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The Ordeal of the Fire

Moses submitted to the Ordeal of the Fire

Giorgione (Ca. 1480-1510). Gallerie degli Uffizi – Florence.

Moses stayed at the court of Pharaoh. One day, Pharaoh placed the crown of Egypt jokingly on the young boy’s head. But Moses immediately threw it to the ground and he trampled on it. The courtiers of Pharaoh saw this as an omen that Moses would later overthrow Pharaoh. The courtiers proposed a test for Moses to prove the innocence of the boy and to find out whether he was a magician or not. They brought two plates to him, one containing red cherries and the other red burning coals. An angel of God guided Moses and God made Moses choose the coals. Moses put a coal in his mouth and was burned. By doing that he proved to be innocent of any intent to treason.

Part of this legend was written in Josephus’ ‘Jewish Antiquities’; part is later Hebrew legend. The cherries may be red rubies in alternate versions G41 . The legend does not come from the Bible. It may have been devised to explain the words of Moses to God when Moses implored Yahweh to choose someone else to lead the Israelites, someone who could speak well and better than he did. The story of Exodus implied for medieval scholars that Moses had a speech deficiency, not that he feared the charge and responsibility. The legend then explained that he burned his mouth while still very young. The legend is unique and Giorgione’s picture is very probably the only one existing on this theme.

‘Moses submitted to the Ordeal of the Fire’ and a second panel of the same dimensions that must have hung or stood together, ‘The Judgement of Salomon’, are attributed to Giorgione. There are often difficulties of attribution of works to this artist. His students worked at pictures of the same kind and Giorgione was so strong an example that many of his students copied him frequently or worked completely in his way. Giorgione was in reality called Giorgione Barbarelli or Giorgio da Castelfranco since he was born in Castelfranco. Giorgione was a painter of Venice and he really imposed his style on generations of Venetian artists. He was probably a student of Giovanni Bellini, but he did not paint at all like his master. Giorgione introduced the warm brown-ochre tones in his pictures and taught these to his own most promising student, Tiziano Vecellio. Giorgione left the traditional Catholic themes from the New Testament for either entirely secular scenes or for themes from the Old Testament. He took Bellini’s clear visions further and bathed his scenes in a diffuse, darker tone to come to poetic images of mystery and harmony with nature.

In ‘Moses submitted to the Ordeal of the Fire’, Giorgione showed the scene of the legend almost literally. On the left side, Pharaoh is seated on a throne. The throne is built like a stone altar and we see the antique bas-relief of ancient Roman monuments. Pharaoh’s courtiers and counsellors have gathered around the king. Pharaoh’s daughter holds a small nude child Moses and two courtiers present the dishes with the cherries (or rubies) and with the incandescent coals. An older courtier, the ceremony master, intently follows the scene. Behind, on the right, we find ambassadors of different countries, dressed in great variety. A Hebrew rabbi points out to Pharaoh that Moses is innocent because the child is picking the red coals. Pharaoh and his courtiers are dressed in the oriental way, maybe as Giorgione had seen Muslim and even Egyptian merchants in Venice, though not as real Egyptians were dressed in around 2000 BC.

The picture is divided in two parts. In the lower part Giorgione built a lively scene of figures. His figures are moving, talking, confronting the viewer or standing with their back to the viewer, looking sideways and upwards. Still, there is a static dignity to the scene. Above the figures Giorgione painted a landscape in rather dark tones. He was a great master in depicting nature and so testify the marvellously drawn trees and their foliage on the left. The right part of the background contains a view of a town of the Veneto and maybe a hill referring to Horeb, the mountain of God as were called several mountains where God spoke to Moses. Giorgione’s painting is very typical of this master who had a great influence on Venetian art. His colours are very warm and splendidly varied. Giorgione took in the figures all the shades of yellow, brown, red, ochre, to a spare contrast of black and white. Light comes from the left, illuminates the main figures and then diffuses away into the darkness of the wood. But the light returns higher up, against the walls and tower of the city. Giorgione was inventing the contrasts between light and dark and he applied these in the forefront scene as well as in the background. He gave the ambassadors slightly darker colours to keep attention on the main action, the child Moses and the two young courtiers who are dressed almost equally. Giorgione painted the wood in low, dark tones, as woods naturally are but he brought minute detail and realism in the foliage. Figures and nature are harmoniously together. Giovanni Bellini’s interest was on the personages of his scenes; nature was a mere background even though finely detailed. Giorgione put his figures inside nature and therefore the colours of nature have to be the colours of the actors too. And yet, Giorgione knew how to compose a picture so that the extraordinary character of the legend was preserved. He also had a hang for mysterious and unusual scenes. His choice of a strange legend on Moses, though well known in the Middle Ages, testifies to this feature of his character. Other pictures proved it further.

Giorgione had a fine feeling for composition. To the right of ‘Moses and the Ordeal by Fire’ he thus painted a few slender, high young trees in order to take the viewer’s eyes to the town against the hill and then to the tender wisps of cloud in the sky. The light on the town also makes the viewer look with interest at this detail.

The scene with the young child Moses is very vivacious although it remains a static scene. The image is intimate by its setting in a clearance of the forest. The picture ‘Moses submitted to the Ordeal by Fire’ is thus a picture to contemplate and ponder on. With its twin panel it was an ideal decoration for the interior of a Venetian palace. But it was a decoration that invited to reflection in moments of leisure when the people of the house had time to direct their thoughts to the Bible, away from the worldly worries of investments and trade. These were still centuries in which society cared about spirituality and in which considerable funds were devoted to pictures like this ‘Moses submitted to the Ordeal of the Fire’.

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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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