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Moses

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Numerous events from the life and deeds of the great leader and lawgiver Moses occur in art from the early Christian period onward, reflecting his extreme significance for both Judaism and Christianity. He features frequently in biblical narrative illustration and, in medieval typological programs, as a precursor of *Christ. Details from his life are recounted primarily in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. He appears as the leader of the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt, through decades of travels in their journey to the promised land, and as a frequent recipient of visions and instructions from *God.


The following provides a roughly chronological survey of the events from the life of Moses most often represented in early Christian and medieval art number of which also receive more detailed coverage in the cross-indexed entries).


Scenes of Moses’ infancy include his discovery by *Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket in the shallows of the Nile river. Moses’ mother had hidden him there to escape Pharaoh’s decree that all male Hebrew babies be drowned (this prefigures the *Massacre of the Innocents and *Flight into Egypt of the *Holy Family, in typological programs). Moses was brought up at the court of Pharaoh but fled into the desert after he killed an Egyptian who was mistreating an Israelite; he married Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, and lived as a *shepherd for twenty years until he was called by God, who spoke to him from a burning bush on *Mount Sinai. This scene appears often in art from the early Christian through Gothic period; Moses may be shown removing his sandals or kneeling before the flaming bush. In Byzantine and later medieval art, the Virgin *Mary may also appear, enthroned in the bush—her virginity typologically connected with the bush that burned but was not consumed.


Following God’s instructions, Moses returned to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Pharaoh eventually allowed the people to leave after ten *Plagues had been caused by God and copious discussions had ensued between Pharaoh, Moses, and Moses’ brother *Aaron (during one conversation the staffs of Moses and Aaron turned into snakes). Following the miraculous *Crossing of the Red Sea (often typologically connected with Christian *Baptism), the Israelites, led by Moses, underwent various trials in their desert wanderings. God provided quails, manna , and water to keep them from hunger and thirst . The scene of Moses striking a rock and causing water to pour forth features frequently in art from the early Christian period as a symbol for salvation. After successful battles against the Amalekites, the Israelites, now near Mount Sinai, were left to their own devices for a time while Moses, again called by God, ascended the mountain and received the Tablets of the Law. This often-represented scene may show Mount Sinai with flaming bushes and the hand of God delivering the tablets to Moses. During Moses’ absence, Aaron, his brother, led the Israelites in *Worship of the Golden Calf. Moses’ anger, his breaking of the tablets and destruction of the offensive golden *idol are often represented in art.


After receiving new tablets from God, Moses directed the Israelites in the construction of the *Ark of the Covenant, which they carried on their further journeys. The continued hardships inspired many to complain against Moses and God, who punished them with a plague of poisonous snakes. Moses, again directed by God, set up a metal (“brazen”) sculpture of a serpent on a pole, which cured the repentant who looked at it. Understood by Christians as a prefiguration of the *Crucifixion, this image also features in illustrations of the legend of the *True Cross; the pole used by Moses to erect the brazen serpent was made of wood from the *Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and was later to be used for the *cross of Jesus. Another prefiguration of the Crucifixion occurs when Moses sent out scouts into Canaan,   who returned bearing grapes on a pole. After a further revolt, in which Moses, Aaron, and *Joshua were nearly stoned to *death but miraculously saved from harm, the death of the now very elderly Moses took place. He was in view of but not allowed to enter the promised land, for a reason which remains ambiguous in the tradition. Scenes of the death of Moses on a hilltop or hidden in his tomb and guarded from the *Devil by Saint *Michael are also found in western medieval and Byzantine art (the latter images derive from medieval legends).


Apart from the Old Testament narratives above, Moses is frequently found in illustrations of the *Transfiguration of Jesus (he appeared along with *Elijah), and he may be seen in illustrations of the *Anastasis, as one of the Old Testament figures released from *hell by Christ. Moses is normally shown as an elderly, bearded figure and is additionally recognizable by being frequently depicted with horns. This may be due to a confusion in translation from the Hebrew terms for “rays of light” (which shone from his forehead after he descended Mount Sinai) to the Vulgate (Latin) cornutam (“horned” or “haloed” with light); Moses is commonly shown with horns especially in Romanesque and Gothic art.

Moses the Lawgiver [next] [back] Moseley, Henry Gwyn Jeffreys

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