Sunday, August 2, 2020

Illustrating Miracles – Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish

Limbourg Brothers, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From the Tres riches heures du Duc de Berry
Flemish, c. 1411-1415
Chantilly, Musée Condé  
MS 65, fol. 168v
“When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,
he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. 
When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said,
“This is a deserted place and it is already late;
dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages
and buy food for themselves.”
Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away;
give them some food yourselves.”
But they said to him,
“Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”
Then he said, “Bring them here to me, ”
and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing, broke the loaves,
and gave them to the disciples,
who in turn gave them to the crowds.
They all ate and were satisfied,
and they picked up the fragments left over—
twelve wicker baskets full.
Those who ate were about five thousand men,
not counting women and children.”
Matthew 14:13-21 Gospel for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Of all the miracles Jesus performed during his public ministry this is the only one which all four evangelists include in their Gospels.  Matthew and Mark actually mention two such incidents, Luke and John mention one.1 Consequently, the Evangelists must have considered that it contains something which it is important for people to know.  

In recent years there has been a rather silly attempt to reinterpret it as a non-miraculous event by some preachers who apparently feel uncomfortable with the concept of a miracle, especially if it involves creating a mysterious physical abundance from scanty resources.  So, I have been told in more than one homily that the bread and fish didn’t really multiply, but that the gesture of trying to distribute the few loaves and fish shamed people into bringing out and sharing the picnic items that the crowd had been hiding and so the “real” miracle was that people shared the food.2 Besides sounding ridiculous, this attitude completely misses the fact that the FOUR Evangelists decided that the incident was important for their individual audiences to pay attention to.  This suggests that they believed it had something important to convey. 

Throughout the centuries it has generally been understood that the multiplication of the loaves and fish has some very specific resonances.  One resounds with the Old Testament story of the Manna in the desert.  During their sojourn in the wilderness, the Israelites complained to Moses about their lack of food in a desolate region.  In response to Moses’ prayer God sent down a substance called manna, which appeared on the ground every morning.  The Israelites were able to collect and store this food which sustained them for their wanderings. 

The other resonance is to the new bread of the New Testament, that bread which is the Body of Christ and which is “real food” and “living bread”. 

The link between these two is the person of Jesus, the new Moses.  It is his actions and his prayers that make the miracle happen.  And, the miracle identifies him as the more-than-human Person and points the way to the even greater miracles of the Resurrection and the Eucharist.3

That this is the case is shown clearly in the early depiction of the multiplication of the loaves and fish in Christian art.4 

The Early Images

The earliest images come from a very early period in Christian art, both in the Holy Land and in Rome.  The earliest that we know of comes to us from the Catacomb of Saint Callixtus, used as a Christian cemetery from the Third Century.  It presents a picture of the elements of the story, a fish and a basket of five loaves of bread, a detail that has obvious references to this miracle.  Therefore, we know that by the Third Century this miracle was well known and could be referenced with this visual shorthand. 
 
Bread and fish
Roman, Third Century
Rome, Catacomb of Saint Callixtus
A strikingly related mosaic in what has become known as the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, Israel on the Sea of Galilee, was executed in the late Fifth Century when an earlier (Fourth Century) church was remodeled. 
 
Mosaic of Bread and Fish
Late Antique (Israel), c. 480
Tabgha, Chrch of the Loaves and Fishes
By the time that Constantine I legalized Christian worship and began the construction of the first great Christian basilicas to serve as churches, wealthier Christians were already incorporating this miracle into the decoration of their funeral sarcophagi. 
Sarcophagus Frontal with Jesus blessing bread and fish
Roman, 3rd-4th Century
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Pio-Clemintino Museum
The beardless, youthful, curly-haired Jesus blesses the bread and fish, while at his feet stand six baskets filled with the leftovers, while a man and woman knee in adoration.  The heads of two disciples also appear in this detail.
Sarcophagus frontal with Jesus blessing the loaves and fish
Roman, Late 3rd-Early 4th Century
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Museo Pio-Clementino
Sarcophagus frontal with Jesus Blessing the Loaves and Fish
Roman, Late 3rd-Early 4th Century
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Museo Pio-Clementino
Sarcophagus frontal with Jesus Blessing the Loaves and Fish
Roman, Late 3rd-Early 4th Century
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Museo Pio-Clementino

In the second half of the Fourth Century, the miracle was appearing on luxury items like this gold-figured glass plaque.
 
Gold Glass Medallion with Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Roman, Late Fourth Century
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Museo Cristiano
In 432 the famous wooden doors of the church of Santa Sabine in Rome were decorated with the miracle. 
 
Detail of Doors of Basilica of Santa Sabina (showing from top Healing of the Blind Man, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, Miracle of Cana)
Roman, 432
Rome, Church of Santa Sabina
Jesus is given a pointer to assist his blessing gesture, the fish are at his feet and the loaves are actually shown in baskets.
From the period around the year 500 the subject appears in many items made of ivory as well as mosaic.


Ivory Plaque with Christ Blessing the Bread and Fish
 From the Throne of Maximian (Bishop's Chair)
Byzantine, 6th Century
Ravenna, Museo Arcivescovile
A second image from the Throne of Maximian shows seated members of the crowd receiving bread.  One member may be a woman.  The figure appears to have some kind of veil like head covering.
Ivory Plaque with Members of the Crowd Receiving the Bread and Fish
 From the Throne of Maximian (Bishop's Chair)
Byzantine, 6th Century
Ravenna, Museo Arcivescovile
Mosaic with Christ Blessing the Bread and Fish
Late Antique, 6th Century
Ravenna, Church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

One of these items, a pyxis, probably has a strong association with the Eucharistic celebration and the consecrated bread, which is the Body of Christ.  A pyxis is used to store Hosts, the consecrated Bread itself.  Therefore, the subject chosen to decorate it would be understood as having a direct relationship with the Eucharist.   The pyxis now in the Metropolitan Museum depicts the story in some detail, with figures running all around the exterior.  For reasons of space I will show just three images from the continuous band. 
Pyxis with the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves, Jesus Blesses the Bread and Fish
Byzantine (North Africa), 6th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pyxis with the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves, Disciples Distributing the Bread
Byzantine (North Africa), 6th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pyxis with the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves, Disciples Distributing the Bread While One Disciple Gathers the Fragments
Byzantine (North Africa), 6th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

By the middle of the Sixth Century (ca. 550) it appears in early Byzantine manuscript illumination.
 
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From the Sinope Gospels
Byzantine (Syrian or Anatolian), Second Half of Sixth Century
Paris,Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Supplement grec 1286, fol. 11

The Middle Ages

During the European Middle Ages, the subject appeared widely in all media from ivories, to manuscripts, to metalwork, to sculpture and to stained glass, mosaic and tapestry.
 
The Andrews Diptych
Italian, Early 9th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Ivory Plaque with Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
German, End of the 10th Century
Paris, Musée du Louvre

This image includes the detail of the boy who provides the bread and fish, a detail found only in John's account of this miracle (John 6:5-14).
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From the Gospels of Otto III,
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS BSB Clm 4453, fol. 163
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From the Bernward Column
German, c. 1020
Hildesheim, Church of Saint Mary
Relief of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
French (Romanesque) c. 116-1155
Issoire, Church of Saint-Austremoine
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From the Prayer Book of Hildegard of Bingen
German, c. 1180
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS BSB Clm 935, fol. 24v
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From a Picture Bible
French (St. Omer), c. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 14r
Bronze relief of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Italian, c. 1200-1250
Benevento, Church of Santa Sofia
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
French, Late 12th-Early 13th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Martyrdom of John the Baptist and the Miracle of Loaves
From a Psalter
English (Oxford), c. 1200-1225
London, British Library
MS Arundel 157, fol. 7

This illumination links the miracle with the death of John the Baptist, which is referred to in the opening line of Matthew's Gospel for today, as well as in Mark's Gospel (Mark 6).  This is also the first time we are seeing a table which, though illogical, begins to appear in some images.
Queen Mary Master, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From The Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 169
In this picture Jesus begins to join in the distribution of the bread rather than simply to bless it.  This action will gain momentum.
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From Sermons by Maurice de Sully
Italian (Milan or Genoa), c. 1320-1330
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 187, fol. 20
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From The Taymouth Hours
English (London), c. 1325-1350_
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 102
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From Vies de la vierge et du Christ
Italian (Naples), c. 1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9561, fol. 157
For the first time we can definitely say that women and children are included in the picture.  Both of Matthew's two accounts of this miracle mention women and children (Matthew 14:13-21 and 15:32-38), as does Mark 6:32-44).  Luke and John do not specifically mention women and children, but one may assume that they were there as well.
Jean Bondol and Collaborators, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From Grande Bible Historiale Complétée  by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1371-1372
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 B 23, fol. 485v
Giovanni di Benedetto and Workshop, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From a Missal
Italian (Milan), c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 757, fol. 315v
Baldassare Embriachi, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From Predella with Scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin
Italian, c. 1390-1400
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From Liber pereginationis by Ricoldo de Montecroce
French (Paris), c. 1410-1412
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 2810, fol. 269
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From the Ottheinrich Bible
German (Regensburg), c. 1430
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS BSB-Hss Cgm 8010(2), fol. 56

Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From  Mirrour of the blessed lyf of Jesu Christ and other Devotional texts by Nicholas Love
English, c. 1435-1446
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 648, fol. 57r
Apparently this artist thought that Jesus and the disciples traveled with portable banquet tables, just in case!
Master of the Asteler Windows, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
German, 1449
Ulm, Monastery of Our Lady

The Renaissance

With the advent of the Renaissance panel paintings and paintings on canvas were added to the mix of media that depicted the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish.  In addition, the inclusion of the boy, taken from John's Gospel account, becomes more common.  

Jean Colombe, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolph of Saxony
French (Bourges), c. 1475-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France

MS Francais 177, fol. 278v

Peter Hemmel, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
German, c. 1475-1480
Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
lemish Boethiius, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From La vie de notre seigneur Jhesucrist by Jean Aubert
Flemish, 1479
London, British Library
MS Royal 16 G III, fol. 86
In this somewhat unusual depiction, the loaves of bread have been placed neatly on the ground, with a fish placed on top of each one.  The prayerful attitude of the crowd reinforces the Eucharistic reference and the fact that Jesus and on of the disciples wear aprons emphasizes Christ's call to service.

Alabaster Panel, of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
French, 16th Century
Ecouen, Musée national de la Renaissance
Jan Van den Berghe, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Flemish, c. 1500-1524
Leuven, M Museum

Hans Holbein the Elder, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish with Donors
German, 1502
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemaeldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek
This wing from an altarpiece is divided into two distinct areas.  The main area depicts the Multiplication, while the lower area depicts the donor and the male members of his family in prayer.

Master of the Antwerp Adoration, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Flemish, c. 1505-1530
Private Collection
Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Flemish, 1520
Reims, Musée des Beaux-Arts

The boy in this depiction presents a very large fish to Jesus.
Mathis Gerung, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
From the Ottheinrich Bible
German, c. 1530-1532
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS BSB Cgm 8010(4), fol. 120
As the Mannerist style developed in both the North of Europe (primarily the Low Countries, today's Belgium and Holland) and in Italy (with France and, to a much lesser extent, Spain) images could become somewhat difficult to read, with strange colors, distortions, odd lighting effects and the placement of the most important figures in unexpected and often obscure places.6   

Jan Swart van Groningen, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Flemish, c. 1540
Strasbourg. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Jacopo Tintoretto, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Italian, c. 1545-1550
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lambert Lombard, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Flemish, c. 1550
Antwerp, Rockox House

Jacopo Tintoretto, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Italian, c. 1579-1581
Venice, Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Francesco Bassano the Younger, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Italian, c. 1580-1585
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
In this image Jesus is hard to find.  The majority of the canvas is covered with the picture of the crowd, even including dogs.  The most important action in the picture is taking place in the upper right, where Jesus can just about be made out by the radiance surrounding his head.  
Abraham Bloemaert, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Dutch, 1593
Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland
There are obvious similarities to the Bassano painting above here.  Jesus is actually in the center of the picture, in darkness.  He is pointed to by two figures, one in the foreground and one in the background.  He is seated, as a disciple presents the bread and the boy with the fish,  but only the back of his head is illuminated.

The Baroque and Later

Clarity returned with the Baroque period, beginning in years around the start of the seventeenth century.  In that century and on into the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the subject remained popular among artists in all media.

Attributed to Frans Francken the Younger or a Follower, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Flemish, c. 1600
Barnard Castle (County Durham, UK), The Bowes Museum
Although Francken and his circle do retain some Mannerist touches, at least one can tell which are the most important figures in the composition.
Boethius Bolswert, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Dutch, c. 1600-1622
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Coenraed van Norenberch, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Relief from a Roodloft
Flemish, c. 1600-1613
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Frencisco Herrera the Elder, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Spanish, First Half of 17th Century
Castres,Musée Goya
Willem van Nieulandt II, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Dutch, 1599-1635
Trier, Städtisches Museum Simeonstift

Giovanni Lanfranco, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Italian, 1624-1625
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland
Jacob de Wet the Elder, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Dutch, c. 1650
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
Francois Spierre After Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
French, c. 1676-1677
London, British Museum
Luca Giordano, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
talian, c. 1680-1700
Würzburg, Martin von Wagner Museum der Universität

Carlo Wendelin Anreiter (painter) on Chinese porcelain cup, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Italian, c. 1730-1740
London, British Museum
Gregorio Guglielmi, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Italian, c. 1750-1751
Rome, Former Convent of Sant'Agostino
Thaddaeus Kuntz, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Polish, 1777
Genazzano, Sanctuary of the Madonna del Buon Consiglio, Refectory
Anonymous Spanish Painter, Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
Spanish, c. 1800
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
James Tissot. Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
French, c. 1886-1894
New  York, Brooklyn Museum

Atelier of Charles Lorin, The Promise of the Eucharist
French, c. 1912-1914
New York, Eglise Saint Jean Baptiste
Salvador Dali, Eucharistic Still Life
Spanish, 1952
Private Collection
Unknown Sculptor, Tabernacle with Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
German, 1963
Neumuenster, Tungendorf, Holy Cross Church, Choir

This has continued right up into the twentieth and twenty-first century, for the importance of the miraculous feeding of the multitude (whether it happened once, twice or even more times) with its resonances in both the Old and the New Testaments and its close association with the Eucharist, which is celebrated every day, guarantee that it is a subject that remains very much alive in Christian iconography.

© M. Duffy, 2020

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.


1.  Matthew 14:13-21(the passage for this week) and Matthew 15:32-38.  Mark 6:38-44 and Mark 8:1-9.  Luke 9:11-17.  John 6:1-14.  All can be accessed at the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops Bible website (http://www.usccb.org/bible/books-of-the-bible/index.cfm) or at the Vatican Resource Library website (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM).
2.  Presumably this attitude is the result of an incompletely digested intellectual nibble in the works of the post-World War II German Lutheran theology, which was fashionable in the late 1960s and 1970s.  Deriving from such men as Rudolf Bultmann, the attempt to “demythologize” the New Testament scriptures reduced these texts in some minds to the level of “fairy stories” that offered nothing but completely commonplace events, with no transcendental elements, and certainly no supernatural ones. 
3.  For the iconography of the Israelites receiving the manna see:  
4. Recent comments by our current Pope and the Pope Emeritus reinforce these points:
Pope Francis:  Angelus commentaries on August 2, 2014; July 26, 2015; August 2, 2020
Pope Benedict XVI:  Angelus commentaries on August 10, 2008; July 26, 2009; July 31, 2011; July 29, 2012
All these references are available on the Vatican website.  Go to http://www.vatican.va/content/vatican/en.html  and follow the links for each Pope.  
5.  See Picturing the Bible:  The Earliest Christian Art.  Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas from November 18, 2007 to March 30, 2008, edited by Jeffrey Spier with contributions from Mary Charles-Murray, Johannes G. Deckers, Steven Fine, Robin M. Jensen and Herbert L. Kessler.  New Haven and London, Yale University Press in Association with the Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2007.
6.  For more on Mannerism in both the North and in Italy see:  The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at  https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/keywords/mannerism/