TAXES AND TRICKS: ‘The Tribute Money’ by Peter Paul Rubens

We are in the city of Antwerp in northern Belgium. It is a prosperous city of money, merchants and trade. In the 17th century Antwerp was racked by civil war and tremendous tension between the Protestant Dutch and the Catholic crown of King Phillip II of Spain. The violent riots of the Reformation had trickled down to the Low Countries. Antwerp was sacked in 1576 wherein about 70,000 people died.

Jan Rubens was one of the many who fled the city to escape its fury. To him, in the city of Siegen, was born Peter Paul Ruben (1577). Shortly after the father’s death, the family moved back to Antwerp. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Ruben showed great interest in art. He took off to Italy for nearly a decade to imbibe the aura of the Renaissance, the Baroque and classical antiquity. He gathered a rich cultivation for art in the nursery of taste and talent.

Things worked well in his favour. Ruben’s return to Antwerp in 1609 coincided with the ‘Treaty of Antwerp’ that initiated the ‘twelve year truce’ between the warring parties. It trumpeted the entry of a Counter Reformation artist whose work persuaded, instructed, delighted and moved the people. Ruben was a painter of passion, a cultured humanist, a diplomat, an entrepreneur and one of the greatest story tellers in the history of art.

So what’s the story in store in today’s painting?

The Gospel of today opens with a clever plot. It’s a trap! The Pharisees and the Herodians (who hold opposite views on paying taxes) join forces to put Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. As observed in the painting, they catch Jesus round the corner of the Temple and pose a rhetoric question, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?’

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