Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Jean Fouquet, Battle Between the Maccabees and the Bacchides

Jean Fouquet, Battle Between the Maccabees and the Bacchides, c1470

Jean Fouquet (1420-1481) was a leading painter in 15th century France.  Rather unusually, he was a master of both panel painting and manuscript illumination.  He also seems to be the inventor of portrait miniatures which are the forebear of all personal pictures that we carry with us (the portrait I linked to is also considered to be among the first formal self-portraits).  Like all European painters of his time, Fouquet worked mostly in Biblical scenes and his most famous work is his Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels.  However Fouquet also did a series illustrating episodes from Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus.  Josephus (37-c100) was perhaps the most important Jewish historian of the ancient world, and certainly the most important in bringing knowledge of Jewish life and history to the non-Jewish world.  He is a crucial source for Jewish history, Grecco-Roman understandings of Judaism, particularly the Roman-Jewish Wars (including the famous Siege at Masada) as well as early Christianity.  Since it is the last night of Hanukkah, I chose this illustration of the Maccabees in battle.  The holiday centers on the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (an offshoot of Alexander's Hellenistic Empire).  The scene shows the Battle of Elasa where the Jewish army, led by Judah Maccabee, fights the Greek army, led by Bacchides.  Although this battle would result in Jewish defeat and the death of Judah Maccabee, his brothers Jonathan and Simon would continue the fight, eventually defeating Bacchides and winning independence from the Seleucids to form an autonomous kingdom.  In addition to the powerful history portrayed in this piece, Fouquet's painting is a fascinating piece of art.  In many ways it conforms to the traditions of the time, such as the castle and town in the distance, and the way the trees are represented, but it also goes beyond these conventions.  The way Fouquet conveys the outcome of the battle is quite revolutionary.  The Seleucid force is portrayed as a mass of grey-clad soldiers; they blend into a single fighting force and emerge from out of view to be an indomitable swarm.  The Hebrew force, meanwhile, appears in disarray, with only a handful of soldiers visible, clearly being pushed back and overwhelmed.  The most powerful element of the work is the soldiers who are in the river.  Some are retreating, but some are wounded or dying, and their inability to face the force of their enemy is displayed prominently.  Nevertheless, the Maccabees continue to fight: two are still sitting tall on horses, raising their arms, even as they trample their fallen comrades.  Such poignancy is not commonplace for paintings of the period, but through his use of space and geography, Fouquet manages to appropriately depict the tragedy of defeat.

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