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The Brazen Serpent

Moses and the Brazen Serpent

Cesare Ligari (1716-1770). Pinacoteca Ambrosiana – Milan. 1740.

The people of Israel while on travel muttered several times and rebelled over and over again against Moses. Yahweh wanted then each time to destroy Israel. But Moses also always pleaded and interceded with God to divert disasters.

Once a rebellion broke out. God wanted to destroy Israel, and Moses pleaded. Moses told Aaron to quickly take a censer and place it in the middle of the community for a plague had broken out. But it was too late. Fourteen thousand seven hundred fell victim to the plague and Moses stood between the living and the dead until the plague halted. Moses then re-installed Aaron and the Levite priests G38 .

Aaron died on Yahweh’s command at mount Hor near Kadesh. Aaron would not see Canaan and he would not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land as Yahweh had predicted in punishment for having doubted him at the Waters of Meribah. G38

The Israelites left Mount Hor on the road to the sea of Suph, to go round Edom who refused to give way to the Israelites. On the way the people lost patience. They regretted that Moses and his God had taken them away from Egypt to bring them to these hardships of the road. God then sent fiery serpents among the people. The bites of the snakes brought death. The Israelites repented then and appealed to Moses to intercede with Yahweh to save them from the serpents. Moses spoke to God.

Yahweh ordered to make a fiery serpent and to raise it like a standard. Anyone who would look at the standard would survive from the bites. Moses made a serpent out of bronze and he raised it as a standard and it happened as Yahweh had told that people bitten by the snakes survived when they looked at the brazen serpent standard G38 .

In the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana of Milan is a painting of the theme of the ‘Brazen Serpent’, made by the Lombard artist Cesare Ligari. Ligari was a Milanese, born in Milan in 1716. He worked in several cities of the North of Italy and also in Venice. His picture of the ‘Brazen Serpent’ was made during a stay in Venice in 1740. There were still very important artists in Venice in the eighteenth century. While Ligari came to the town Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) was the most prominent Venetian artist and Tiepolo’s style was predominant in the decoration of the city. But others worked in Venice also, such as Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768), Bernardo Belotto (1720-1780), and the strange Pietro Longhi (1708-1785). Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734) had died not so long ago. The last truly Venetian artist was probably Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) and it is generally accepted that with him disappeared the great painters who worked in a typical Venetian style. The Republic of Venice disappeared almost together with Guardi in 1797. Cesare Ligari made his painting of the ‘Brazen Serpent’ based on a picture that Tiepolo had made in 1735 for the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano in Venice.

The structure of the picture is typical of Tiepolo and Ligari enhanced the dramatic effect. There is indeed a giant epic breadth in the ‘Brazen Serpent’. One remarks first the powerful movement of lines going from the people assailed by serpents to the magician Moses, holding the high trunk of a tree with the symbol of the serpent. The standard is in the form of a cross so that the triumph of Christ is implicit in the painting.

More than in other pictures, Moses is here the magician who conjures the elements. He stands on a hill with his cloaks flowing in the wind. He raises his long thin staff high and thus commands the scene, the people and the elements. He holds with his other hand the heavy but slender, hastily assembled standard of wood with the sign of the serpent that may save the Israelites. This wood is many times longer than Moses is, but with a supernatural power Moses keeps the sign upright. His face radiates and long golden lines emanate from his face. He truly dominates nature, the people, the divine wind and the landscape. Of all the figures he is the only one to stand and to defy the tumult. He is the only one who can save from total destruction and his power comes from the cross of God. The ‘Brazen Serpent’ is a view that is difficult to forget and Ligari has been able to bring full epic élan to his picture, such as we find in very few other grandiose images. Moses is caught in a dramatic act of high tension and pathos.

The long, oblique line of Israelites pushing on to Moses enhances Moses’ dominance. But the people are only crawling over the ground to Moses. Here are the terror-stricken Israelites, men, women and children, clutching to each other and yet each in the solitude of horror and pain, reaching out for the only possible saviour amidst the unleashed natural elements. The picture is painted in soft pastel colours, as Tiepolo loved. But Ligari rendered all detail splendidly and with much talent. That detail is also very passionate. Ligari showed contorted naked bodies surrounded by snakes that crawl over and around the bodies. Men are trying to throw off the serpents in frantic gestures of horror. Frightened mothers cling their children to them in vain protection. Men with powerful nude backs have been bitten by the snakes and fall to the earth. The serpents wind around the people and these are caught in a scene of terrifying horror. The serpents bite and the red colour of blood is preponderant among the people.

Cesare Ligari tempered somewhat this craving. He painted a long tent of the Hebrew camp behind the people so that a more horizontal view was created, consisting of the line of the top of the tent and the line of the top of the hill ridge on which Moses is standing. These lines form a horizontal separation between the ground and the sky. Ligari even underscored the drama of the scene by depicting the people and Moses so small as figures against the vast sky. Also, all the people are part of the ground. Only Moses grows out of them, reaches to the skies and thus forms more part of the heavens than of the lowly scene of the miserable Israelites. Moses represents the craving of the people for salvation and redemption. Ligari obtained a grand sense of drama in this way. Finally, he also pictured in a smaller group of Israelites on the right. The eyes and the direction of the bodies of these also go to Moses so that he stands in the cross of two intersecting lines, drawing even more the attention of the viewer to his conjuring figure.

Ligari painted trees to the left and the right so that the view opens in the centre to create the vastness of space behind Moses. He set the viewer low against the sky, to make the viewer feel that he is part of the suffering people, far more than part of the grand nature that dominates the picture.

Cesare Ligari is not such a well-known painter, but he was a man of talent and he grasped in a very emotional way the epic drama of the scene of the ‘Brazen Serpent’ of Moses.

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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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