In an instance of form following content, Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “The Fifth Plague of Egypt” was recently exiled from its home at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for the exhibit “J.M.W. Turner,” which was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Dallas Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, in association with London’s Tate Britain. According to the wall texts from both the exhibit and the painting’s permanent home in Indianapolis, the title Turner selected for his biblical study features one of art history’s greatest typos.
Noting that Turner might have created the “dark, tempestuous painting,” which the Royal Academy showed in 1800, in order “to impress British critics and viewers with his ability to handle serious themes,” the IMA description suggests that Turner was a little wet behind the earflaps of his beret. According to the museum, it appears that “the young painter mistitled his picture, as this canvas actually depicts the seventh plague of Egypt, when Moses stretched his arms toward heaven, and thunder, hail and fire rained on the pharaoh and his people.” Perhaps, taking its cue from the IMA, the exhibit wall texts also critiqued the painting’s title; though without the IMA’s humbler caveat that it only “appear[s]” to be a mistake.
But a careful study of the biblical text that Turner tackled in the work acquits the artist and reveals that Turner likely did portray the fifth plague.
J.M.W. Turner. “Tenth Plague of Egypt.” Engraving c. 1807
According to Exodus 9, Moses is instructed to tell Pharaoh that God once again requests the Israelites be set free. If Pharaoh will not yield after blood, frogs/crocodiles, lice and wild animals, Moses declares, the “hand of the Lord” is sure to strike the cattle in the field, particularly horses, donkeys, camels, oxen and sheep with a “very heavy plague,” which will selectively attack Egyptian flocks but spare Jewish ones. God then sets a particular time for the plague’s commencement and sure enough the Egyptian flocks die while the Jewish ones continue to graze. Note: Moses does not stretch his hands heavenward for this plague as he does in Turner’s “Fifth Plague of Egypt.”
This seems to indicate that Turner did indeed err in his work and the seventh plague of hail seems a logical subject for the depicted scene, as the IMA wall text suggests, since Moses does stretch his hands to begin the plague in Exodus 9:22 and to end the plague in verse 33. Several lightning-blasted tree trunks in the foreground seem to have been destroyed by hail. Also, Moses indicates in verse 29 that he intended to exit the city before praying to God to end the plague – either to spare Egyptian embarrassment or to avoid praying in an impure city, according to various commentators – so perhaps Turner’s decision to set his painting outside the city is intentional.
Several elements point away from the plague of hail. First, the cattle in the foreground are already dead, suggesting the plague has already ended or at very least is underway, yet there is neither hail nor lightning visible. Per Exodus 9:23-24, we would expect to see fire, since the hail contained embedded fire and ice. Further, Exodus 9:31-32 makes a big deal about the decimated flora: flax and barley were struck; wheat and rye survived, since they were newly planted and presumably closer to the ground. If the plague has already ended and the flax and barley were struck, why does Turner include an entire forest of trees standing firmly? Surely those would have been destroyed.
It is worth noting that Turner was a bit of a bible buff whose repertoire includes Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham with the three angels, Sodom, Jacob, Moses and David. This is a painter who took the bible seriously, even if he was not an expert. It will not do to “chalk up” any of Turner’s decisions to lack of familiarity with the bible or interest in being faithful to its narratives.
Although there has been very little scholarly attention to the painting, James A. W. Heffernan claims in “Self-Representation in Byron and Turner” (Poetics Today, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1989) that Turner, whom he thinks did mistitle the work, presents a self-portrait as Moses, since the Moses figure appears out in the work’s “lower-right portion,” traditionally the “locus of self-signification, the place where the artist represents himself in a diminutive or subordinate position.”
In this move, Turner, according to Heffernan, has presented himself as “the prophet speaking in pigment, the ambitious young artist who stretches out his arms to recreate on canvas the fiery turbulence of thunder and hail, subverting the Poussinian stability of the central pyramid by surrounding it with an inverted triangle that points to carnage in the foreground and opens out in the distance to the swirling of clouds, to the first hint of the elemental vortex that would become Turner’s graphic signature, a sign of his eponymous power to turn-and over-turn.” This claim fails, however, if Moses is not intended to be the work’s hero at all, but if he is a mere bystander in a work that is far more ambitious than just representing one plague.
J.M.W. Turner. “Fifth Plague of Egypt.” c. 1800
Perhaps the most convincing evidence against the seventh plague is the dust that Moses seems to be throwing from his hands, which points to the narrative from Exodus 9:8-12 or the sixth plague of boils. God instructs Moses and Aaron (who may be the kneeling figure beside Moses in Turner’s work) to throw handfuls of ash toward the heavens, which will settle on Egypt and give forth boils. If this is indeed the scene that Turner depicts, the title of the work could still stick as the dead animals lying in the foreground would have died in the fifth plague (thus the title) while Moses sets the sixth plague in motion. The work would then really be Plague 5.5 or the aftermath of the fifth plague. The stormy skies could point not toward the seventh plague that was passing, but they could foreshadow the hail that was yet to come.
There is precedent for this sort of collapse of history (in anticipation of Picasso). A 17th century version of Martin Luther’s bible that I found online shows a joint illustration of the fifth and seventh plagues. A seventeenth century bible illustration merges the second and third plagues; another joins plagues eight and nine. It seems to have been a common practice – perhaps to save space – to illustrate several plagues together and the so-called Golden Haggadah (17th century) has four plagues per page (though sectioned off as separate illustrations). Turner may have been aware of this practice and decided to add a modern (or postmodern) flavor to it.
This move of conflating plagues five through seven would also respond to the important question of how cattle could have died in plague seven if they were all killed in plague five. Surely some Egyptians who feared God safely moved their flocks inside in anticipation of plague five and saved their cattle, but why would those people, after successfully saving their animals, lose faith in God and expose their property to loss two plagues later? Turner might be hinting at this question in his work that bridges the dead animals of the pestilence with stormy skies of the plague of hail.
The IMA description on its website suggests that Turner’s work, which he executed at age 24, was of “the most venerated category of his craft: history painting, which celebrated significant events, usually based on a well-known written source.” The museum further explains that the work should be treated primarily as a landscape which is “devoted more to the action of nature than to human activity. Although the figure of Moses can be discerned at lower right, he is cast in shadow and dwarfed by the vastness of the setting. The dramatic color effects Turner used to capture the thunder, hail and fire become the true subject of this exotic scene.”
This argument is problematic in light of an intaglio print on paper titled “The Fifth Plague of Egypt” in the collection of the Tate which Turner created, though not a study for the painting according to the Tate’s dating of 1808. Turner’s print clearly reveals a second figure at Moses’ side (probably Aaron), and the city is comparatively much closer to the foreground than it appears in the painting. The print shows very little attention to the sky, which suggests that the stormy reference to hail was not an essential element of the piece.
There is more at stake in this discussion than simply the title of Turner’s painting. If the artist did in fact reflect deeply enough on the biblical story that he depicted plague five-and-a-half, as I argue here, Turner ought to be hailed (no pun intended) not as a landscape artist who dabbled in bible studies, but as one of history’s great artists of religious works.
Turner also painted “The Tenth Plague of Egypt” (1802) in the collection of the Tate, which shows the aftermath of the plague against the Egyptian firstborn. As I argue for the fifth plague, Turner depicted not the moment of the angel of death attacking the first born, but of mourning mothers carrying their dead children outside the city limits.
By closely examining Turner’s “Fifth Plague of Egypt,” which does truly appear to be the fifth plague, it becomes clear that Turner was a careful student of the text and just as his landscapes paid unusually close attention to nature, the artist read the biblical accounts closely. Not only does Turner deserve the benefit of the doubt in his titles, but he should not be written off as a landscape artist who used the bible as just a prop. Turner deserves the sort of attention that biblical masters like Rembrandt and Dürer enjoy.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.