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The Monkey in Art

Part 2

Despite the fact that apes appear regularly in images of the Fall of Man or Noah's Ark, they are mentioned only once in the Bible. The book of Kings, Chapter X, describes Solomon's fleet at Tharsis, which brought "gold, silver, ivory, apes and peacocks". This is the same chapter in which the visit of the Queen of Sheba is described. Apes were thus used to signify precious and exotic goods and, alongside monkeys, retained their association in western art with the riches of the east, featuring regularly in paintings depicting the procession of the Magi, the Queen of Sheba and, famously, in Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi. After he had painted this work Veronese was questioned by the Inquisition on the grounds that he had included inappropriate motifs such as dwarves and apes in a scene of the Last Supper. The solution he reached with the Inquisition was not to change the painting but simply to alter its title from the Last Supper to the Feast in the House of Levi. Despite being thought inappropriate for inclusion in a biblical scene, it appears that apes were considered entirely appropriate for an image of an oriental banquet.

Rubens as a conspicuously learned artist includes a monkey in his depiction of Solomon Receiving the Queen of Sheba both as a reference to the biblical text (with its unique mention of the ape) and to elaborate on the traditional association of the monkey with the riches and exoticism of the Orient. The meeting of Solomon and Sheba came to be understood in Western art as an allegory of the meeting of East and West. The monkey at the very bottom of this oil sketch is carried on the back of a bejeweled follower of the Queen of Sheba, on whose left arm is perched an equally exotic parrot. The oil sketch is a preparatory work for a ceiling painting for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp; its subject depicted di sotto in su (as seen from below). It thus represents a triumph of artistic skill for Rubens who masters the foreshortening necessary to make figures like the boy holding the parrot and the man carrying a water vessel on his shoulders look convincing. The illusionistic nature of the painting is stressed by the table that juts out above the viewer laden with vessels that look as if they might be about to tumble down. The juxtaposition of the parrot and the monkey at the very foreground of this painting, both animals associated with imitation, points to Rubens' skill as an imitator or artist.

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