Moses stands on the left, his hand raised as he beckons people to gaze upon the bronze serpent coiled around the pole held by Eleazar, a priest. The scene is taken from the Old Testament: God had sent a plague of ‘fiery serpents’ to punish the Israelites for their sinfulness and lack of faith (Numbers 21: 6), but anyone who followed Moses' instruction would be protected.
While some try to struggle out of the grips of the snakes, one figure – a woman in the black dress at the centre of the group – stares intently at the bronze serpent and so remains unharmed. She is probably based on Rubens’s second wife, Hélène Fourment.
Rubens made this picture with the help of some of his studio assistants. They may have used a modello (a sketch used as a guide for a painting) to block out the composition before Rubens painted in the details.
Moses stands on the left, his hand raised as he beckons people to gaze upon the bronze serpent coiled around the pole held by Eleazar, a priest. The scene is taken from the Old Testament: God had sent a plague of ‘fiery serpents’ to punish the Israelites for their sinfulness and lack of faith (Numbers 21: 6), but anyone who followed Moses' instruction would be protected. Curled brushstrokes show where snakes fall from the clouds.
Some of the group ignore Moses’ warning and are left to wrestle with the snakes that coil around their bodies and bite them. The woman on the far left raises her hands in distress; her skin is pale and clammy, as if she is on the point of death. By contrast, the woman in the centre wearing a black dress stares directly at the bronze serpent and is protected from harm. Her warm, glowing complexion and golden-blonde hair distinguish her from the mass of figures around her. The dramatic, tempestuous sky and writhing bodies increase the intensity of the scene and make the fixed gaze of this woman even more unusual. It’s thought that she is based on Rubens’s young second wife, Hélène Fourment, who he included in many of his later pictures. The young boy sitting on her lap may be their eldest son, Frans, who was born in 1633.
While Rubens has depicted distinct individuals in this picture, some of the figures, including the old man and woman, were models he used in some of his other pictures. He probably painted this in the late 1630s, towards the end of his life, and while he did the majority of the picture, it’s likely that the composition was blocked out by some of his studio assistants with the help of a modello he had produced. Some pentimenti are visible to the naked eye: the thumb of the woman in the black dress was once longer, while the child to the left originally looked out of the picture and rested its chin on its hand. Just beneath the baby held aloft by a woman who originally wore a white dress, the face of an old man has been painted out.
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