LASTMAN, Pieter Pietersz.
(b. 1583, Amsterdam, d. 1633, Amsterdam)

Balaam and the Ass

Oil on panel, 41 x 60 cm
Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The biblical story (Num. 22:1-35) represented here is the following. The arrival of the Israelites in the Jordan valley alarmed Balak, king of Moab, who sent for Balaam, a foreigner, to pronounce a curse on them. On his journey an angel, invisible to Balaam, barred the way, causing his ass to turn aside. This led to an altercation between the man and his beast in which the latter, like the animals of fable, acquired the gift of speech. Balaam's eyes were then opened and he saw the angel with a drawn sword. The conversion of Balaam by the vision of the angel was regarded as prefiguration of the appearance of Christ to the apostle Thomas.

This subject is rarely depicted in paintings and prints of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Also in post-Reformation illustrated bibles the subject is exceptional. However, Balaam played a significant role in Netherlandish processional and festival culture of the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Lastman's Balaam and the Ass from 1622 was important for Rembrandt, who studied with Lastman for six months in 1624/25. In his painting of the same subject made in 1626, Rembrandt was clearly influenced by the composition as well as by the lighting and the use of colour of his former teacher.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.