The spiritual basis of Western civilization has been primarily centered around two movements, Hellenism, and Christianity. Without Homer, the Athens of Solon or Pericles may never have existed, not to mention the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In turn, the Bible enables a great Jewish tradition of scholarship to emerge, and when translated into Latin, it gives rise to a unique European Christianity. The fusion of these two movements can be seen between the early modern European period and the late modern European period. The synthesis of Hellenism representing reason, together with Christianity representing revelation, gives rise to an extraordinary advancement in classical philosophy, literature, art, architecture, and science.
Moses Bringing Down the Second Tables of the Law
We have, so far in our articles, tended to explore and appreciate the Hellenistic/Homer inspired art of the last few centuries. If you have not already, check out Mythology in a Contemporary Age, The Tragedy of Andromache and Helen recognising Telemachus, son of Odysseus
In this article, we are taking a break with the Hellenistic inspired art and, instead, are focusing our attention on its complementary partner, Christianity, or arguably, more correctly, Judeo-Christianity. We will be taking a brief look at John Rogers Herbert’s water glass painting – Moses Bringing Down the Second Tables of the Law – which can be found in the Peer’s Robing Room of the House of Lords, the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia and also in Hamburg, albeit a quarter-size version. This article also intends to explore how art, irrespective of whether it is classical, gothic or other in nature, can serve as a platform to present competing beliefs and movements. The sheer volume of competing ideas can simply be observed from the art and architecture that surrounds us and this article intends to continue shining a light on such work.
Historical Context During Herbert’s Lifetime
Herbert was commissioned in 1850 to paint frescoes in the Peer’s Robing Room at the House of Lords, on the theme of “Justice on Earth, and its development in Law and Judgement”. The frescoes would illustrate Biblical history including the title of the painting in question, “Moses Bringing Down the Second Tables of the Law to the Israelites”. Such themes at the time were not surprising considering that during this period Christianity played a dominant force in the life of many ordinary people. Many people were members of the Anglican or Presbyterian Church, and there were some Catholics including John Rogers Herbert himself. This belief system is not only reflected in artwork but in architecture. For example, in October 1834 the Palace of Westminster had burned down, and a neo-Gothic design was chosen over a neo-classical design for the new Houses of Parliament. Neo-Gothic movement’s roots were intertwined with deeply philosophical movements associated with Catholicism and Anglo-Catholic belief.
Gothic Revival also took on political connotations; with the “rational” and “radical” Neoclassical style being seen as associated with republicanism and liberalism. The more spiritual and traditional Gothic Revival became associated with monarchism and conservatism and was reflected not only by the British parliament’s Palace of Westminster but also the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest.
Context of the Painting
The central figure in the painting is Moses himself. For the avoidance of doubt, Moses is the most important prophet in Judaism and is an important prophet in Christianity and Islam. All the Abrahamic scriptures regard Moses as the leader of the Israelites and lawgiver to whom the authorship of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is attributed. A depiction, therefore, of Moses as a lawgiver was befitting to have in the Peer’s Robing Room of the House of Lords, a chamber that participates in the legislative process.
According to the Book of Exodus in the Bible, the Israelites were an enslaved minority in Pharaonic Egypt. Moses eventually led the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea, after which they based themselves at biblical Mount Sinai in the Sinai Desert. Now that the Israelites had been freed, their people needed laws to help govern their society. In turn, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to obtain a method and guidance of living for his people and an order of political government from God, i.e., laws.
However, after three weeks of leaving the Israelites waiting at the bottom of Mount Sinai in the desert, Moses had not yet returned. This eventually made the Israelites restless, scared and afraid as they felt they had been left alone in the desert. Eventually, the people persuaded Moses’ brother Aaron, who had clearly been left in charge, to make a golden calf to symbolise God’s presence (Biblical account). This was problematic partially because it violated the belief in pure monotheism. Consequently, when Moses came down from the mountain, he symbolically smashed the stone tablets which contained the Ten Commandments and ascended Mount Sinai for the second time.
It is Moses’ return from Mount Sinai for the second time holding two tablets of laws that are depicted by Herbert in the painting.
Appreciating the Painting
The great level of detail depicted in the painting is nothing short of a masterpiece. This is considering Herbert never touched foot in the Near East but was still able to depict the mountains, landscape, and even the heat of the desert with great composition and accuracy.
Moses’ stern face is one that represents justice and the ‘law of fear’ that the Judeo-Christian tradition touches upon. It is only more symbolic that opposite this painting in the Peer’s Robing Room hangs the face of Christ Preaching on the Mount that emphasises the ‘law of love’. This represents the fine balance required between justice and mercy when dealing with matters of law.
Dr Hooper, the art historian at the University of Melbourne, helpfully sets out the theological symbolism behind the actions of various figures in the painting.
For example, on the right side of the painting, a woman gives a drink to her thirsty child. This reflects the view that God was still providing sustenance for the Israelites whilst in the desert, and this is despite their failure to observe patience during Moses’ ascension to Mount Sinai.
On the far-left side of the painting, Herbert depicts a woman carrying a baby in a basket, recalling Moses’ salvation from the Hebrew infanticide. This scene refers to God’s final punishment of killing the firstborn sons of the Egyptians due to the Pharoah of Egypt refusing to free the Israelites from slavery. God simultaneously commanded the Israelites via Moses to sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on the door of their houses. In this way, the angel would know to ‘pass over’ the houses of the Israelites. This is why the festival commemorating the escape from Egypt is known as Passover.
At the bottom of the painting on the left side, Herbert depicts three children representing spiritual immaturity and human behavior. For example, the unconscious selfishness of the suckling baby highlights how every human being is totally dependent at some stage. The curious and potentially sinful nature of the toddler playing with a thorn showcases how humans have a tendency to dabble and meddle in matters that provide more harm than good. Finally, the youth who seem frightened by Moses demonstrates the innate fear of God.
These examples of theological symbolism are expected from Herbert, a devout catholic. Many of his contemporaries who did not share his belief system still greatly appreciated his work. Irrespective of each painters’ beliefs and vision, one cannot help but appreciate the length these painters went in attempting to incorporate symbolism in their works of art. It also shows that for painters like Herbet, art was inseparable from any didactic, moral, political or utilitarian function. Art can be more than just ‘art for art’s’ sake, and beyond simply just aesthetics, it provides meaning. Art can be used as a means of communication. Competing ideologies throughout history can be observed from art, and it is crucial, especially at present, that we appreciate and preserve such work.