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The Death of Moses

The Testament and Death of Moses

Luca Signorelli. Palazzo del Vaticano, Cappella Sistina – Rome.

The Death of Moses

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889). The Dahesh Museum of Art. New York. 1851.

In the plains of Moab, near the Jordan by Jericho, Yahweh ordered Moses to speak to the Israelites. Moses told to cross the Jordan into Canaan. The Israelites would take possession of the country and settle in it for God had given this land as their property. The local inhabitants had to be driven out, their gods destroyed. This country, Canaan, would be the heritage of the people. And God determined the boundaries of this land.

Moses named leaders to divide the country among the tribes. The head leaders were the priest Eleazar and Joshua, the son of Nun. Then there was one leader from each tribe. Moses gave towns to the Levites in which to live and to pasture land. There were six cities of refuge, ceded as sanctuary for those who committed accidentally manslaughter, to save them from their pursuers. These cities were to be refuges not only for the Israelites but also for foreigners and for the resident aliens. In all the Levites received forty-eight towns. God gave further laws and commandments on the plains of Moab near the Jordan by Jericho. And Israel came to the Promised Land G38 .

Moses was then a hundred and twenty years old. He told the Israelites he could not act as their leader anymore. Yahweh had told Moses that he could not cross the Jordan. Moses gave over command to Joshua. He committed the Testimony to the Levite priests who carried the Ark of Yahweh’s Covenant. Yahweh said to Moses, ‘And now the time is near when you must die.’ Moses and Joshua went inside the Tent of Meeting and the pillar of cloud stood at the door of the Tent. Yahweh predicted once more that the Israelites would give themselves over to the gods of the country, break the Covenant and Yahweh would have to send his blaze against the people. God gave further commandments to the Israelites, which Moses wrote down in a book.

Then Moses sang a song of praise to Yahweh. Yahweh ordered Moses to climb the mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, just opposite Jericho and to view from there Canaan, the Promised Land. Yahweh ordered Moses to die there because he had broken faith with Yahweh at the Waters of Meribah-Kadesh in the desert of Zin. Moses had failed to make Yahweh’s holiness clear to the Israelites there. Thus, Moses was allowed by Yahweh to see Canaan, but not to enter it G38 .

Moses blessed the tribes, went up Mount Nebo, and looked at the Promised Land.

There, in the country of the Moabites, Moses the servant of Yahweh died.

Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died. His grave was never found.

Luca Signorelli's 'Death of Moses'

For the last scene of Moses' life we return to the cycle on his life in the Sistine Chapel. Luca Signorelli there made a fresco of the ‘Testament and Death of Moses’. Not much is known of this painter. He was born in Cortona around 1450 and he learned to paint in the workshop of Piero della Francesca. Luca Signorelli worked in Florence, from 1481 in Rome on the Sistine Chapel, but also in Perugia and Orvieto. His fresco ‘The Testament and Death of Moses’ closes the frescoes on Moses’ life in the Sistine Chapel.

In Signorelli’s fresco we find the continuation of the style of the other Umbrian and Tuscan artists who worked on the series. The figures form one long procession of a crowd. The background contains a few additional scenes against an imaginary landscape. Signorelli represented various scenes in his fresco. As in most of the paintings of the series, the narrative starts from the right. Moses is sitting on a throne. He is reading from a book. Moses is reading his Testament and singing a song of praise to Yahweh. The book contains the Law, the Testimony that Moses has written down on order of Yahweh. The commands of the Law are Moses’ heritage to the Israelites and his Testament. Going to the left, we follow a crowd to a scene on the other extreme end where Moses hands over his staff, the symbol of his authority, to the young Joshua, son of Nun. The Bible told that Moses’ face was radiant when he had spoken to Yahweh. So Signorelli painted rays coming out of Moses’ face. But Moses was an Old Testament figure, so the rays are not in the form of the saints’ nimbuses but of radial lines of gold emanating from his face.

In the background Luca Signorelli painted a beautiful landscape that is at least as fine as those of the other artists that made scenes in the Sistine Chapel. Starting again from the right, one remarks first high mountain rocks and a town that vaguely resembles Florence with its Duomo. In the centre stands Mount Nebo. On its top an angel of God shows Canaan to the old Moses. We understand why there is no picture or small additional scene in the right background. Signorelli had to keep this space free for a landscape of the Promised Land. Down Mount Nebo Moses descends the hill to die. And to the left Moses is lying dead enveloped in the white linen, ready to be entombed. Moses will be entombed in a cave for on the far left we see again a rock formation and a suggestion of caves, not unlike as in pictures of the entombment of Jesus.

When we compare Signorelli’s picture with Botticelli’s ‘Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’, we find only narration in Luca Signorelli’s scenes. No profound spiritual meaning is emphasised. Signorelli showed various scenes of Moses’ last days, but there are no other references to specific symbolic meaning. There is no pathos, no moral message but the tale itself. Signorelli’s picture was made to tell a story simply and plain. Yet, he was a marvellous painter and had to show he was not the lesser painter in another way. It was an honour for Signorelli to work next to the greatest of the masters of his town, next to Perugino and Botticelli. So he made a picture that pleased the eye as none other of the series. He painted marvellous detail in his procession of figures.

Luca Signorelli drew attention to his own painting by his splendid depiction of the crowd around Moses. We find here all the wealthy courtiers, merchants, noblemen and ladies having come to hear the testament of Moses. Signorelli pictured a heavenly scene in which all men and women are rich and can live at leisure. He used gold lines and delicate patches of gold colour to indicate the wealth. All the people are richly and elegantly dressed, as all should be on earth and maybe as all will be in the presence of God. In the centre of the procession, Signorelli painted an entirely nude man over whom other men look with pity and care. This man may represent the poor and destitute, but he was also the occasion for Signorelli to present his skills in painting anatomy. The man forms a striking contrast in the very centre of the procession. This may be a symbol of the ideal of classical beauty represented in a religious picture, or it may represent Adam, the first man and eternal mankind.

Somewhat to the right of the naked man stand a pregnant woman with a baby on her shoulders and with young children at her feet. Here is eternal womanhood, the primeval pregnancy, the Eve of Genesis, Mother Nature. This is the Ceres of antiquity and thus also Signorelli linked Renaissance to antiquity.

The procession of people is a most marvellous assembly. Every figure is different, differently dressed, with different faces, young and old, bearded and unbearded, with grey or brown hair. The colours of the people are varied but we do also find here the strong Florentine line and symmetry of composition. Signorelli divided the fresco in two horizontal parts. The lower part contains the procession; the upper part is filled with the landscape. The symmetry is not only in the scenes but also in the blue colours. One courtier is painted in blue in the centre, and then Signorelli used blue sparingly to the right and left. Symmetry is of course also in the background landscape. Mount Nebo is in the centre and two rock formations are on the left and the right.

The main attraction of Signorelli’s picture remains the delicacy of detail, the elegance and grace of his figures and his reference to classic antiquity in the image of the nude man and the pregnant woman in the centre.

Alexandre Cabanel's 'Death of Moses'

Alexandre Cabanel, born in Montpellier, France, started to study in his home-town but won a price in 1839 issued by his town, to study in Paris at the Academy of Fine Arts there. He tried several times to win the ‘Prix de Rome’ but he succeeded in that only in 1845, when he won a second price behind Léon Bénouville but was nevertheless allowed to go to Rome and study at the Villa Medici. The French Academy in Rome still today owns the Medici Palace and the students of France were boarded there and followed courses by the best art teachers of France. Cabanel stayed in Rome for five years, and then returned to France in 1851. Shortly thereafter he obtained success in France and became one of the most prised painters of the era of Napoleon III. In 1870, after France’s defeat at the German army and Napoleon’s abdication, Cabanel returned to Italy, to Venice, to Florence, and back to Rome. In 1878 he was appointed a professor at the ‘Accademia Romana delle Belle Arti’. He died in Paris in 1889.

Alexandre Cabanel painted his picture ‘the death of Moses’ in 1851. It was one of his first pictures made in Rome. Sketches of this painting still exist, so that we may assume that the young painter – he was only twenty-six years old – quite laboured on its design. Rome was, as it remained today, not just the city of ancient art, of Roman antiquity, but also the town where Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini made their most impressive masterpieces. It was also a city impregnated by Christianity in its most outwardly, splendidly glorious expression, in its Roman Catholicism. Rome was the city where you could find several over-decorated Baroque churches in every street, and where the overpowering mass and splendour of Saint Peter’s basilica is. In all those churches were – and are – famous and magnificent paintings. San Luigi dei Francesi for instance, a church dedicated to Saint Louis of France, was a monument in which you could admire three enormous paintings by Caravaggio. The Sistine Chapel was in Rome and so were the various collections of the grand maecenasses of the seventeenth century, such as the Borghese, the Colonna, Corsini, Barberini, and Doria-Pamphilj. These collections were installed in majestic, but terribly over-decorated halls and protected in their entirety by ‘fideocommesso’ provisions. These provisions enacted by testaments, forbade heirs to sell the paintings and sculptures separately from their surroundings, the halls and palaces that contained them.

The Parisian Revolution dated from 1789, merely sixty years before Cabanel and his colleagues worked in the Villa Medici, but Napoleon I had been replaced by kings since 1815 and then by another emperor of the same name, which re-installed and re-recognised the spiritual authority of the Popes in Rome. A new cultural battle between lay ideas of the supremacy of state interests and state-directed views over the claims of the Christian church for moral ascendancy of ideas was not yet apparent in Alexandre Cabanel’s times of 1845 to 1850. Many students of the villa Medici sent Biblical or Christian scenes from the New Testament to France, as official contributions from their stay in Rome paid by governmental allowances. We should not be surprised that after the classical themes of Greek or Roman antiquity of a Jacques-Louis David or a Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Alexandre Cabanel painted a scene from the life of Moses. The paining however is a surprising image for its times.

One would have expected the young Cabanel, student of the French Academy in Rome, to have presented a picture entirely in the academic, neo-classical style. He would then have made a picture in clear lines, nicely separated areas, with much dignity, composed with primarily vertical directions and in finely contrasting colours, with not too many figures. For his work to be original, Cabanel should have brought a new view in his presentation of the contents. In many aspects, Cabanel’s work deviates from this style, maybe not always favourably, so that his contemporaries quite openly criticised the painting. That was to Cabanel’s great distress, because he seemed to have loved and admired his work, and on which he spend much time in conceiving it I38 . Still, his painting is remarkable, in part and truly because of this conflict of appreciation.

While Cabanel was in Rome he must have met and seen working many other great artists and painters. The Directors of the Villa Medici were Victor Schnetz and Jean Alaux. Other great masters that studied at the same time were Victor Biennoury, Félix-Joseph Barrias, Léon Bénouville, Jules-Eugène Lenepveu; Gustave Boulanger and Paul Baudry. Also in Rome but without a price of the Academy was Léon Bonnat. Before Victor Schnetz, from 1835 to 1840, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres had been Director of the Villa Medici and before him Horace Vernet. How could one distinguish oneself before and with such names? It was hard and one had to be a genius to bring new views if one did not want merely to conform to tradition and to break out of the rules without being stigmatised and crucified as a revolutionary. Yet, that was the goal demanded of the ‘pensionnaires’ of Rome. When one was young like Alexandre Cabanel, talented, very talented, but still in the naivety of youth, one experimented with an unsure mind, unsure of one’s style and of one’s aims in art. Cabanel tried to be original, and he succeeded in that. But in a city like Rome some images are simply too overwhelming to forget and go beyond. In this knowledge we can comprehend Cabanel’s ‘Moses dying’.

Cabanel painted Moses lying in the arms of angels. He is dying but opens his arms widely to the glory of God, Yahweh. Yahweh floats in the heaven, as he comes to receive his best servant Moses and his cloak opens in the wind that accompanies him. God also opens his arms in a gesture of grandeur and of empathy with Moses, and with one hand he points to Moses. It is impossible not to think of Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican. Cabanel set his God in the same oval form, surrounded by angels, arms wide. Cabanel’s God also points to the other figure of the painting, here to Moses. Cabanel could not but have admired the powerful, daunting scene of love between man and God of Michelangelo. He must have noted, and very well known even in his sketches, that when people saw his Yahweh, they would see the God Creator of Michelangelo. He must have thought that instead of refusing comparisons, viewers would find some interest in another version of the scene. But the young can be foolish to want to adapt grand scenes of the giants among the geniuses of painting. Such attempt might be understood as the arrogant try to ameliorate an image that was universally considered as being perfect. Cabanel received hard critic. Still, he did paint a marvellous Yahweh.

God has a forceful face, a dark and full beard and dark, heavy hair that express will-power and self-confidence. A soft yellow halo surrounds his head. His chest is strong and large; the arms well muscled like of an athlete. God represents the ideal man of a mature age, of an age at which wisdom and strength are at their highest culmination. God’s gesture is all-encompassing and commanding. Angels flow around God but they do not tear at him. They accompany God like the wind. Their bodies express youth, dependence, courtly life, softness and elegance. They take their energy from God. Yahweh wears a dark robe low and a purple cloak curves in the wind. Tyrrhian purple was a colour reserved for the Roman Emperors in antiquity, so the colour is not casual in this scene. God appears against the setting sun, which he eclipses entirely. So Cabanel painted God in the shadows of his own figure.

Moses lies in the arms of the angels. We are reminded of the traditional Pietà pictures of the dead Jesus but here also Cabanel modified the usual view. Moses is not dead but dying. So he opens his arms, in empathy with God, in the same dramatic gesture. By these open arms Cabanel reminded to his viewers even more the reference to Jesus, since Moses now lies like the crucified Christ. Moses was the teacher, the priest, the wise and very old man. Cabanel painted him with full white hair and a long white beard. Two angels hold him tenderly in their arms, whereas an angel behind him is ready to cover him with the white shroud of death. This gesture also reminds of pictures of Chronos, readying his scythe to bring a man to death. Other angels come to Moses from among the group that accompanies God and these form the link between God and Moses. God and Moses also of course look at one another, strengthening the visual link in the painting.

The first and overall impression that a viewer receives of Cabanel’s picture is one rather of confusion. There are so many flowing, curving, intertwining lines and forms in the painting that any viewer has difficulty in rapidly discerning the main figures of the picture. That feature makes it difficult for a viewer to love Cabanel’s painting at first sight. One has to strain oneself to find the figures in the picture and get a good, easy grasp of the scene. When viewers have to do such effort, for some mysterious reason they seem generally less to like a painting in first impression. The human eye and mind is lazy, likes orderliness, clear views, distinct areas, easy discerning of forms, balance and symmetry, and Alexandre Cabanel in a quite un-academic way tampered with these qualities. Moreover, he also did not bring clear definition and contrast of forms by colour.

Cabanel used soft pastel hues in his painting and in the figures. Moses and God are painted in the same tones of hues and also the hues of their robes, cloaks, even faces do not differ much but seem to be shades of the same emotion. Cabanel did bring some bright tones in the robes and wings of the angels that are holding Moses, but these colours are peripherical. Even then, the angel on the right of Moses wears a white-pink robe and the angel behind Moses wears also a robe that is somewhat of a deeper hue but still reminds of the first. Truly fine, but painted in the same soft hues are the angels’ wings. We see pale blue and pink below right, deeper and evolving blue but pink also in the wings of the angel behind Moses, and this blue points to the imperial purple of God. The colours do not contrast enough in their various possible contrasts of hue, tone and intensity for the viewer to be able to discern the forms immediately.

Alexandre Cabanel also did not apply sharp differences in light and shadows. He was a master in creating volume by the play of chiaroscuro on the robes and bodies but he painted the scene as if it happened in the rests of a sun that disappeared already beyond the horizon. We see only its reddish glow under the sky, beyond the dark landscape. Cabanel painted his figures in a very diffuse light that seems to come from the lower left, but is weak and unpronounced. The effects of light thus also do not allow a rapid reading of the picture.

Cabanel clearly used the right diagonal in his composition, the diagonal that goes from the right lower corner to the upper left, as the main line of structure. The direction starts on the angel in the lower right, goes over its arm to the right arm of Moses and from there to God, then over God’s lifted arm to the top left corner. God and Moses look at each other over this direction also. But Cabanel brought such variation in his scene and broke in so many places this strong structure, that it remains almost un-remarked by viewers. The two angels in reddish hues around Moses are standing and emphasise the vertical direction. Since these angels are painted in the most brilliant colours of the picture, they form a predominant direction. So is the mass of the white shroud that winds out behind Moses. Moses himself lies almost perpendicularly to the right diagonal, but not quite so. Behind God are various angels and they form a mass that is almost parallel in direction to Moses’ body, but also not quite so. The strong diagonal structure that we found is also in many places weakened by the many curved lines, such as in the purple mantle of God, in the white, bulging shroud, in the angels’ wings and robes, even in the curling movement of Moses’ beard. Cabanel stressed much these curved lines in so many places, that we must acknowledge that these are the style element by which Cabanel really deviated most openly from the solemn rigidity of the Neo-Classical pictures, which went back to late Gothic representations.

Cabanel kept few academic and Neo-Classical characteristics in his painting. Moses lies very long and rigidly on the ground. The angels around Moses are upright. He took care to use a diagonal in his composition. His areas of colours are well delineated. He used only slight chiaroscuro. His background is almost non-existent, as it consists of a blue sky and a dark Canaan, with a hint of black Mount Horeb on the right. Critics of Cabanel’s picture mostly disliked his reminiscence of Michelangelo’s ‘creation of Man’ and the confusions of forms.

Alexandre Cabanel experimented with his ‘Death of Moses’. He clearly did not want to deny his academic teaching and its Neo-Classical style. Nevertheless, he introduced a fluidity of forms that expressed Romanticism, the curved lines of emotions and of tragedy. He represented ostentatious feelings in Moses’ acceptance of God’s will, in his pathetic opening of arms and in God’s almost similar response. Such overt show of emotions is not what modern viewers appreciate, nor the rational spectators of the middle nineteenth century. One finds such views mainly in Baroque paintings of the seventeenth century and not really in Neo-Classical imagery. Cabanel maybe wanted to leave or modulate at least a little the straight lines of academism, the clear and easily recognisable forms accentuated by bright contrasts of hues, as he had been taught at the Academy. He brought in his picture many figures, even though there are only two important personages: God and Moses.

We are less hard than Cabanel’s critics since we understand now what the artist Cabanel was trying to do: create his own vision and style while evolving academic regulations of style. Cabanel longed to be very original, to be striking and special. This streak he had in common with the greatest geniuses of art, who never can really create a work of art that is not different from everything created yet. Cabanel experimented in many of his paintings in this sense. He sometimes succeeded, sometimes less so. If we do not care very much for Cabanel’s so obvious reference to Michelangelo’s picture of the Sistine Chapel, for his reference to the crucified Jesus and to the Pietà image, and look at his Yahweh as an essay in the alternate, then we can also look with new interest at Cabanel’s ‘Moses’. The picture is visually confusing at first sight in its intertwining forms, colours and curved lines. But after a while one discerns so many fine other elements in this picture, that one can easily admire it.

Alexandre Cabanel did have a great talent and the ambition of a genius. He mastered completely the difficult art of painting. He knew well how to bring harmonious colours and good structure in his paintings. His ‘Death of Moses’ is the result of his trying, of experiments in art, and Cabanel succeeded in offering an original view of fluidic, respectful and smoothed motions. Among so many other powerful pictures of his, this search must be admired and less happy results excused.

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