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

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?’

The tax in question was based on the census, a per person tax of a denarius. Through this conundrum they hoped Jesus would lose favour of the public or get in trouble with the Roman authority. A clever gambit, yet not clever enough!

Cloaked in red, contesting crafty eyes, Jesus calls for a coin asking them ‘whose inscription is on it?’ ‘Caesar’s’ they answer. With one hand raised to heaven and the second grazing the coin, Jesus utters his famous come back, ‘Render unto Caesar then that what is Caesar’s and to God that what is God’s’

This climax moment is framed by Ruben. He captures the spontaneous reaction of the contesters. Next to Jesus appears the countenance of one of his aged apostles (perhaps Peter). Surrounding them are the wily. The first refuses to accept, the second is baffled. The bald Pharisee in his rich demeanour glares at Christ in utter disgust. The fourth turns away with an air of indifference. The fifth appears to scrutinize him in malign bitterness.

Jesus, taller than his tempters, firmly stands his ground. The impact of Christ response was clear to his enemies. In saying ‘Render unto Caesar that which bears Caesars image’, Jesus was specifying ‘Render unto God that which bears God’s image.’ (Reference to Genesis 1:27: God created mankind in His own image and likeness)

Amidst the adversaries is a turbaned orient; his glance towards the spectator. He is the narrator and author of the painting i.e. Ruben himself. As Ruben looks us through his painting, his lucid, limpid gaze reiterates the Gospel message. He invites us to be in the world not of the world!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

PS  Your comments are most welcome- Fr Warner

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5 thoughts on “TAXES AND TRICKS: ‘The Tribute Money’ by Peter Paul Rubens”

  • The image by Peter Paul Rubens and the scholarly interpretation which expounds the message of Christ on a Sunday is incredibly rich in faith and conviction. In fact this work completes the Sunday faith enrichment. Thanks to Father Warner and Joynel. GOD BLESS THE EFFORT..

  • So true that we should not waste time planning what to say…. The Holy Spirit will always put the right words if we trust and believe

    • Who is the ghost like face in the background? Could it be a foreshadowing of Judas who sold Jesus for a few pieces of silver?

      • Bette-Ann Goldstein · Edit

        Thanks, Paula. I’ve been trying to figure out why Rubens would paint one face so differently from the rest. No-one but you has commented on this. I like your suggestion. I wonder if Rubens ever answered that question!

  • I saw no answer to my question when I did some research of the experts which is why I asked the question here. The docent in the recent Rubens exhibition here in San Francisco just said that he sometimes left things unfinished. But in this particular painting The image seemed to me deliberately left unfinished. I really feel he was trying to tell us something as he is know as the “great story teller”.


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