Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

The Adoration of the Golden Calf

The Adoration of the Golden Calf

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). ). The National Gallery – London.

Moses destroys the Tables with the Law

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie – Berlin. 1659.

Moses stayed a long time on the mountain. He stayed away too long. The people started to mutter. They said to themselves, ‘Where is that man that has led us out of Egypt?’ They feared to stay without a god. So they decided that they needed a god to lead them further G38 .

Aaron organised the construction of the god. The people stripped off the gold rings in the ears of their wives and daughters and sons and they brought all their gold to Aaron. Aaron received what they gave to him, melted it down in a mould and with it he made a statue of a calf. All shouted then, ‘Israel, here is your god who brought you here from Egypt.’ Aaron built an altar for the Golden Calf and the people sat down to eat and drink and to amuse themselves.

Yahweh was very angry that the Israelites had made the Golden Calf and that they were adoring another god. Moses, who was still on the mountain with Yahweh, pleaded with God and Yahweh in the end relented over the disaster that he had intended to inflict on his people. Moses came down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, tablets inscribed on both sides, on the front and on the back, by the finger of God. As he approached the camp with Joshua, he saw the calf and the groups dancing. Moses blazed with anger. He threw down the tablets he was holding, shattering them G38 .

Moses seized the calf they had made and burned it. He grinded the remains into powder, scattered that on the water and made the Israelites drink the water.

Aaron explained what had happened. Moses saw that the people were out of hand and that Aaron had let them go out of hand to the derision of their enemies. He called out, ‘Who is for Yahweh?’ Only the Levites rallied around Moses. Moses then told to them to take their swords, go down the camp and slaughter every man from gate to gate. The Levites did as ordered and about three thousand men perished that day G38 .

Moses then again talked to God. Yahweh told the people had committed a great sin by making for themselves a god of gold. Yahweh said that he would blot out of his book the ones who had sinned against Him and that on the day of punishment he would punish them for their sin. But Yahweh again stopped from inflicting an immediate disaster on Israel. God ordered the Israelites to depart once more. From mount Horeb on, the Israelites stripped themselves of their ornaments. Yahweh had told to do so in wait for his decision of punishment.

Moses went into his tent. The pillar of cloud would come down and station itself at the entrance of the Tent, while Yahweh spoke with Moses face to face, as a man talks to his friend. The young man who was Moses’ servant, Joshua, son of Nun, never left the inside of the Tent. Yahweh told Moses to cut two tablets of stone like the first ones and to go up the mountain. Yahweh then wrote on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which Moses broke. Yahweh on the mountain repeated the covenant. He said he would drive out the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. He told Moses to tear down the altars of these people, to smash their cultic stones and to cut down their sacred poles. The Israelites were to worship no other God but Yahweh. They should make no pact with the inhabitants of the country and not intermarry. The Israelites should not cast metal gods for themselves. God gave many more rules for the Law. G38

When Moses came down the Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, the skin of his face was radiant because he had been talking to God. The Israelites were afraid of that. Moses put a veil over his head. Each time afterwards when Moses talked to God, his face would radiate thus. Th Israelites would see Moses’ face radiant and believe him. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went again in the Tent to speak to Yahweh.

Nicolas Poussin

The ‘Adoration of the Golden Calf’ by Nicolas Poussin has as subject the very moment that Moses, coming down Mount Sinai, sees the Israelites dancing around their new god, the Golden Calf.

Poussin painted a scene in which the people are delirious. They had hidden their frustrations with Moses for a long time. They had heard about milk and honey but until now they had only seen deserts and manna. Moses had led them so far and they had come to rely on Moses to provide them with what they needed. Finally, they had forgotten that they had wanted so dearly to escape from the persecutions of Egypt and that they had acclaimed Moses. Moses now was driving them forward on his energy alone, almost against the wish of the people. The Hebrews had doubts about a God of whom they saw deeds but never saw in person. They had doubts about a God who only spoke through a human. They probably were wondering whether the great deeds they had seen were indeed actioned by the heavens or by the tricks of e genius leader. And they had known the fear for a journey into the unknown for a long time. They had been constantly under stress, fearing for their survival. They had known only hardships. Now they could believe in something tangible again, in any image whatever, as long it could be seen and touched, a Golden Calf made from their wealth. The tension was broken and a burst of joy had taken possession of the Israelites. For Nicolas Poussin, the catharsis has even overtaken Aaron, priest already because dressed in the white robes of purity. Aaron is standing in front of the monument.

Most pictures of the Golden Calf show a smaller statue. Poussin painted the Calf truly impressive and of the purest gold. The statue is shimmering in a warm light, in full glory, throning high above the people. There is little place for Moses and his anger in this picture of unbridled dancing. But still, Moses comes down the mountain on the left and he shatters the tablets of stone inscribed with the Law. Not all is outrageous joy and wild feasting. Above, in the skies, dark clouds seem to gather and to cover the scene. Thunderstorms and disaster looms but the Israelites have not yet remarked this; no figure looks to the menacing heavens. Menacing also are the rocks of the hills. The rocks are abrupt, long and straight hanging over the scene of mirth. From out of the plain grow two trees, whose foliages reach into the dark clouds above. Our view is thus being taken upwards to the darkening heaven.

The scene of the adoration of the Golden Calf is in the morning. The sun has come up from behind the mountains, behind the viewer. Light is still early red, but it is strong enough to throw a diffuse light on the Calf and on Aaron as well as on the mountains to the right.

This is the content of the picture. Nicolas Poussin was right on his subject. He shows the crucial moment of the action of the Bible story and he also created unity in that action since all the picture’s figures centre on the main theme. Poussin only deviated a little by also showing Moses on the left, but that element attracts the curiosity of the viewer and his delight in finding out the detail. After looking at the content, let’s examine the lines and structure of Poussin’s painting.

Nicolas Poussin used the diagonals so that his two main subscenes on left and right are situated well within the two base triangles formed by the diagonals and the base of the canvas. Thus, he created the traditional middle open ‘V’ in which he situated the far landscape as background as well as the sky. The two sides of the open ‘V’ are held by the hills’ rock formations. The vertical middle line of the picture is the rightmost bright line of the altar on which stands the Golden Calf and the right upper corner of that monument is exactly at the intersection of the two sides of the ‘V’. Thus the picture has two clear, geometrical subscenes which each occupy one half of the picture. To the left are dancing people, to the right other people are frantically gesticulating towards the Calf. The horizontal middle line lies somewhat lower than the head of the girl dancing in the centre. This may be Miriam, the same who danced with her tambourine after the destruction of the Egyptians by the waters of the Sea of Reeds.

Nicolas Poussin situated much of his scene, and especially the Calf, above that horizontal line so that the viewer looks at the scene somewhat from below. This enhances the effect of the monumentality, of the imposing dimensions of the Golden Calf. It underscores the feeling of the adoration of the Israelites and that feeling, by putting the viewer in a humble position lower down, is also induced in the viewer. The Calf indeed is placed on two altars, to give the viewer an impression that it is positioned high up so that it is naturally honoured and divinised to be the symbol of the strange natural powers of the universe. The Golden Calf received life and Poussin achieves this effect by very simple means: the Calf holds up one foreleg as if it wanted to start walking. This element alone makes of the statue a magic miracle. The crowd by its frantic dancing, under a dynamic, quickly moving sky, has poured its soul and breath into the statue so that it starts to move. Thus, Poussin combined form and content.

The two halves of the picture contain two separate scenes. To the left, people are engaged in a round dance, holding each other’s hands. To the left is Aaron with a wild crowd that conjuring lifts all arms. These are the people that blew life in the Calf. And with the life in the statue it has become a god, so the people under Aaron began to adore it. People kneel, first still half-standing, then completely on their knees. This is not only a dynamic effect in the painting. It has also allowed Poussin to fill the lower part of the picture with figures entirely visible and in different poises.

The light in the painting comes from the left front. It falls playingly on the white areas of Aaron and Miriam. Nicolas Poussin used these white surfaces to bring attention to the centre of the picture. From that centre out, the colours grow naturally darker in lower tones and the white colour almost entirely disappears. Poussin used delicate tones, mostly warm red and brown colours, to give the impression of a scene bathed in the first red light of the morning sun. But Poussin also brought balance in the colour hues and still more brightness and variation in zones that otherwise would have been too monotone. Thus we find both to left and right small areas of bright blue. With simple, delicate design of colours Poussin created liveliness. Remark how the blue surfaces, two on each side of the centre, balance in intensity and in surface area.

Nicolas Poussin also balanced the dynamism in both sides of the picture. On the left, people are dancing but their movements are not directed upwards. Their circle of arms held high emphasise the long horizontal lines in the scene, even though the people are all in motion. The viewer’s eyes are attracted upwards by the Golden Statue so that the figures could remain low. And in the statue also the emphasis is on the horizontal lines. On the right side however there is no Calf, no golden statue that naturally draws attention to the upper line of the frame. So Poussin applied two effects. First, he had the people on the right throw their hands in the airs and secondly he threw light on the rock formation of the right. This light catches our view, balances with the light falling on the Golden Calf, and likewise takes our eyes upwards. We have to the left a subscene that emphasises horizontal lines, to the right a scene of verticals. There is a tension between left and right.

The picture of Nicolas Poussin is of course a very dynamic, energetic scene. Especially to the left Poussin created a formidable atmosphere of dancing people. The effect is reached in the positions of the actors, all shown in wild movement. How can an artist show movement in a fixed frame? There are several techniques to reach effects of motion in paintings and Poussin applied them all. Each person must be shown as if caught, frozen in movement and the various figures must show successive phases of movement. Thirdly, the artist must use slanting lines. Slanting lines deviate from the direction of gravitation, mean falling out of equilibrium and thus induce movement. Straight vertical lines give the viewer an impression of non-movement, of rest, of equilibrium, of static. So if Aaron stands still, upright and in a strict vertical position, the people on the left are all in slant poises. But too many slant lines bring unrest, chaos, and too much movement in a picture so that it becomes hard to look at and the viewer looses equilibrium. So Poussin painted two high trees whose verticals call the viewer back to equilibrium. These trees form with the basis of the canvas the reference lines of the viewer. Since all the dancers are drawn in oblique lines, stable references are needed by the viewer for him or her to find back the anchors of stability.

Nicolas Poussin’s picture of the ‘Golden Calf’ combines thus all the tricks of the genius painter’s skill. Poussin created depth in the landscape. He knew how to create the illusion of volume in a painting. He knew how to situate one person in front of the other. He gradually changed colours away from his central scene and applied aerial perspective completely. The artist made a wild scene, full of contrasting effects but behind the apparent chaos and dynamic of the scene lies a most strong structure, lie design and balance of composition. On the left Poussin side Poussin emphasised the horizontal lines of the statue, of the arms of the dancers. On the left side he underscored the verticals. Aaron makes the link between the two sides because he stands upright and static but he holds his arms horizontally. On the left side Poussin created movement, on the right side rest in the figures but movement upwards. The resulting impression is one of tension between left and right and this tension of the scene is built in by structure. Tension there needs to be in this picture of the Golden calf. View had to be squinted, to struggle, to be strange, alien and menacing. After all, although we only see this canvas before us we all know a lot more than what goes on in the picture. We know the anger of Moses and the whole story, what happened before the dancing and we know what will come. Nicolas Poussin needed only to hint at Moses in the background in order to support the title, the viewer does not discover this until after a while but he knows. With the title alone the viewer’s imagination fill the world beyond the canvas with meaning. And the viewer knows the tension between the frantic dancing and the disaster that will follow. At the same time Poussin tells that something is wrong, the Golden Calf is no god even if it seems to move. The adoration is badness, the scene feels wrong.

We analysed Nicolas Poussin’s painting in detail. We looked at the content, the lines and structure, the composition of the scene, the colours, and the symmetries. Now close your eyes and open them only gradually. Look at the picture in the haze of half-opened eyes and see the dancers move, see the frantic people gesticulate in their hysteria, turn their hands to conjure the Calf. Then the scene truly is in motion.

Few paintings look simple, dynamic yet have strong underlying structure. Yet here is a common trait of many of the greatest pictorial artists like Poussin, Caravaggio and Rubens who were contemporaries. Did Poussin and Rubens learn movement from Caravaggio? Slanting lines for movement had been used earlier, for instance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but Caravaggio certainly brought this technique to the foreground and then it became one of the main style figures of Baroque. These painters understood that for the viewer’s soul to resonate with the artist’s inspiration, they had to construct pictures on very sound foundations. Whether they came to their geometrical compositions by design or by intuition or by the restraints of the dimensions of the canvas will always remain a subject of debate. But the diligence and skill was very present with the greatest artists mostly. In later periods of art of course, artists had to show that by destroying structure they also could create emotion in the viewer. But that would only come very much later than Nicolas Poussin. Poussin is and remains the grand master of structure, of supreme balance and harmony, of the supremacy of mind and rationality over emotion. Yet, his picture of the ‘Adoration of the Golden Calf’ recognised and emphasised emotion in the viewer. But Poussin managed that, and he led it with a master’s hand.


What was Moses like when he destroyed the tablets with the law?

Moses had led the Israelites through deserts on dangerous roads. He had travelled on foot like the Israelites, always in the lead. He had slept less than anyone else had. He had worried for years, aware of his responsibility to bring the tribes of thousands of people including little children to an unknown Promised Land. He had Yahweh on his side. But he also knew the rapid anger of God and Yahweh'’ force of destruction. He knew the relentless, strict, unyielding view of Yahweh that no one should adore anything but himself. He knew God’s willingness to forgive, but that willingness had better put to the test as few times as possible and God just might not always relent. Yahweh had told already he would destroy the Israelites in the event they would break the Covenant. The worries and the unfaithfulness of his people had worn out the man Moses. He had become thin and old. He had now a wrinkled, emaciated face with a long unkempt, unshaven beard. Moses did not worry about his own appearance. He had other, more important worries to think of. Moses was angry to the death and he feared Yahweh as death itself. He was sad and determined at the same time. He thought how ever on earth was it possible for the people to adore a statue when they all knew the power of Yahweh. Yet, Moses had an inner force that was unbroken and that was the evidence of the existence of Yahweh, since Yahweh spoke to him.

That is the Moses that Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, the Dutch genius of the seventeenth century showed in the picture of Moses destroying the tablets with the Law.

Moses holds high the tablets with both hands and he is ready to shatter the tables on the ground in a mighty blow. Rembrandt showed all the sadness, the worries, and the desperateness but also the determination. More than any other painter he could bring to the viewer the inner state of a person with few means.

In this picture Rembrandt almost only used yellow and brown hues, with here and there his lead white to make light shimmer. Moses’ long figure is painted with strong brushstrokes. Detail was not necessary and Moses’ face remains partly hidden in the shadows. But what is given to be seen is enough to have the perfect picture of Moses, made with the wisdom of an artist who knew what Moses had become because he was a Moses himself.

In 1659 Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was fifty-one years old and living in Amsterdam. His very beloved wife Saskia van Uylenburgh had died in 1642. She was of good family and had been the ideal wife to channel his art to refinement. But she had died and Rembrandt had only his talent left. Saskia had had four children but only one, a son, Titus, had survived. Rembrandt had lived since about 1649 with his housekeeper Hendrickje Stoffels as husband and wife. But the worries of the world had overcome Rembrandt. When Hendrickje had become pregnant with a child of Rembrandt in 1654, she had been banned from church by the deacons and thus effectively shut off from public social life. Rembrandt was in deep financial problems. He had been declared bankrupt in 1656. His last possessions could be taken away any moment from him. He was unable to manage his household financially. He was at the most desperate period of his life. In 1660, Hendrickje Stoffels and Rembrandt’s son Titus would found a company and make the artist like an employee of theirs. Thereby they prevented that all his pictures would be taken away by creditors. Hendrickje and Titus took over the financial care of his house. Rembrandt had not the physical awareness anymore to cope with the outside world. His strong inner force had overtaken him. No wonder he painted in 1660, just months after his Moses, a painting called ‘Jacob fights with the Angel’. Rembrandt thought he was in fight with God. God was destroying him, but the artist fought back and as in the story of Jacob there was hope he would prevail. Hendrickje and Titus could protect him and he would finally have rest and peace.

In 1659, Rembrandt was as desperate as Moses was on the mountain, angry at the world and broken by the worries after a long journey and constant struggle. He understood how Moses felt. And Rembrandt too felt an inner force that did not relent. For him it was the supernatural force and the solace of artistic talent.

Moses destroys the tablets, but the tables are not broken yet. And Rembrandt brought whirling colours around the figure. He played upon the two separate stories in the Bible of Moses and the tablets. In the first story Moses saw the adoration of the Golden Calf and he indeed shattered the tablets of stone. But later, Yahweh restored the tablets. Moses sculpted new tables and Yahweh inscribed them again. When Moses then descended the mountain with the new tablets, a bright light shone from his face. The Bible tells that Moses’ face was so radiant that the Israelites were afraid of him. Rembrandt combined the two stories to show a Moses of inner strength surrounded by heavenly fire generated by that strength.

Moses strikes an imposing figure with the huge tablets of stone above his head. He draws almost supernatural strength out of his thin body. His very muscular and large hands show that the strength is there and have found the force. As Rembrandt made the picture, we too are menaced by Moses to receive the tablets of stone on our head. All the world consists of sinners says Rembrandt, and the punishment of God hangs above every head. Furthermore, Moses rejects what he sees of the world and throws the tables at that world.

Moses arrives out if the darkness of times to give his timeless wrath. That was Rembrandt’s message and for that he could not apply the technique of Gothic or Renaissance grace. He needed the direct pathos of Baroque and the technique of Tenebrism of tones to push all detail out of the picture and to concentrate all attention on the intensity of the fury of Moses.

Other paintings:

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

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.