(b. 1614, Liège, d. 1675, Liège)
Heliodorus Driven from the Temple1658-62
Oil on canvas, 146 x 174 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
This Flemish painting refers to a different cultural current from the grand Antwerp works of the Baroque. Whilst the Southern Low Countries were succumbing to Rubens' genius, Liège artists were looking towards contemporary Italian and French painters. Returning to Liège in 1646 after a long stay in Rome, Florence and Paris, Bertholet Flémal imported the Poussinesque ideas that he had soaked up during his trip. Hence there flourished, not far from Antwerp, a Franco-Roman current of which Bertholet Flémal is the best representative. (Other artists of this school were Gerard Douffet, J. W. Carlier, Gerard de Lairesse.)
Typical of this art, Heliodorus Driven from the Temple must have been intended for an amateur collection. The subject, which prefigures the conversion of St Paul, is taken from the second book of Maccabees (3.22-30). The general Heliodorus had been sent to Jerusalem by the King of Syria to confiscate the sacred treasure of the Temple. Having entered it with his guards, he was carrying out his heinous deed when a horseman and two young men appeared to him. According to the Bible, the horse reared above Heliodorus, whilst the two messengers of God flogged him, at which point the Syrian troops fled. It is this precise moment that Flémal illustrates.
The main scene, set against a background of imposing antique architecture, groups the various protagonists. The fiery horseman and the general knocked to the floor are inspired by Raphael's fresco adorning the Stanza dell'Eliodoro in the Vatican. The painting captures this precise moment, with the main group thrown into relief by the lively colours, mixed with white highlights and strong shadows. We also note the painter's consummate art in the modelling of the draperies, with their typically tight folds. The composition is balanced, with the central group in the foreground offset on both sides by two secondary groups in the background. To the left prostrate Jews implore heaven to avoid the profanation of the holy place, to the right Heliodorus' soldiers flee empty-handed. The large red curtain, hanging in what is otherwise a void, imparts a sense of space to the composition.
Flémal never signed or dated his paintings. There is no doubt as to the attribution of this one, which is so characteristic of his art, and can be situated in his mature period, in the late 1650s and early 1660s.