The scene is taken from Matthew’s highly charged account (22:15-22) of Christ being induced by two Pharisees to refuse to pay Roman taxes, and thus be vulnerable to arrest. Christ thwarts them by asking to see what sort of coin would be suitable for paying the tax, and, finding it a Roman coin showing Caesar’s head, declares; ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’. The story became popular in 16th and 17th Century religious art for its reinforcement of the relationship between church and state, and for conveying the message that good Christians owed allegiance to both.
Van Dyck’s presentation of the story is based on a work by his great artistic hero, Titian. In fact, The Tribute Money is one of the earliest examples of Van Dyck’s emulation of Titian, whose work he would assiduously copy and collect for the rest of his career. Titian’s Tribute Money, now in the National Gallery, London and dated to 1560-8, also shows Christ being interrogated by two Pharisees in front of an open sky and a column (fig. 2, inv. no. NG224). But while Van Dyck undoubtedly follows Titian’s design, the overall technique as well as the differences Van Dyck introduces tell us a great deal about the young artist’s confidence and ambition. For example, Van Dyck enhances the preying inquisitiveness of the first Pharisee by having him point disdainfully to the coin in his hand, as if enticing Christ to reject this symbol of Roman occupation. The second Pharisee reveals his age and short-sightedness by raising an eyeglass to peer quizzically at the scene before him. Finally, Van Dyck’s composition is more dynamic and less cramped than Titian’s, with the additional space between Christ and the Pharisees emphasized by a bright pool of light on Christ’s read shirt; on one side of Van Dyck’s composition we see aggressive intrusion, on the other, serene calm.
Titian’s painting was sent to Spain for Philip II in 1568, which raises the question not only of where Van Dyck saw his source, but when. Van Dyck’s ‘Italian sketchbook’1 dated to between 1621 and 1624, does not contain any sketches that relate to The Tribute Money. Prints by Martin Rota (fig. 3) and Cornelis Galle the Elder were in circulation, however, and it is likely that Van Dyck based his painting on these. Galle’s print shows the composition in the same direction as Van Dyck’s painting, although it includes another figure to Christ’s left. Nevertheless, similarities between both Titian and Van Dyck’s Tribute Money in the coloring, even in the red of the second Pharisee’s hat, suggest that Van Dyck might instead have seen a copy or workshop repetition of Titian’s work.
The dating of the Genoa version of Van Dyck’s Tribute Money has been the subject of some debate. Earlier scholars such as Van Puyvelde placed the Genoa picture in Van Dyck’s first Antwerp period (to 1621), while more recently Susan Barnes and others have dated it to c.1625, within Van Dyck’s Italian period.2 The Rubensian qualities evident in the handling of the present version of the Tribute Money, most notably the blueish purple of Christ’s cloak and the thicker application of paint in the heads of the two Pharisees, may point to a date of execution just prior to Van Dyck’s departure for Italy. Prof. Brown suggests a date of 1619/20.
The Pallazzo Bianco version of the Tribute Money is first recorded in Genoa in the mid-18th Century. Elements of that painting, such as the change in the placing of the column from directly behind Christ’s head to his left, would appear to confirm that it was painted before the present version, which comes from the collection of the Dukes of Grafton. However, other pentimenti visible in both pictures must raise doubts as to which came first, and perhaps, as Van Dyck seems to have done early in his career, the two were painted almost simultaneously. In both versions, for example, Christ’s cloak has been painted on top of his red shirt, which is visible beneath the later layer; ordinarily, one would expect whichever work came second to follow the first more closely. In addition, there are a number of small differences between the two versions. In the Grafton picture, the first Pharisee’s white shirt is folded in a different manner to that seen in the Genoa picture, and casts a greater shadow on his arm. On his shoulder we also see an additional detail in the dress, of a row of buttons. A minor pentimento in the finger’s of the Pharisee’s upper hand is also noticeable, while changes to the outline and highlights in Christ’s eyes suggest he was originally painted looking in a slightly different direction.
The Grafton picture is first documented in England in 1718, in a deed assigning a group of paintings to Isabella Bennet, Duchess of Grafton, wife of King Charles II’s son Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Grafton. The picture was to be held in trust for her son, the 2nd Duke of Grafton, and was described in the document as ‘Two Pharisees tempting the Saviour [by] Van Dyke’.3 The trust document suggests that the paintings were, like so many works in the Grafton collection, formerly the property of the Duchess’s father, Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington (1618-1685), who was Charles II’s leading minister from the late 1660s onwards. Arlington went into exile after the Royalist’s defeat in the English Civil war, and spent over a decade travelling across Europe visiting Italy, France, Germany, Flanders and Spain. He was an astute collector, and not only amassed a notable collection of portraits for his country seat in Norfolk, Euston Hall (where he would entertain Charles II and his various mistresses) but also a number of religious pictures. While these would have been unusual to see in post-Reformation England, the display of such works was no doubt explained by Arlington’s conversion to the Catholic faith (and the fact that in Charles II’s licentious court it was often a case of anything goes). The subject of The Tribute Money might even have been a useful way of demonstrating both Arlington’s Catholicism, and his loyalty to the Crown.
Arlington was also, it seems, a committed collector of works by Van Dyck. His collection included, for example, Van Dyck’s Self-Portrait now in the Metropolitan Museum New York,4 and Van Dyck’s portraits of Hendrik Liberti (formerly in the collection of Charles I),5 and Thomas Wentworth, Lord Strafford.6 Other works by Van Dyck at Euston Hall included a portrait of William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison, father of Charles II’s mistress Barbara Villiers.7 The Tribute Money was not published or seen in public until it was consigned to Christie’s in London by the 8th Duke of Grafton in 1923, along with other paintings, including the Self-Portrait. It was, however, left unsold, and was not seen again in public until now. Indeed, the picture was not even subsequently hung again at Euston Hall, for later generations of Arlington’s descendants found the picture’s overtly religious nature less appealing. Consequently, the picture escaped the attentions of later Van Dyck scholars, who, prior to the publication of the 2004 catalogue raisonné of Van Dyck’s works, knew it only from photographs.
We are grateful to the Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes and Prof. Christopher Brown for confirming the attribution to Van Dyck after first-hand inspection of the work.
1. British Museum, London.
2. A. Wheelock, S. Barnes and J. Held, ‘Anthony Van Dyck’, exhibition catalogue, Nov 1990-Feb 1991, National Gallery of Art, Washington, p. 185.
3. Northamptonshire Record Office, G2710.
4. See Susan Barnes, Nora de Poorter, Oliver Millar, Horst Vey, Van Dyck, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (New Haven and London, 2004) no. I.160, p. 138.
5. Ibid. no. III.100 p. 328, seen by John Evelyn in Arlington’s house in 1676.
6. Ibid, no. IV.217 p. 599.
7.. Ibid. no. IV.108, p. 515.
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