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Moses strikes Water from the Rock

Moses strikes Water out of the Rock

Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533). Museum of Fine Arts – Boston.

When the Israelites left the desert of Sin, they pitched camp at Rephidim. There was no water for the people to drink. Yahweh told Moses to take his staff with which he had already struck the river, and go to the rock at Horeb. Moses struck the rock and water flew out for the people to drink. He gave the place the names Massah and Meribah. This episode of the Exodus is repeated in the Book of Numbers. In that story, the Israelites settled at Kadesh in the desert of Zin. Miriam died and was buried there. The Israelites blamed Moses for having brought them to a place without water. Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting, threw themselves on their faces and spoke to the glory of Yahweh. Yahweh told Moses to take a branch, and in full view of the Israelites to order the rock to release its water. Moses did as Yahweh had commanded. He assembled the people in front of the rock, raised his hand and struck the rock twice with branch. Water gushed out of the rock in abundance G38 .

The story of Moses and the water in the desert was important for what happened afterwards. Yahweh accused Moses and Aaron not to have believed that Yahweh could assert his holiness in front of the Israelites. Yahweh told Moses and Aaron that they would not lead the Israelites into Canaan. This happened at Meribah.

The bible story does not tell exactly why Moses doubted and Yahweh’s punishment comes abruptly, as a surprise in the Bible narrative. Yet, the punishment and blame of Moses and Aaron were very real.

An entirely different picture from Rubens’ Gathering of the Manna’ is the ‘Moses strikes Water from the Rock’ of Lucas van Leyden. Rubens was a flamboyant Brabander, van Leyden a stricter Hollander.

Lucas van Leyden was born in 1494, almost a hundred years before Rubens, in the town of Leiden of the Netherlands, from which he received the name. He died already in 1533. Little is known of his life but he seems to have been a child prodigy since he already engraved at merely fifteen years old. We know he was in Antwerp, Rubens’ town, in 1521 because Dürer mentions him there in the diary of his travels in the Netherlands. We also know that Lucas van Leyden knew well Jan Gossaert called Mabuse, an artist who originated from the town of Maubeuge in what is now the north of France. Lucas van Leyden and Jan Gossaert travelled through the Netherlands together in 1527. Lucas’ masters were his father, who was also a painter of Leiden, and Cornelis Engelbrechtsz. Van Leyden died young; his art did not mature. He was not a court painter, in all so different from Rubens. He did not really profile himself as a religious painter and he worked in a period when Dutch painters, Lucas in the first place, were looking for a new kind of pictures that rooted better in their character. Holland was evolving slowly to a middle class burgher society that for the first time in its history could hope for more wellfare from its overseas trade. Van Leyden did not follow Gossaert and others in their italianising Renaissance, Classicist scenes. He was one of the precursors of the genre art of the Netherlands.

Van Leyden was a marvellous engraver. He had a very keen eye for detail and an unrivalled skill with the engraver’s pen. But he was a painter with more skill than a painter endowed with powerful talent of individual imagination and force. He liked to engrave many figures in one scene and he excelled in this. Most of his paintings therefore also show many figures, to such a point that often his main scenes are lost in a crowd of personages. The same is the case with the ‘Moses strikes Water from the Rock’. The viewer has to search for Moses to discern him in the scene. In fact, Moses has already struck the rock and water is flowing from it. All the people have come to drink, to fill and take forth pots and vases filled with the precious liquid. Moses stands only to the right, not in the centre of the picture. The act is finished; Moses is almost only like any other figure in the picture. He is watching the scene flanked on his right (our left) by the priest Aaron and on his left by Joshua, his general. Moses wears his long, elaborated staff and he looks more like a magician with his forked beard than the powerful leader. The people follow Moses like courtiers. People are sitting near the water, chatting, explaining what their magician has accomplished as his latest trick. On the left of the canvas men and women are carrying away the water to the camp.

Van Leyden used a composition by filling the lower triangles made by the diagonals of the frame. In the triangle made by the base and the diagonal that runs from the lower left to the upper right, he positioned most of the people. In the other base triangle, under or around the other diagonal, Van Leyden placed Moses and his court. The result is an open ‘V’ structure in which the artist pictured mount Horeb and two figures, two men of which one wears a barrel and who are discussing the events with two other, lower figures. The scene is very lively, but then so lively that all figures seem to have their own life and pre-occupation, independent of the main act and theme of the picture. This also is typical for the few paintings of large scenes we still have of Van Leyden. This artist was more interested in small separate compositions than in the power of expression of his theme and the unity of figures around his theme. Remark how van Leyden, like Froment, gave a dominant position to Mount Horeb. This was a characteristic of many pictures of scenes of Moses. The reason is obvious. Mountains called Horeb, which means simply ‘Mountain of God’, played important roles in Moses’ life stories in several instances. God spoke to Moses often on mountains.

Lucas Van Leyden did not paint the miraculous and powerful deed of the great leader Moses. Moses is not caught at the moment of striking out the water. We are too late, the miracle is over, and we missed the very theme. And van Leyden could indeed have put Moses and Aaron in a secondary, awkward position since they doubted water would flow from the rock. But these are also not feelings we can find on their faces. As a result we have a quiet picture even though there are so many figures. Van Leyden obtained the effect of a very static, still scene even though motion is everywhere. This static general impression comes from the rigid attitudes of the very heroes of the picture, Moses and his followers. Van Leyden seems to have missed the theme in all the power of its meaning. We lack the grand spiritual breadth of the tale of the Bible that should have inspired the artist. Rubens on the other hand, brought only a few figures in his picture and yet the gestures of hope towards the heavens, all in unison and synchronous in time, in symbiosis with the theme is like a prayer sent upwards in all its effects of decoration.

One can criticise the lack of force of Lucas van Leyden. But one must admire the work of fine detail of the figures and the way this artist depicted nature in the background, the fine colours and the skill with which he composed his scenes of figures. Van Leyden chose to dress most of his figures in ordinary contemporary Dutch clothes, while others are dressed in the oriental way. Thus he mixed Bible story and his own times, Bible figures and men and women of Holland. There is much to discover in his picture, but we miss the epic soul of an artist’s spiritual vision. Rubens had that vision so much that he only needed to give a design to his students, quickly but with the confidence of a genius, for them to do the rest and yet make a powerful picture. Lucas van Leyden preferred the small design of figures and in doing that neglected vision and force. Genre painting would become exactly that. It would become a kind of painting not always avoided by the greatest painters, a kind we can like, but also not a kind that we can fully admire for it lacks grandeur of content.

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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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