O FISH! : ‘Miraculous Draught of Fish (es)’ by Raphael Sanzio da Urbino (1515)
Out of the creative energy that exploded 16th century Renaissance was born Raphael Sanzio da Urbino. It is from his father that he learnt the art of painting and experienced intellectual court life in the native town of Italy. However the sudden demise of his father compelled him to enter into the workshop of Urbino’s leading contemporary artist Pietro Perugino. Raphael soon surpassed his master in skill and technique and joined Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to form the ‘traditional trinity’ of the Renaissance. His impeccable work earned him the title ‘The Prince of Painters.’
This painting, in consideration dwells on the ‘Prince of Peace’. The scene is set across Lake Gennesaret also known as the Lake of Galilee. As Jesus treads along its sandy shores, he spots the fisherman Peter amidst his daily grind. Jesus gets into his boat and preaches to the crowds. Next He invites Peter to sail beyond the shallow waters into the deep for a catch. At first the seasoned fisherman hesitates ‘for they had worked all night and had caught nothing.’ However later, Peter in his goodness, hearkens to the words of the peculiar preacher and the rest was history.
The nets were so full that they began to break, the boats were so full that they began to sink. It was an invasion of grace. Overwhelmed with wonder and filled with awe, Peter at once senses the Divine at work in His humble ark. Trembling, he falls to his knees and says “Leave me, Lord for I am a sinful man.”
Raphael captures this adorable moment with utmost integrity in his cartoon titled ‘Miraculous Draught of Fish (es)’. In 1515 Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to design ten draperies intended to decorate the lower parts of the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael thus created cartoons to be replicated on the wool and silk draperies which were manufactured in the workshop of Pieter van Aelst’s in Brussels. Seven cartoons survive till date and form a part of the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Raphael employs his painting as a pulpit to preach to us the Good News. As dawn breaks onto the inland sapphire sea, nature arouses with joy. Across the shore can be observed groups of mundane people in amalgam to the atmospheric perspective. The elaborate townscape consist of first century Romans buildings including the Leonine wall, the Torre de’ Conti and the Borgo delle fornaci or the village of brick building kilns with its fuming furnace.
As the glittering waters light up to meet the sky at the horizon, birds arise from its depths and encourage us to engage in the event at hand. The group of muscular fishermen have been caught unaware by the miracle in their midst. While James and his brother John share in the load of their partner’s brimming boat, their elderly father Zebedee can be observed balancing the shaft as they near the sublime shore.
The painting abounds with animal imagery. Notice the flock of cranes in the foreground of the painting. According to the Roman tradition, the crane was the most observant and watchful bird. The vigilance of the crane was compared to the shepherding of the Pope and it thus became a symbol of Papal authority. The presence of the crane in this painting emphasizes upon the call of Peter the first apostle as also the first Pope.
Hovering around the scene are certain fish-hawks in particular ravens. Biblically, since Noah’s era, Raven’s possessed a bad reputation for having not returned to ark like the dove. Thus they represented the sea of corruption and sin and the need of the hour to respond the call to holiness. At a distance are noticed swans, noted for their melodious songs as well as for their pride and deceit. The teeming boat also includes crabs, a symbol of greed and covetousness and slimy eels that evoke their easy slip into sin.
As Divine light floods the space, Peter kneels before solemn Christ, confessing his sins while his brother Andrew opens up his arms in awe and surrender. With their hearts wired to God, they leave behind their worldly profession of catching the glass-eyed, aimlessly floating and soon-to-be dead fish in order to embrace a new vocation to fish people out of darkness into the living waters of new life.
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