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The Passage of the Red Sea

Pharaoh and his Host overwhelmed in the Red Sea

Ludovico Mazolino (ca. 1481-1530). National Gallery of Ireland – Dublin.

The Passage of the Red Sea

Cosimo Rosselli. Palazzo del Vaticano, Cappella Sistina – Rome.

Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and told him that their God Yahweh had said, ‘Let my people go, so that they can hold a feast in my honour in the desert’. But Pharaoh did not know Yahweh, and Pharaoh’s magicians repeated the tricks that Moses showed.

Yahweh then sent ten plagues to Egypt. First the water turned into blood, then the river swarmed with frogs; the dust of the earth became mosquitoes that settled on man and beast. Later still horseflies swarmed, the Egyptian livestock but not the livestock of the Israelites died and when Moses threw a handful of root in the air, boils broke out into sores on man and beast throughout the whole of Egypt. The seventh plague was hail that fell when Moses stretched out his hand. Then locusts invaded Egypt in great swarms. But Yahweh made Pharaoh stubborn and he refused to let them go. Yahweh then said to Moses that he would inflict one more plague on Pharaoh, after which the king surely would let Israel go away. Yahweh said that at midnight he would pass through Egypt and all the Egyptian first-born would die, from the first-born of Pharaoh, heir to his throne, to the first-born of the slave-girl at the mill and all the first-born of the livestock. God then installed the feast of Passover for the Hebrews. At midnight the tenth plague struck Egypt G38 .

It was still dark when Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and told them, ‘Leave my subjects, you and the Israelites. Go and worship Yahweh as you have asked. Take your flocks and herds and go. And bless me too!’ The Israelites did as Yahweh had told them, asked the Egyptians for silver and golden jewellery, and clothing. Thus the frightened Egyptians were plundered as Yahweh had predicted. Then the Israelites left Rameses. They were about six hundred thousand on the march. The Israelites had stayed in Egypt four hundred and thirty years. Moses had taken with him the bones of Joseph, since Joseph had made the Israelites swear a solemn oath to be buried in Canaan G38 .

The Israelites left Egypt fully armed, but Yahweh did not lead the people on the road to the Philistine’s territory but in a roundabout way through the desert of the Sea of Reeds.

When Pharaoh King of Egypt was told that the people had fled, he and his officials changed their attitude towards the Israelites. Pharaoh had his chariot harnessed and set out with his troops among which were six hundred of the best chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers in each. He chased the Israelites. Pharaoh caught up with Moses near Pi-Hahiroth, facing Baal-Zephon. Then the angel of God, who had preceded until then the army of Israel, changed position and followed them. The pillar of cloud thus came between the armies of Israel and Egypt. The cloud was dark and the night passed without one army nearing the other. Then Moses stretched out his hand and Yahweh parted the waters with a strong wind so that the Israelites went on dry ground right through the Sea of Reeds, with walls of water on either side of them. In the meantime the cloud threw the Egyptian army into confusion and clogged their chariot wheels. When the Egyptians also drove through the open ground in the sea, Yahweh told Moses to stretch out his hand again. And as day broke, the sea returned to its bed. Yahweh overthrew the Egyptians in the middle of the sea and Pharaoh’s entire army drowned G38 .

Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead in the seashore. They put their faith in Moses and in Yahweh and sang a song of victory. Miriam, Aaron’s sister and a prophetess took up a tambourine and all the women followed the dancing.

Moses led Israel away from the Sea of Reeds and into the desert of Shur.

The passage over the Red Sea was a welcome theme for painters, whereas the plagues of Egypt though spectacular were less so. Lodovico Mazzolino made a striking picture of the scene in 1521. As example he took a picture of the same theme in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican.

Mazzolino was a painter of Ferrara. We hear often of the painters of Florence, Siena, Rome, Venice and Bologna. But also in the town of Ferrara that lay in the Papal States existed a tradition of successive painters that had studied with each other, and thus formed a School of Ferrara. One of the best known painters of Ferrara was Cosimo Tura. This was the master of Lorenzo Costa, whose student was our Lodovico Mazzolino. Other artists of Ferrara were Ercole de’ Roberti, Garofalo and Dosso Dossi. The Ferrarese School preferred strong lines and areas of monochrome light colours.

This style can easily be recognised in Lodovico Mazzolino’s picture of the ‘Passage through the Red Sea’. Mazzolino presented his scene at the moment that Pharaoh and his army are overwhelmed in the sea. Numerous small figures are caught in the waves. Pharaoh is the only one standing high on a drowning horse so that he almost jumps in the air to desperately avoid being drowned too. Mazzolino had no idea how Egyptian soldiers could have been dressed in Moses’ time so he more or less depicted the figures as Muslims with turbans, white broad trousers and harnesses of leather. Pharaoh has a long beard as a Muslim sultan. Mazzolino may have recalled these details from the picture in the Sistine Chapel.

There is something touchingly naïve in the way Mazzolino painted all the small figures in various attitudes full of movement. Moses and the Hebrews stand on the bank of the Sea of reeds, to the right. Mazzolino inverted this composition when we compare it to the picture of the Sistine Chapel. Moses stretches out his arm and he holds the staff that Yahweh gave him to perform his miracles. Aaron, the future first priest of Israel can be seen down left, in front of the censers or vases of his new position. On the bank too Mazzolino painted many figures in a very great variety. There are men, women and children. Some are facing the spectators and others are turning their backs. The people of Israel are safe on the dry bank and they are already discussing their good luck, apparently unconcerned with the Egyptians that are drowning next to them. Moses stretches out his arm, but Yahweh above in the clouds commands the waters and the angel of God frightens and fights Pharaoh’s army.

Lodovico Mazzolino’s painting is not ambitious. The artist’s aim was not to show a scene of psychological power. But the great number of figures, almost all painted in a stylised deliberately two-dimensional flat way, was something quite unusual in the Italian Renaissance art. Mazzolino linked with this picture to medieval miniatures. The painting charms by its vivacity of colours and multitude of lines, whereas nice details such as the landscape on the right and the downpouring waters make the delight of the observant viewer.

The entire picture is in a uniform light. Mazzolino used brilliant colours but mostly his white and browns deliver battle in the nervous, complex composition as the armies of Moses and Pharaoh would have clashed. One must admire all the details of the figures.

Mazzolino painted his picture of the passage of the Sea of Reeds after the example in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican. In the fresco of Cosimo Rosselli, the scene is very similar to Mazzolino’s. Here also Pharaoh’s army is seen in disarray in the middle of the waters and a very similar Pharaoh is drowning as an oriental satrap. Moses and the people are standing on the bank. Miriam has her musical instrument near her, but in Rosselli’s picture it is more a harp than a tambourine.

Remarkable in Cosimo Rosselli’s picture is the strange image of a Greek column standing in the sea between Pharaoh’s army and the Israelites. It is an incongruous, mystical image. But the column refers directly to the Bible story since it is told that a pillar of cloud showed the way to the Israelites during the day and a pillar of fire during the night. When Pharaoh’s army came in sight of the Israelites, the pillar positioned itself between Pharaoh and the Israelites. Cosimo Rosselli read the Bible story with good attention and so he placed instead of a pillar of cloud a Greek column in the centre of the sea.

We see thereby art history in the making, for the symbol of the pillar is lacking in Mazzolino’s painting. There is neither column nor a pillar in his scene. Mazzolino may have found the symbol unnatural for his own picture or he may not have understood what the column stood for in the picture of the Sistine chapel and hence omitted it in his own picture. Yet this symbol is very old. There is a fresco in the nave of the church of the abbey of Saint Savin in France, dating from the second half of the eleventh century that also contains a column. One of the frescoes of the Moses scenes shows how the people of Israel march forward, guided by a pillar of fire. The painters of Saint Savin showed a column, though only drawn by parallel vertical lines and a different colour, and with black flames around it. In this fresco Moses leads the people protected and blessed by a divine hand, whereas an angel of God follows the people. The pillar or column of God thus was used in the Sistine Chapel painting, but it was a Bible image that was used and painted in Western Europe already at least three hundred years before.

What could the pillar of cloud have been? Modern scholars have linked it to the explosion of the volcano on the Greek Island of Santorini. The explosion may have happened about 1200 BC, at the time of the Exodus. The volcano itself could not be seen from Egypt as it lay behind the horizon, but the column of smoke went high in the skies and could have taken the form of a high column. When the volcano finally exploded, a tidal wave ran through the Mediterranean. This tidal wave may at first have sucked away water from the Nile Delta and from the marshes of the Sea of Reeds near the Mediterranean, then flooded the land again. The Bible indeed states not that Moses passed the Red Sea, but the Sea of Reeds, and that name indicates marshland or shallow lakes close to the Mediterranean, part of the vast Nile Delta. Marshes lay around Rameses, the newly built capital of Egypt, which afterwards fell in disuse again and of which now only ruins remain in Eastern Egypt.

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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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