Two Scenes from the Story of Moses
Moses brings forth Water out of the Rock and The Worship of the Egyptian Bull God, Apis depict episodes from the life of Moses. They are based on the Book of Exodus, which describes how Moses rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and accompanied them into the promised land of Canaan. The first picture shows water gushing from a rock that Moses has struck with his wooden staff; the second shows the Israelites worshipping the golden calf – possibly depicted in the guise of the Egyptian god Apis – in Moses' absence.
The two works were painted by a follower of Filippino Lippi, and their equal dimensions suggest that they belong together. Such horizontal paintings were known as spalliere, and were likely to have been inserted into furniture or wainscoting. They often have a moral message, as The Worship of the Egyptian Bull God, Apis does: on his return from Mount Sinai, Moses famously admonished the Israelites for worshipping a false idol.
These two paintings depict famous episodes from the life of Moses. They are based on the Book of Exodus, the second book of the Old Testament, which describes how Moses rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and accompanied them into the promised land of Canaan.
Moses brings forth Water out of the Rock is based on Exodus 17: 1–7. It shows the Israelites near Rephidim, their colourful tents in the background to the left. Moses had led them out of slavery in Egypt, but their desperation grew as their water supply diminished. Tired of their complaints, Moses calls for God, who tells him to strike his rod against the rock at Horeb. Moses obeys, and water miraculously springs from the stone. In the right half of the picture, the Israelites drink from the gushing stream.
The Worship of the Egyptian Bull God, Apis picks up again in Sinai. Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, leaving the Israelites for 40 days and 40 nights. Fearing that he would not return, the Israelites implored Aaron, the high priest, to make an image they could worship. Aaron agreed and gathered their earrings to construct a golden calf. When Moses returned and saw his people celebrating a cult image, he threw down the tablets with the Ten Commandments in anger and destroyed the idol. The painting shows the moment before Moses' return. The golden calf appears in a cloud above a group of Israelites, who play music and dance in celebration. It has been argued that the painting shows the golden calf as the Egyptian bull god Apis, identified by the crescent moon on its shoulder (for a more traditional depiction, see Nicolas Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf, which shows the golden calf on an altar, following the description in the Book of Exodus). But the crescent moon may also allude to the heraldic device of the Strozzi, a patrician family in Florence.
The equal dimensions of the paintings suggest that they belong together; perhaps another showing the famous episode of Moses carrying the tablets of the Ten Commandments has been lost. Such horizontal paintings were known as spalliere, and were likely to have been inserted into furniture or wainscoting. They often have a moral message, as The Worship of the Egyptian Bull God, Apis does: on his return from Mount Sinai, Moses famously admonished the Israelites for worshipping a false idol.
Many of the leading painters in Florence produced spalliere. These two are likely to have been painted by the so-called Master of the Campana Cassoni – in the absence of a real name, scholars formed a group of stylistically similar paintings and named the artist after two works that are of a format similar to ours and that may have decorated cassoni (now in the Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon). The paintings in this group are often related to designs by Filippino Lippi; for example, The Descent from the Cross (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is based on Filippino’s celebrated high altarpiece formerly in the church of SS. Annunziata. These similarities suggest that the person who made our paintings was a member of Filippino’s workshop, or that he imitated Filippino’s work hoping to find customers.