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Finding Moses (Part I)


Moses at the Red Sea (1320) illumination from Golden Haggadah
Courtesy The British Library, London

Moses at the Red Sea (1320) illumination from Golden Haggadah Courtesy The British Library, London

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Perhaps the most extensive depictions of Moses can be found in many of the Haggadotof 14th century Spain. While both the Ryland’s Haggadah and the Golden Haggadah depict the events leading up to the Exodus in great detail, in the vast majority of images Moses is simply going through the motions of the narrative that we have either from the Torah or the Haggadah itself and therefore little is revealed about him that we don’t already know textually. There is much to be gleaned from these images about the meaning of the plagues, the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart and even, at least in the Golden Haggadah, the role of women in the Exodus. But practically nothing about Moses himself. That is, with one exception, i.e. “Crossing the Sea and the Destruction of Pharaoh’s Army” in the Golden Haggadah.

Moses (1515) marble by Michelangelo
Courtesy San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome Italy

In the next to last illuminated page the Egyptian army pursues the Hebrews on the right while on the left we see Moses and the Children of Israel just in front of the drowning Egyptians. Everyone is facing away and making their escape from the sea except Moses. He casts a sorrowful glance backwards to the drowned soldiers and horses struggling in the midst of the sea. While the gesture of his right hand crossing over his body toward them should be construed as bringing the sea down upon them, this same gesture seems empathetic, reaching out to somehow mitigate their terrible fate. Moses in a rare moment of introspection here does not triumph in the death of our enemies and seems to mourn that it was necessary.

Punishment of Korah (detail) (1482) fresco by Botticelli
Courtesy the Sistine Chapel; Vatican Collections, Rome, Italy

The fact that the Renaissance was deeply interested in the role of Moses is shown by the extensive cycle of paintings in the Pope’s private sanctuary, the Sistine Chapel (1482). Along the lower section of the long walls of the rectangular chapel are two series of very large frescos (each 11’ X 18’). Six paintings depicting the life of Jesus are opposite six paintings depicting the life of Moses including: Moses’ Return to Egypt, The Trials of Moses, Crossing the Red Sea, Getting the Law and the Golden Calf, Punishment of Korah and the Last Days of Moses. The predominance of the figure of Moses depicted by such major Renaissance artists here as Perugino, Rosselli, Signorelli and Botticelli should not be surprising since he is considered by Christian theologians to be the principle typology of Jesus, as is clearly expressed in the juxtaposition of these works. While in these images Moses is repeatedly depicted as the calm and stern lawgiver patiently going through the paces of the narrative, there is one extraordinary exception. In “The Last Days of Moses” attributed to Luca Signorelli, the entire upper half of the fresco depicts the sorrowful Moses being shown the Promised Land, coming down from the mountain to give his staff of leadership to Joshua and finally, his death and the mourning of the people around his body. This is one of the very few images of the final days of Moses’ life in the history of art up to the 20th century.

Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses (1515) in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome is in some ways unique in that it harkens back to an anachronistic depiction of the great leader with horns. Neither the mosaics at Ravenna (548) nor the Renaissance frescos (1482) in the Sistine Chapel show Moses with horns, a depiction that mainly flourished in medieval representations reflected by Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (405) translation of keren to mean horns rather than rays of light. Ruth Mellinkoff’s analysis of the “The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought” (1970) argues that Jerome’s translation was neither a mistake nor an anti-Semitic slur, rather it represented an expression of honor and power common in late antique thought denoting only a metaphorical expression and never a physical manifestation. Of course the original intention of Jerome’s translation was unable to control the eventual anti-Semitic images of Moses with horns that flowed from it throughout the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, we ought to understand Michelangelo’s Moses as depicting a prophet of power and honor, as indeed the pose and demeanor of the marble statue majestically does. This is highly likely his intention since the sculpture was the centerpiece of the massive tomb of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo’s patron of the Sistine Chapel, not someone to be associated with any kind of negative figure. Aside from the much appreciated implications of this heroic figure, sagacious and ready to spring into action, we learn little about Moses’ interior life and struggles from Michelangelo. For that we will have to look to Rembrandt and, in the modern age, the brilliant works of Marc Chagall in our next review of Finding Moses.

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About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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