Pieter Schoubroeck - The Israelites rescued from the drunken Elephants of King Ptolemy IV Philopator
The Israelites rescued from the drunken Elephants of King Ptolemy IV Philopator
Oil on copper. 64 x 83 cm.
This landscape by Pieter Schoubroeck, which has been housed in a west German private collection for the past several decades, is highly unusual due to its large format, multitude of figures, and unusual iconography. The panoramic landscape is enlivened by a large crowd occupying the entire foreground of the work. We see a dramatic scene taking place: Men are being herded together and bound by soldiers, men and woman can be seen praying, some look to heaven in desperation, others beg for mercy from their captors. The way in which individual parts of the scene are illuminated as if under spotlights adds to its dramatic effect.
The iconography cannot be securely identified solely by looking at the events in the foreground, but when we look carefully at the background we see a horde of elephants between the soldiers. These animals allow us to identify the scene as the Old Testament story, which is rarely depicted in art, of King Ptolemy IV Philopator's failed attempt to have the Jewish people trampled by a horde of drunken elephants, as related in the third book of Maccabees.
When King Ptolemy IV was denied entry into the Temple in Jerusalem, he decided to have all the Jews killed, but his plan was thwarted several times by godly intervention. Angered by this, he developed a new and more perfidious scheme, namely to order his soldiers to make his herd of war elephants drunk on wine and incense and then drive them to trample the assembled Jews. However, just when the situation appeared hopeless, two angels were sent to intervene, ensuring that the elephants instead turned upon the soldiers. The king thereupon abandoned his plan and instead presented the Jews with luxurious gifts.
It is interesting to note that this unusual biblical story was also depicted by the Flemish artist Gillis van Valckenborch, who can be brought into connection with Pieter Schoubroeck (cf. illus. 1; Paris, Musée du Louvre, and Braunschweig, Herzog-Anton-Ulrich-Museum).1 As in the present work, Valckenborch's composition also lets the viewer's gaze meander through a mass of figures in the foreground before being led into the background of the work to where its motif is clarified. It is surely no coincidence that the two Flemish artists, who must have known each other, both decided to paint this motif whilst in exile in Germany. What remains to be ascertained is how the two artists' compositions relate to one another.
This landscape combines two of Pieter Schoubroeck's artistic penchants: Firstly, densely populated landscapes, as seen in his Battle of the Amazons (Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen) and secondly, fantasy landscapes with unusual colour palettes and light effects, as we see in his many depictions of the burning city of Troy. Thus it is easy to imagine how a story like the attack of King Ptolemy's drunken elephants was appealing to this landscape painter.
1) Although the iconography of Gillis van Valckenborch's work was identified relatively recently, it has since come into question again, not least due to the fact that Valkenborch was a Lutheran, and the Lutheran Bible does not include the third book of Maccabees. Schoubroeck, however, was a Calvinist, and thus would have been more likely to know this biblical tale. The present work by Schoubroeck proves, however, that Valckenborch's paintings depict the story of King Ptolemy IV Philopator and not the Defeat of Sanherib, as has been suggested. For more information on the rejection of the iconography in Valckenborch's paintings, cf.: Alexander Wied: Frederik and Gillis van Valckenborch. Zwei Italo-Flamen im deutschen Exil. Vienna 2016, p. 154-160.
Abb. 1/Ill. 1: Gillis van Valckenborch, Die Errettung der Juden vor den trunkenen Elefanten König Ptolemaios´ IV. Philopator / The Israelites rescued from the drunken Elephants of King Ptolemy IV Philopator, Paris, Musée du Louvre © bpk / RMN - Grand Palais / Franck Raux
In a West German private collection for several decades.