, to the extreme left of the composition, is the figure of Eleazer, the priest of the Israelites and son of Moses' brother Aaron. To the right, a group of stricken Israelites – many of them still entwined with the poisonous snakes – have gathered to seek deliverance. They reach out their hands and raise their eyes in supplication and are saved through their belief in God's healing power.
The story of the brazen serpent was a popular visual theme during the Counter Reformation because it was considered to be a prefiguration of Christ's crucifixion. Indeed, this connection is reinforced visually through the depiction of the dying Israelite woman to the right: with her long blond hair and satin dress, she fits the visual type of Mary Magdalene, the penitent prostitute. The Magdalene was often depicted at the foot of the crucifix, just as this woman has been brought to the foot of the serpent pole. In gazing up at the bronze snake, she is immediately cured, causing the man in the red cloak to pull back in amazement.
An autograph painting of this composition by Van Dyck is in the collection of the Museo del Prado in Madrid (inv. no. 1251).1 Although similar, the two works do not appear to be direct copies of one another, as they differ in size and in certain small but numerous compositional elements. For example, the present work resolves some of the details that seem incongruous in the Prado picture, such as the disembodied hand to the right that clutches at a snake's tail and the spatial relationship between Moses and Eleazer. Additionally, x-radiography has revealed that the present work is painted over another image, The Trinity Crowning the Virgin of the Apocalypse (fig. 1). This unfinished painting, which is oriented vertically on the canvas, at ninetey degrees to the present image, and which may have been intended as an altarpiece, represents an image of the Virgin Mary standing on a crescent moon and surrounded by God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are all depicted as male figures within a single halo. Such iconography is rare; however, scholars have identified it as a Netherlandish type.2 The existence of this image underneath the present version of the Brazen Serpent indicates that both the ghost image and the image of Moses painted over it were executed in Flanders, thus effectively ruling out the idea that The Brazen Serpent was copied from the Prado picture later in Spain.
1. There are several theories as to when Van Dyck's painting entered the Spanish Royal Collections. Both Susan Barnes and Arthur Wheelock hold to the traditional view that it had entered the collection by 1666 and was incorrectly ascribed to Rubens, with the inscription "P.P. Rubens F.ct." being added at some later point. More recently, however, some scholars have suggested a painting of the same subject, attributed to Rubens and appearing in the Alcazar inventories of 1666, 1686 and 1700 was destroyed in the fire of 1734, and that the painting by Van Dyck was purchased for King Carlos III of Spain in 1764 as a replacement. See M. D. Padron, op. cit, pp. 482-484 for a more complete discussion of this theory.
2. See Wheelock, et. al., op. cit., p. 117, note 8. It is also interesting to note the similarities between the iconography of the trinity seen here, and the compositional arrangement of Van Dyck's Charles I (1600-1649) in Three Positions (Royal Collection, London), as it is entirely possible that it was an image such as this that inspired the religious iconography of the portrait.
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