web analytics
September 17, 2014 / 22 Elul, 5774
At a Glance
Sections
Sponsored Post
Apartment 758x530 Africa-Israel at the Israel Real Estate Exhibition in New York

Africa Israel Residences, part of the Africa Israel Investments Group led by international businessman Lev Leviev, will present 7 leading projects on the The Israel Real Estate Exhibition in New York on Sep 14-15, 2014.



Home » Sections » Arts »

Moses’ Spies in Art

Growing up, I used to enjoy reading S. Weissman’s Little Midrash Says (published 1986) and carefully studying Siegmund Forst’s illustrations of the weekly Torah portion. At the time, I had no idea how many of Forst’s drawings were derived from earlier traditions of biblical illustration (many of them Christian), but I was particularly struck by the moral readability of the narratives. It was always a cinch to figure out who was a good character and who was evil; you could read it on their faces. The heroes were always smiling widely and the villains looked ugly and angry at the world.

 

Unsurprisingly, this technique of revealing characters’ true colors (or their perceived characteristics) in their faces, which seems to be more of a Hellenistic than a Jewish approach, dates much further back than the 1980s. Medieval anti-Semitic illuminated manuscripts often depicted Jews with hooked noses, hunched backs and ugly faces and there are indications that ancient theatrical masks similarly exaggerated characters’ features. It makes sense to apply artistic license in instances like these, just as many movies today cast the hero in white and the villain in dark clothes.

 

Moses’ 12 spies, who surface in this week’s Torah portion of Sh’lach as the Israelites’ scouts to the Holy Land, can be viewed, if not as evil, then at the very least as having questionable motives (with the exception of Caleb and Joshua). Their denouncement of Canaan as “a land that consumes its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32) and their subsequent campaign to convince the Israelites to pine for their time in Egypt led to a punishment of 40 years of wandering in the desert.

 


Richard McBee. “Return of the Spies.” Relief sculpture. 24″ x 30″. 1984.

 

Artists have pasted the spies’ evil designs on their faces. In a late 15th-century Flemish book of hours, attributed to the so-called Master of the Prayer Book of Maximilian, the two spies, who wear pointed hats, carry a very large cluster of grapes on a rod, per Numbers 13:23. Like the verse says, it takes two spies to carry the branch and the attached cluster of grapes, though the artist neglects to depict the other fruits mentioned in the verse: pomegranates and figs.

 

Rather than depicting the grape cluster (no doubt evoking the spies’ intoxication with their fear of the Canaanite giants) tied to the pole, the Flemish master shows the rod slid between two branches of the cluster, held in place by gravity. The cluster is about half as tall as the spies and slightly wider than they. The spy in front wears a goofy expression while the second spy, whose face is covered by his hat (hinting at his blindness), is even more the dunce.

 

At the spies’ feet, and climbing up the branches around them, are several snails. Although it is possible that the artist has misinterpreted Numbers 13:33, where the spies speculate that they appeared like “grasshoppers” to the Canaanite giants, it is hard to imagine the artist confusing grasshoppers and snails, given the appearance of the word “chagav” in other contexts like 2 Chronicles 7:13, where it clearly refers to some kind of locust.

 

In “Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art,” Michael Camille cites a paper by Lilian Randall, titled “The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare” [Speculum, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 1962), pp. 358-367], which argues that snails have been viewed by scholars in a variety of ways. The 19th-century critic Champfleury saw them as “agricultural pests,” while a Flemish historian of caricature saw snails safe inside their shells as “a satire on the powerful who in their fortified castles laughed at the threat of the poor whom they exploited.” Randall goes one step further and identifies snails with the cowardice of the Lombards, a Germanic people, whom Camille notes, “not only bore the stigma of being turncoats but who, along with the Jews, were Europe’s bankers.” Not only are Moses’ spies evil on account of their immature facial expressions and dunce caps; they are also surrounded by symbols of cowardice.

 


Detail of Nicolas Poussin’s “Autumn, or The Bunch of Grapes of the Promised Land.” 

1600-1664. 117 x 160 cm. Louvre.

 

In the 16th-century Swiss painter Tobias Stimmer’s woodcut “The Spies Bring Back the Cluster of Grapes from the Land of Canaan,” the spies look particular ugly and fierce, as they do in Jost Amman’s woodcut by the same name. Stimmer’s work has the notable distinction of featuring other spies, carrying backpacks, in the background.

 

All of the dozens of medieval prints and illuminations I studied show the spies carrying just the grapes, with the exception of the c. 1450 colored pen drawing, “Spies return from Canaan carrying a large bunch of grapes,” by the anonymous illustrator of Speculum humanae salvationis, in which the spies carry another food which resembles an acorn but is probably a fig.

 

Many works (like Michiel van der Borch’s 1332 “The Spies return with the grapes”) show poorly formed grapes, and many of the clusters look more like bunches of bananas. Several of the figures are visibly weighed down by the grapes, as in a 1478 woodcut, “The Spies Returning from Canaan,” perhaps a reference to Christian identification of the grapes on the rod with Jesus. If that is what Christian artists truly had in mind, it makes sense that they would have depicted the Jewish pole bearers in a negative light and often with walking sticks, evoking the Wandering Jew. (Though it is worth noting later artists like Poussin used the scene to depict a secular theme – autumn – rather than a sacred one. Richard McBee has written brilliantly on this image in “Poussin’s Bible,” The Jewish Press, April 30, 2008.)

 

One of the earliest possible depictions of the scene is a frieze in the west façade at the Gothic Cathedral of St. Etienne (c. 1270-1280, France), which shows spies in a vineyard, perhaps Moses’ spies, as two appear to carry a basket of grapes between them. But the scene has often been confused or mislabeled, as in a gothic stained glass “redemption window” from an early 13th-century church (with 20th century restoration) in Canterbury, Kent, which shows two spies with grapes mistitled “Joshua’s Spies in Canaan (the Grapes of Eschol).”

 

 


John Bradford. “Return of the Spies.”

 

 

Contemporary depictions of the spies, of which works by Archie Rand, John Bradford and Richard McBee are foremost – although there is a miniature rendition of the spies in the bottom right corner of Chagall’s tapestry “The Entry into Jerusalem,” 1963-1964 – show a very different scene.

 

Rand’s work, which has one of the spies say (via cartoon bubble), “We got to the land you sent us to. And yea, it’s really flowing with milk and honey – you can see from the fruit,” is compositionally similar (if flipped 180 degrees) to Pieter Bruegel’s “The Hunters in the Snow.” The Canaan Rand’s figures emerge from is rendered with bold strokes and a colorful palette, as the spies head down toward a more dreary place. Their sin seems to stem from inability to explain a world of dramatic aesthetics to denizens of the desert doldrums.

 

Bradford’s spies, like Moses and the rest of the Israelites, are nearly indistinguishable from the landscape and it is difficult to identify where walking sticks end and trees begin. If their sin was speaking ill of the land of Canaan, they were spreading lies about themselves as well, so embedded are they in the landscape.

 


Archie Rand. “The Return of the Spies.” 1992. Exhibited at Arthur Roger Gallery, fall 1992. Photograph by: Larry Qualls.

 

But if Rand and Bradford focus more on the landscape that surrounds the figures, as Poussin does but in sharp contrast to the medieval depictions which portrayed the figures alone, McBee focuses on the spies making their pitch to the Israelites. One can see sheer terror on the faces of the spies’ audience members, who fear for their lives and their families’ safety. Where many of his predecessors focused on the spies’ psychology and immorality, McBee is far more interested in the bystanders who receive their dark message. In so doing, McBee has broadened the scope from the Classical (and individualized) heroes and villains to the larger mass of people, which of course, includes us all as well.


 


 


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Moses’ Spies in Art”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Establishment media report PA economy  a disaster. Above: Gourmet restaurant in Ramallah Mall.
Media Sells Phony Story of Suffering Palestinian Authority Economy
Latest Sections Stories
Ganz-091214-Fifty

Today, fifty years and six million (!) people later, Israel is truly a different world.

Goldberg-091214

There will always be items that don’t freeze well – salads and some rice- or potato-based dishes – so you need to leave time to prepare or cook them closer to Yom Tov and ensure there is enough room in the refrigerator to store them.

Women's under-trousers, Uzbekistan, early 20th century

In Uzbekistan, in the early twentieth century, it was the women who wore the pants.

Schonfeld-logo1

This is an important one in raising a mentsch (and maybe even in marrying off a mentsch! listening skills are on the top of the list when I do shidduch coaching).

While multitasking is not ideal, it is often necessary and unavoidable.

Maybe now that your kids are back in school, you should start cleaning for Pesach.

The interpreter was expected to be a talmid chacham himself and be able to also offer explanations and clarifications to the students.

“When Frank does something he does it well and you don’t have to worry about dotting the i’s or crossing the t’s.”

“On Sunday I was at the Kotel with the battalion and we said a prayer of thanks. In Gaza there were so many moments of death that I had to thank God that I’m alive. Only then did I realize how frightening it had been there.”

Neglect, indifference or criticism can break a person’s neshama.

It’s fair to say that we all know or have someone in our family who is divorced.

The assumption of a shared kinship is based on being part of the human race. Life is so much easier to figure out when everyone thinks the same way.

Various other learning opportunities will be offered to the community throughout the year.

The new group will also deliver kosher food to Jewish residents in non-kosher facilities, as well as to kosher facilities where the food is not up to par.

More Articles from Menachem Wecker
Menachem Wecker

The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”

Weck-051812

It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/moses-spies-in-art-2/2010/06/02/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: