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Moses in the Burning Bush

Moses and the burning Bush

Nicolas Froment (ca.1430-ca.1485). Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur – Aix en Provence. 1475-1476.

While Moses stayed with Jethro, Pharaoh died. God heard the call of distress of Israel and he remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. One day, Moses led his flock to the far side of the desert, to a place called Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of God appeared to Moses, in a flame that blazed from the middle of a bush. The blaze however did not consume the bush G38 .

God called to Moses from the middle of the bush. He told him to come nearer and to take off his sandals for the place where he was standing was holy ground. Then the voice said, ‘I am the God of your ancestors.’ Moses covered his face for he was afraid to look at God. Yahweh then said that he had seen the misery of Israel and had come down to bring them out of Egypt to a country rich with milk and honey, to Canaan. God told Moses, ‘So now I am sending you to Pharaoh, for you to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt G38 .’

Moses asked in whose name he had to tell the Israelites to follow him and God then gave Moses again the name of ‘I am’, Yahweh. God told, ‘This is my name for all time, and thus I am to be invoked for all generations to come.’

God continued to tell he was well that aware Pharaoh would refuse to let them go unless a mighty hand compelled him. But he, Yahweh, would stretch out his arm and strike Egypt with many wonders and Israel would plunder the Egyptians. Moses then asked for wonders to convince Israel to follow him. Yahweh gave a staff to Moses. When Moses threw the staff on the ground, it turned into a snake. When Moses took it up by its tail it became a staff again. Moses also could put his hand in his tunic and when he drew it out, it was diseased. When he put his hand again in his tunic and drew it out, it was restored.

Then Moses pleaded that he was not eloquent to talk and convince the people. Yahweh answered that he would help Moses speak. When Moses still insisted for anyone else to send, Yahweh pointed to Moses’ brother Aaron the Levite and said that Aaron also would speak to the people if Moses instructed Aaron what to do. Yahweh said of Aaron, ‘He will be your mouthpiece and you will be as the God inspiring him G38 .’

Moses went back to Jethro, asked for permission to leave, put his wife Zipporah and his son on a donkey and started back for Egypt. On the way Yahweh tried to kill Moses’ son. But Zipporah circumcised the boy with a sharp flint and Yahweh let him go.

Moses and Aaron went. They gathered the elders of the Israelites and Aaron repeated everything that Yahweh had told Moses. Moses showed the sign of God and thus convinced the Israelites. They rejoiced and bowed to the ground in worship G38 .

Nicolas Froment, a French painter of the fifteenth century read this text of Exodus and painted a picture of ‘Moses and the Burning Bush’ in 1476 for the church of the Grands-Carmes in Avignon. Nicolas Froment worked from 1448 in the French Provence for the king of that region of South-France, King René d’Anjou who was called ‘Le Bon Roi René’, the Good King René. René reigned over the Provence as a father in peace and tolerance so that artists flocked to his court, troubadours singing their love poetry in the ‘langue d’Oc’ and artists like Froment painting beautiful pictures. The picture of ‘Moses and the Burning Bush’ was the central panel of a triptych ordered by King René. It is a somewhat unusual painting, a very interesting one, in which as was the custom in medieval times many symbols were shown.

There are four figures in the painting: Moses, the angel of God, the Virgin Mary and the young Jesus. The Virgin appears in a burning bush, surrounded by flames. Moses’ flock is nearby, guarded by a dog. The angel seems to talk to Moses and Moses, like in the Bible story, is taking off his sandals entreated to do so by the angel. The scene happened on the mountain of Horeb, God’s mountain, and this mountain is indeed also drawn under the Virgin. In its various images the painting refers to the Bible and in other to a New Testament tradition and a tradition of throning Madonna’s. Hence this painting is a blend of older traditions and of new, freer tendencies in art. The painting also contains many medieval symbols.

The angel is painted as a beautiful youth with wings in the traditional picture of angels that we find throughout all Gothic and the Renaissance. Yet, in the Bible the angel was fearsome and not an entity independent from Yahweh but part of Yahweh itself. The Bible talks of the ‘Angel of God’ as an act, an agent or part of God that talks the words of God directly. We can only wonder at when this powerful image of the concept of angel was transformed into the nice image of a peerlessly beautiful youth that we find in all European paintings. It was very difficult to paint such an agent of God. The angels were easier depicted as youth and could be shown as symbols. The angel wears a robe of which the folds are detailed in the fashion of the High Gothic. The angel wears a sceptre since it is the envoy of God, the agent or the spoken word of Yahweh. On its breast it wears a medal with a picture of Adam and Eve referring to the original sin. The eyes of the angel are directed at Moses, but the direction of its head moves to the Virgin.

There we see Jesus holding a mirror. The universe is held in a mirror by a deity, but the image in the mirror is again one of a Madonna and Child. The Bible wrote in the Book of Genesis that woman would always be set between the snake of the original sin and humankind. Jesus would expiate the original sin and Mary was considered to be the new Eve of purity. Thus Nicolas Froment put a link between the angel and Mary. The Virgin is sitting on a throne of bush. This is a bush of wild roses, which were often associated with Mary and the flowers are small but of the white colour of purity. Beneath the Virgin Mary is the mountain Horeb. But she is seated high in the airs like in pictures of her Ascension.

The Virgin holds the newborn Jesus in a white cloth. Reference here is maybe made to the Revelation of John, who saw as written in his book a woman robed with the sun standing on the moon and with on her head a crown of twelve stars. In that vision the woman is in labours and in Nicolas Froment’s picture also Jesus is a newborn baby. The reference to the vision of Saint John the Evangelist is not so obvious, but contrary to the Bible story Nicolas Froment represented the burning bush and the Virgin as a vision in the sky, and thus conforming to John’s vision.

Under the Virgin, down mountain Horeb, lies a garden, and a spring in a cave pours out water. The spring of water is also a symbol of the Virgin since it is an image of the Song of Songs very often associated with Mary. The water turns into a small river that is meandering away from the Mountain of Horeb. This is the purifying water. The sinuous lines of the river also may signify the road to God, to Horeb, the road that pilgrims and humans must take to reach salvation.

The flock of sheep at Moses’ feet is mentioned in the Bible since Moses was herding the animals of his father-in-law Jethro. But the lambs also refer to the Passion of Jesus since he was often called the ‘Lamb of God’, sacrificed for the redemption of Israel. The sheep were often animals used in sacrifices by the Israelites. Among the sheep is one black, with fiery glowing eyes, maybe a reference again to the sin or evil hidden among the pious. The black sheep can be a symbol of the animal loaded with the sins of Israel that was sent into the desert. But most obviously we can also see the apostles in the herd, whereby the black sheep could represent Judas. Judas was the traitor with the black soul of evil. The sheep are fourteen however, and this is not exactly the right number even though there are fifteen animals and that could mean the twelve apostles plus the three Evangelists since the fourth Evangelist, John, was also an apostle. Indeed, three sheep wear horns maybe to indicate their difference from the rest of the flock. Moses was often compared to Saint Peter, who led the apostles. The dog is close to Moses, a symbol of loyalty, maybe like Saint Peter who was loyal to the church so that the dog could represent Peter, so close as it remains to Moses. Moreover the animal also wears a leash of fierce spikes, a symbol of protection. The animal will defend faith, as Saint Peter once fought for Jesus and was the first defender of the church. Moses wears a heavy grey beard although this scene happened rather early in his life. But Saint Peter is usually depicted as an elder and wise man. Moses was often a reference to Saint Peter.

Moses protects his eyes from the light of the burning bush, exactly as in the Bible story. Nicolas Froment had of course read and read again the Book of Exodus and he remembered small details like this one for his painting.

In the far background Nicolas Froment painted a town that must represent Jerusalem even if it may be a landscape of Avignon with its famous bridge over the river Rhône clearly visible on its right. Wasn’t Avignon for a while the New Jerusalem, where the Popes lived? The landscape unfolds marvellously in the background, as well to the left as to the right. It is bathed in full light of a sun rising on the left just above the horizon. This is a dawn scene.

Nicolas Froment painted a panel filled with scenes, images, and symbols of the Old and New Testament and of medieval mystical tradition. All figures, landscapes and animals are shown in great detail. The show is always stolen in such Gothic pictures however by the hanging folds of the robes, as learnt by the Byzantine very old images of the Madonna and the angels in the damp-fold style. This style is here transformed in the sophisticated complexity of the High Gothic. Nicolas Froment proved his skills in that way as well in the cloaks of Moses as of the angel, and as of course in the splendid cloak around the Virgin.

Froment used subtle colour hues in a natural manner. Moses and the angel have in a symmetric way the same brown cloak, which is also the colour of the centrepiece, mountain Horeb. The sky is always clearer near the horizon as Froment painted it, and then upwards it grows dark into the cosmos. This is called aerial perspective and Froment knew this technique well. The uppermost part of the picture is indeed coloured black and therefore Froment must have decided also to dress the Virgin in black or dark grey instead of in her usual colours of bright red and blue. The Virgin may seem to us in the black colours of the night against which appear the flames of the burning bush. The young Jesus appears very strong in his pale colours against the background of the Virgin’s dress so that he draws attention. The colours of the other figures, angel and Moses, are bright as in pure Gothic images, in full light with very skilful play of shadows to create volume in the figures. The colours are warm, well balanced in their areas and joyful to the eye.

The composition of the painting also is cleverly organised in an obvious way. The angel and Moses open a ‘V’ in the middle of the painting, in which we then find mount Horeb and the Virgin. The lower part and the upper part are balanced with Horeb in between. In the middle of the picture the horizontal lines of the landscape background contrast with the verticals of the trees out of which grows the rose bush. There is a definite vertical élan in this picture, a direction of higher aspiration, as in many Gothic pictures.

The final remark on this picture must go to the marvel of details of figures and nature that Nicolas Froment worked into his painting. For instance we astonish at the patience and dedication with which the artist worked on the images of the sheep and of the dog, and also on the figures of the angel, Moses and the Madonna in general. The face of Moses, its expression with all wrinkles and lines shown in direct realism is a masterpiece in its own right. Details like this elevate Nicolas Froment’s painting far above what could be non-ambitious local works of art. The ‘Moses and the Burning Bush’ was a royal commission to a master artist. Nicolas Froment took the order very seriously and indeed delivered a masterpiece of art and of intellect as could compete with the best Italian and Flemish pictures. The panel is a very rare, strange and beautiful work of Gothic. It is admirable in its colours, composition and love for detail. Froment’s painterly skills are obvious and marvellous. His intelligence is a compliment to the intelligence of the viewer. The subject Froment chose was unusual for medieval Gothic art or even for the Renaissance in which scenes of the Old Testament are rather seldom. We remark that even for Froment showing only a picture of Moses was difficult. So maybe for that reason he modified the scene of the burning bush into a popular scene of devotion to the Madonna, a theme that was far better known and in line with the name of the church for which the panel was made. This combination of themes is rare.

All these qualities make of the picture a marvellous piece of art that deserves for Nicolas Froment to be part of the group of very greatest artists of his era.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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