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Friday, May 25, 2012

From High on Mount Sinai

"And This Is the Torah which Moshe Brought to the Israelites" mosaic by Yael Wolf Portugheis 2000 (detail). Jerusalem (c. 2012 by  Heddy Abramowitz)






  
The holiday of Shavuot is now close upon us.  It is celebrated after the careful counting of seven full weeks from the second day of  Passover. These seven weeks mark the passing of the Jewish people from their long period of enslavement in Egypt, where their sense of personal identity was broken and their group identity as a people almost was entirely destroyed. One could call this a case of massively low self-esteem on a cosmic level.

At the base of Mount Sinai, Moshe (Moses), after no small amount of tribulation, brings the gift of the Torah to the Jews. The enumeration the Omer, each of the forty-nine days between the Passover holiday and the Shavuot holiday, is symbolic of the change in national identity that the former slaves undergo as they transform from numb, dependent slave laborers to a mature nation and masters of their own fate.

As religious images go,  there are few biblical images that have more engaged the imaginations of artists over the centuries.



"Moses Receives the Ten Commandments"   Gustave Dore 1865



The noted French engraver, Gustave Dore, published the above version in 1865 in his iconic book "Bible Illustrations." And here is another take by him on this subject.




Rembrandt Van Rijn, "Moses with the Ten Commandments" oil on canvas 167 X 135 cm 1635 Gemaldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen


Rembrandt's painting of Moses shows him at the height of his frustrations, at the point of smashing the tablets when confronted with the Golden Calf at the base of Mount Sinai, as discussed in Exodus 32:19. This artist focuses on the personal  psychological confrontation of the man, Moses, as his faith is tested by his people.

The Jewish painter,  Marc Chagall, also dealt with this subject in this lithograph. His take is that of a lyrical and floating set of figures, in bright colors. Chagall felt himself close to the biblical stories, but had his own unique interpretations.

Marc Chagall (French, b. Belorussia, 1887-1985)
Moses Receives the Ten Commandments, from The Story of the Exodus suite, 1966
    Lithograph on paper
    18 3/8 x 13 1/2 in. (46.6 x 34.3 cm)
    The Jewish Museum, New York



 Ancona Ketuba, 1805, Italy, Library of Congress


Depictions of Moses receiving the ten commandments have also been incorporated in Jewish marriage contracts, as in this example from Ancona, Italy. The wedding date, June 12, 1805, being close to the celebration of Shavuot, may explain the use of the image of Moses receiving the Law as the central image.


Reuben Machsor,- Jewish Holy Day Prayer Book for the Whole Year, (Germany circa 1290 Treasures of Saxon State Library.)




































The image of the Giving of the Law has been used in many illuminated manuscripts.  This image  is in a prayer book written by Reuben and is thought to be illustrated by a gentile artisan,  whose name is no longer known to us.  Here we see Moses receiving the tablets from the hand of God in the heavens on the left side of Mount Sinai, and on the right side he is delivering them to a person symbolic of the Jewish People.


Charlton Heston,  as Moses, in "The Ten Commandments"  1956 film  directed by Cecil B. DeMille

To return to more recent times,  there are those of us of a certain age who can never think of the image of Moses  without recalling this Hollywood classic creation.

Enjoy the budding spring and the "milk and honey" of  Shavuot. 












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