Around 1625, Peter Paul Rubens received an important commission from the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, Governess of the Southern Netherlands (1566–1633) to design a tapestry series of The Triumph of the Eucharist for the royal convent of the Poor Clares in Madrid. The tapestries were to be hung during the feast days of Good Friday and Corpus Christi, which celebrate Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The subject had profound meaning for the Poor Clares, who were particularly devoted to the Eucharist—the bread and wine of the Mass that Catholics believe miraculously transubstantiates into the body and blood of Christ when consecrated by a priest. Rubens focused on Old Testament prefigurations of the Eucharist and allegorical subjects symbolizing triumph of the Catholic Church over the forces of evil and heresy.
The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizidek is a highly finished modello, or sketch, for one of the Old Testament prefigurations of the Eucharist. This story from Genesis tells of the gifts of bread and wine that Abraham received from the Priest-King of Salem, Melchizedek, after returning from a victorious battle (Gen. 14: 17-20). Catholic theologians viewed Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine as a prefiguration of the Last Supper, and even saw Melchizedek, whose name means “king of Justice,” as a prefiguration of Christ. In Rubens’s vivid portrayal, the scene unfolds on an illusionistically painted tapestry held aloft by putti before an architectural framework. Abraham, in armor standing at the head of his band of soldiers, appears in the center, gratefully receiving loaves of bread from Melchizidek. As the two men lean toward one another, they lock eyes as though they have a premonition, unshared by the others, that the bread and wine have significance beyond bodily sustenance.
Rubens reinforced the momentousness of the encounter not only through compositional devices, but also through his exuberant style. His vivid colors, rich textures, and expressive brush imbue the scene with a feeling of grandeur. In this way Rubens both signals the importance of the prefigured Eucharist in the Old Testament and suggests its continued centrality to the Catholic Faith in his own time.
Possibly Palacio Nuevo, Madrid. possibly Jean de Jullienne [born 1686], Paris, by 1753; (his estate sale, Paris, 30 March-22 May 1767, no. 98); J.B. Horion, Brussels; (his sale, Brussels, 1 September 1788 and days following, no. 20); probably (G.J. de Loose, Brussels). Lady Stuart, by 1830; (her estate sale, Christie's, London, 15 May 1841, no. 73); (Charles J. Niewenhuys, Brussels and London); Sir Thomas Baring, 2nd bt. [1772-1848], London; (his sale, Christie & Manson, London, 3 June 1848, no. 121); purchased by (Charles J. Niewenhuys, Brussels and London) for Sir Thomas' son, Thomas Baring [1799-1873]; by bequest to his nephew and heir, Thomas George Baring, 1st earl of Northbrook [1826-1904]; by inheritance to his son, Francis George Baring, 2nd earl of Northbrook [1850-1929]; sold September 1929 to (P. & D. Colnaghi, London); sold 1936 to Mr. and Mrs. Walter J. Stoye, Oxford; (sale, Sotheby's, London, 2 July 1958, no. 44); purchased by (Carstairs Gallery, New York) for NGA with funds provided by Syma Busiel.
- Pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French and English Masters, British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, London, 1841, no. 69.
- The New Gallery, London, 1898, no. 123.
- Exhibition of Pictures by Masters of the Flemish and British Schools Including a Selection from the Works of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The New Gallery, London, 1899-1900, no. 141.
- Exhibition of Works by Flemish and Modern Belgian Painters, Art Gallery of the Corporation of London, 1906, no. 116.
- Paintings by Old Masters, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London, 1934, no. 12, repro.
- Exhibition of 17th Century Art in Europe, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1938, no. 106.
- Flemish Art 1300-1700. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1953-1954, no. 205.
- The Age of Rubens, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art, 1993-1994, no. 21, repro.
- Peter Paul Rubens and the Tradition of Tapestries, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 1997 (not in catalogue for larger exhibition of which this was a part: John Ringling, Dreamer - Builder - Collector).
- The Triumph of the Baroque: Architecture in Europe 1600-1750, La Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi, Turin; Montreal Mus. of Fine Arts; Natl. Gal. of Art, Wash., D.C.; Centre de la Vieille Charité, Marseille, 1999-2001, no. 626 (shown only Montreal).
- Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, Greenwich, Connecticut; Univ. of California, Berkeley Art Museum; Cincinnati Art Museum, 2004-2005, no. 19, repro. (shown only in Cincinnati).
- Northbrook, Francis Goerge Baring. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection of Paintings Belonging to the Earl of Northbrook. London, 1889: 63, no. 87
- Broadley Hugh T. Flemish Painting in the National Gallery of Art (Booklet no. 5 in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). Washington, 1960: 10, 40-41, color repro.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 80, color repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 174, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 118
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:268, color repro.
- European Paintings and Sculpture: Illustrations (Companion to the Summary Catalogue, 1965). Washington, 1968: 105, no. 1506, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 314, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 252, no. 319, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 360, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 222-223, no. 176, color repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 188-195, color repro.