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Niccolò Pisano, The Dance of Miriam

Key facts
Full title The Dance of Miriam
Artist Niccolò Pisano
Artist dates 1470 - about 1536
Series Two Scenes from the Story of Moses
Date made probably 1500-3
Medium and support Glue tempera on linen
Dimensions 119.3 × 78.7 cm
Acquisition credit Layard Bequest, 1916
Inventory number NG3104
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
The Dance of Miriam
Niccolò Pisano

In this rare survival – a Renaissance painting done on linen canvas – the Israelites, having escaped slavery in Egypt, are led through the wilderness by Moses and Aaron. The fleeing families, encumbered by bundles, dogs and even a monkey, make their way down a winding road. In the centre, a group of young women dance in a circle. According to the Book of Exodus (15: 20–21), Miriam, Moses‘ sister, took a timbrel and, together with other Israelite women, danced to celebrate their freedom.

This is one of a group of eight similar paintings executed by various artists, two of which are in the National Gallery’s collection. They were probably made for a small chapel or oratory in Ferrara, possibly the newly built chapel of Duke Alfonso I d’Este in the Via Coperta. Alternatively, they might have decorated the home of a member of Ferrara’s Jewish community.

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Two Scenes from the Story of Moses


These two Old Testament scenes are painted not on panel, as are most surviving Italian Renaissance paintings, but on linen. They are part of a series of eight paintings on linen canvasses by various artists, which survive in various collections.

Although now rare, paintings on linen were widespread in the Renaissance. They could serve as hangings, curtains, altar frontals and banners, as well as framed works of art; they were much cheaper than tapestries, faster to execute than frescoes and easier to transport than panel paintings.

These pictures probably came from a small chapel or oratory in Ferrara. Alternatively, they might have been from the home of a member of Ferrara’s Jewish community.