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The Israelites gathering Manna
Ercole de' Roberti
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The Old Testament book of Exodus describes how the Jews fled from Egypt and crossed the desert to the land of Israel. Every morning they woke up to find the ground miraculously covered with an edible substance that looked like frost – they called this ‘heavenly bread’ manna and said it tasted like ‘wafers made with honey’ (Exodus 16: 31). Here we see the whole community helping to gather it into pots and jars. The huts in the distance are supposed to represent their tents, pitched in the desert – but the way they are arranged, facing the viewer, creates a backdrop like a stage set for the main action.

This panel comes from the predella – the long, horizontal structure at an altarpiece’s base – of a large altarpiece showing the dead Christ lying on his mother’s lap. Another panel from the predella, The Institution of the Eucharist, is also in the National Gallery’s collection. ​

Key facts
Artist Ercole de' Roberti
Artist dates active 1479; died 1496
Full title The Israelites gathering Manna
Group Two Panels from a Predella
Date made probably 1490s
Medium and support Tempera on canvas, transferred from wood
Dimensions 28.9 x 63.5 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1886
Inventory number NG1217
Location in Gallery Room 54
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Two Panels from a Predella

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The Institution of the Eucharist and The Israelites gathering Manna were once part of a predella – a row of scenes along the base of an altarpiece – made for the church of San Domenico in Ferrara. The main panel showed Christ after his death, lying on his grieving mother’s lap, surrounded by mourners. Two of these figures are portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara. The altarpiece may have been made to commemorate the death of the Duchess, who had a particular interest in the Corpus Christi (‘body of Christ’), especially its celebration at the Eucharist. The predella probably concealed a container for the bread of the Eucharist, disguised by the image of the Last Supper, which also functioned as the container’s door. The story of the Israelites gathering manna – a heavenly ‘bread’ that fed them during their travels in the wilderness before reaching Israel – was often interpreted as a forerunner of the ‘heavenly bread’ of Christ’s body.

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