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Moses saved from the Waters

Moses saved from the Waters

Paolo Caliari called Il Veronese (1528-1588). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Lyon. Around 1581.

A new Pharaoh came in Egypt, who had heard nothing of Joseph and how the Hebrews had come to the land. He found that the Israelites had grown more numerous and stronger than the Egyptians so that they had become a danger for the state. He tried to diminish the children of Israel by appealing to the Hebrew midwives to kill the male new-borns. The scheme did not work out, so finally Pharaoh gave the command to his own people to throw every newborn boy of Israel into the river but to let the girls live.

A woman of the tribe of Levi, who had married a man of Levi, conceived and hid her boy. When she could hide him no longer, she put him in a papyrus basket that she had coated with bitumen and pitch and she laid the basket among the reeds at the river’s edge. The boy’s sister looked from a distance.

Pharaoh’s daughter bathed in the river and she noticed the basket among the reeds. She knew it was a Hebrew boy, but she felt sorry for it. She told one of her maids to take the child away and to nurse it. When the child grew up, Pharaoh’s daughter took the boy to her, treated him like a son and called him Moses because she drew him out of the waters G38 .

Paolo Veronese was not the first artist to make a painting on the theme of ‘Moses saved from the waters of the Nile’. But his picture was best known and copied many times. We show a work of his that is currently in the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon. Veronese made other pictures of this theme. These are now in the Prado of Madrid and in the Gemäldegalerie of Dresden.

Paolo Caliari was born in Verona and hence called Veronese but he was one of the major artists of Venice in the sixteenth century. Venice was still very wealthy then. Though the political power of the republic dwindled, trade was still very profitable and the previously accumulated capital continued to create surplus value. The Venetians poured some of their considerable income back into the embellishment of their town. The presence of the Venetians in the Mediterranean was diminishing but the magnificence of the town and its court of nobles was still remarkable and contributed now to its reputation of grandeur. Veronese painted for the Venetian courts of wealthy families that by their richness had become noble names. Paolo Veronese was with Jacopo Tintoretto the prime decorator of Venice. His courtly manners, his abilities to enhance the illusion of ever more grandeur pleased enormously. More than any other painter Veronese came to impersonate the splendour of Venice.

Paolo Veronese’s ‘Moses saved from the Waters’ is one of the finest examples of his art. Veronese did not paint the picture in his usual style of grand monuments and scenes filled with tens of figures. His subject did not permit such scenes. Veronese made a more intimate image, but one in which still the magnificence of a Venetian court was made very obvious. He was over fifty years old and maybe he had a longing for less grand but more sophisticated pictures. Therefore Veronese’s Moses scene is not set in a palace but as the story of the Bible tells, on the banks of a river. Of course, such a river scene could appeal to the Venetians who lived off the water. This was a very Venetian theme. Only the name already of Veronese’s picture must have appealed to the Venetians, who had found their lagoon and the mound in the Adriatic as Moses’ basket among the reeds. And Veronese set the scene in a Venetian court, not in Egypt.

The scene shows exactly the moment when a courtly lady finds the baby. The daughter of the noble house stands in all the splendour of her wealthy robes. She wears a white dress that catches all the light. She forms the central part of the theme and she is the focus of first attention but she stands somewhat to the left. In order to balance the scene Veronese painted a guard in a reclining poise on the right. Behind the lady he painted two slender trees and the two high double lines of these trees are also symmetrically answered by the lines of another tree on the right and by the lance of the guard. This brings symmetrical order and balance of lines in the picture.

The white and brightly-lit gold-embroidered robe of the lady continues onto the baby Moses. The servant that puts Moses in a yellow cloth has her head exactly at the intersection of the diagonals. If one looks well one sees that Moses lays protectively in the middle of the lower triangle formed by the intersection of the diagonals. This play of diagonals is delicately suggested by the pictorial elements of the picture. Thus the slanting positions of the lady and of the guard follow the directions of the diagonal lines. And below in the picture one distinguishes also the triangle that starts at the head of the servant that holds the cloth in which Moses is gently lowered. The sides of that triangle are formed by the pink coloured robes of the courtier lady that actually holds Moses and by the dwarf of the right. A black triangle of ground opens up also in this way in the lower part of the frame, forming the foundation around which the picture is built. Finally, the standing figures are situated in the two side triangles of the frame. Veronese used the strong lines of the frame and the surfaces created by these lines to base his figures in. He applied also a rich palette of strong but warm hues and even in the coloured areas one can discern symmetries around the intersection of the diagonals.

Besides the strong structure, what strikes in the picture of ‘Moses saved from the Waters’ is the richness of the court scene. All figures are richly clad in brocades, in silk and in multi-coloured dresses. The ladies wear jewels and pearls. Hair is made up elaborately. This court is dedicated to grace and outward elegance. The court has time for building the elegance. Even the lances of the guards have decorative knots and seem more to be ceremonial devices than weapons. The lady of the house is accompanied by guards, by various maidservants, among whom a black girl, and by dwarfs. These are also signs of wealth. Only the very rich could afford the extravagance of exotism. The dwarf and the black servant hold hunting dogs and puppies, details that must have pleased the Venetian viewers. The standing guard on the right also looks over his shoulder, to Moses’ sister who hides barely, close to the river. Details to be discovered always please viewers.

There is natural movement in the picture and all the skill of Veronese in composition is clear. Thus all eyes of the figures follow the diagonal that starts down right and goes upwards to the left upper corner, but the brightly-lit face of the lady holds our gaze. All eyes of the figures of the scene go to her face, in tense expectation because all depends on her. From her decision will depend whether the baby will be cared for or thrown back into the river. One servant on the left is already pleading and we know the happy outcome.

‘Moses saved from the Waters’ shows all the mature skill and splendour of Veronese’s art. This was art for the rich, made by a rich man who was confident in a society of opulence. Veronese made a masterpiece of courtly grace. But of course the picture was a scene far from the grand epic meaning of the Bible. Veronese merely used the theme of Moses to create a picture that was easily recognisable by his viewers and that was an exercise in his masterly skills of structured composition and harmony of colours. The narrative that the viewers knew, the whole setting of the tale in the epic story of the Exodus stimulated the imagination far beyond the mere image. Veronese’s art could be admired respectfully, but the viewers situated the picture in a much wider perspective. Veronese understood very well this potential of images of Bible stories whose content enhanced his own art. He made at least three pictures of this scene, refining his compositions and his rich views. Other painters followed his example so that we have now a whole series of pictures copied after this masterpiece of Venetian elegance.

Other paintings:

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