Lyon 1809-1864 Rome
Balaam Prophesying that a Star Will Arise out of Israel, 1858
Signed and dated, lower right, Hte Flandrin 1858
Oil with pencil underdrawing on board
18 ⅛ x 21 ¾ inches
46 x 55.2 cm
Studio of the artist (Paris: his sale, Hôtel Drouot, 15-17 May 1865, lot 3, bought by
Pillet-Will [according to annotations in Marthe Flandrin’s catalogue])
Paris, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Exposition des oeuvres d'Hippolyte Flandrin, 1865, no. 3 within cat. no. 86, a group of eighteen studies for the nave’s murals
B. Horaist, “Hippolyte Flandrin à Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art Français année 1979, Paris, 1981, p. 226, no. 58 (as lost)
Preparatory for the mural of Balaam Prophesizing that a Star Will Arise out of Israel (Balaam prophétise qu’un aster s’élèvera du milieu d’Israël) in the lower register of the third bay on the left, or North, side of the nave of Saint-Germain-des-Prés viewed from the entrance (fig. XXX). Nearly identical in composition to the final painting, our modello shows the prophet Balaam on the high place of Peor, offering sacrifice and pointing to a star rising over the tents of the Israelites, camped on the plains of Moab; Balak, king of Moab, with his elders stand at the right, confounded by the prophet’s words of blessing over the Israelites. The donkey at the very left of the composition is an allusion to the famous story of Balaam’s Ass, who is given the power of speech during the journey to Moab.¹
Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet, and one of the most intriguing figures in the Old Testament, was summoned by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites who had massed near the eastern boarder of Canaan and had defeated two neighboring kings, Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Balaam initially refused to go, as Yahweh had instructed him in a dream that “thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.”² Undeterred, Balak offers riches with higher ranking messengers, whom Balaam resists again. Eventually, in another dream the following night, Yahweh tells Balaam to go with them. Balak and Balaam then proceed to make three sacrifices, each on in a yet higher place overlooking the encampment of the Israelites on the plains of Moab. At the first sacrifice, Balaam, inspired by Yahweh, cries “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the Lord has not defied?”³ Balak remonstrates, but Balaam pleads that he can only speak the words put in his mouth by God. At the second sacrifice, Balaam utters another prophecy blessing Israel, further frustrating the king. At the final sacrifice, on the heights of Peor, the prophet again blesses Israel, “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!...Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee.”⁴
Balak’s anger reaches its peak, and he threatens Blaam, refusing to pay him for his services. Balaam, nonetheless, continues fearlessly, prophesizing doom for Moab: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, nut not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and shall destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.”⁵
The scene of Balaam’s prophecy of the Rising Star is paired with the New Testament scene of the Adoration of the Kings, on the left-hand side of the same bay. Above the bay, divided by a window, are the Old Testament figures of Jacob and Joseph, and Moses and Job. The complementary pairing of these subjects is appropriate to the didactic program of the nave decoration; the rising star of Balaam’s prophecy, the symbol of the splendor of power, traditionally regarded by New Testament scholars and the church to prophesy the coming of the Messiah, forestalls the star which guided the Magi from the East to the stable to worship the newborn Christ.
Several preparatory drawings are recorded for this painting,⁶ including a fine study for the central figure of the prophet (Musée du Louvre).⁷
B. Horaist, “Hippolyte Flandrin à Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art Français année 1979, Paris, 1981, p. 227, nos. 98-101.
Inv. MI 985; pencil on paper, 310 x 150 mm.