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The Tablets with the Law

Moses receives the Tables of the Law

Anonymous – Abbey of Saint Savin – Saint Savin, France. Second half of the eleventh century.

At Rephidim where the Israelites had arrived after passing the desert of Sin, the Amalekites attacked Israel. Moses asked Joshua to engage Amalek while Moses, Aaron and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Moses kept his arms raised and as long as he did that, the Hebrews had the advantage. When Moses lowered his arms because he grew tired, the Israelites had to give way. In the end, Aaron and the others had to support Moses’ arms to stay up. Joshua defeated Amalek G38 .

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law was a Midianite priest. He had taken back Moses’ wife Zipporah and Moses’ two children called Gershom and Eliezer. Now he joined Moses. Jethro heard all that had happened to the Israelites. He blessed Yahweh, offered a burnt offering and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came and ate with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God. Until then Moses had spoken justice over the Israelites. But Jethro saw that Moses could not do all that alone by himself. Jethro urged Moses to appoint judges and to teach them the statues and laws and to show them the way they ought to follow and how they ought to behave. Moses took his father-in-law’s advice and did just as he had said. He chose capable men from Israel and put them in charge of the people. These acted as the people’s permanent judges.

The Israelites again set out from Rephidim, three months after leaving Egypt. They reached the desert of Sinai and set up camp in the desert, facing the mountain. There, Yahweh called Moses to the mountain and he said, ‘If you are really prepared to obey me and keep my covenant, you, out of all peoples, shall be my personal possession, for the whole world is mine. For me you shall be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation G38 .’

At daybreak, two days later, there were pearls of thunder and flashes of lightning, dense cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast. In the camp, all the people trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God. Mount Sinai was entirely wrapped in smoke. Yahweh had descended in the form of fire. Then Yahweh spoke to Moses. The people of Israel were not allowed to come up the mountain. Moses climbed to the top. God then gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. He also told Moses to build an altar and burn sacrifices. Moses received instructions for the building of a sanctuary. Aaron and his sons were to be installed as priests of Israel. Yahweh thus delivered the Law of Israel to Moses. He gave to Moses the stone tablets with the Law and the commandments, written for the instruction of Israel. The tablets of stone were written by the finger of God. The glory of Yahweh stayed in the cloud that covered the mountain. Moses put all Yahweh’s words in writing, built an altar at the foot of the mountain and gave the laws to the elders of the people G38 .

‘Moses receiving the Tables of the Law’ is one of the over sixty scenes in the nave of the Romanesque abbey church of Saint Savin. The frescoes are very old. The preservation of the pictures of Saint Savin is almost a miracle. All Romanesque important churches were filled once with polychrome paintings. Saint Savin is one of the very rare examples of a church in which so many pictures of the eleventh century have survived. Colours have almost completely faded at Saint Savin except the red, yellow and ochre colours, but the drawings and the designs are sufficiently clear for us to recognise the scenes.

In the fresco of ‘Moses receiving the Tables of the Law’, God stands in the middle of the scene in a mandorla, an almond-shaped aura. This mandorla is a very ancient Byzantine symbol. The radiation of God or Jesus was thus represented in a tradition that continued into the Renaissance, as a symbol of the divinity. God stands barefooted on green ground. He has around his head a nimbus in crucifix form and he is clothed in a white toga and an ochre cloak in the Byzantine or Roman way. The painters of the eleventh century in France continued to use these ancient images of Roman times to indicate the noblest dignity, even though the Romans had been replaced in Gaul by the Franks since many centuries already. God hands over the tables of the Law to Moses. Two commands, the most important ones, are written on the tablets: ‘Deum Adora’ or ‘You shall adore God’ and ‘Non occides’, ‘You shall not kill’. Moses receives the tables and according to medieval representation of religious hierarchies, he is shown smaller and in a lower position than God. The early painters of Saint Savin were not after realism; they interpreted reality according to the religious vision of their time. Around Moses and God the anonymous artists painted four angels with long trumpets, resembling somewhat the Jewish zofars for the instruments are slightly curved. This whole scene is set against a green background that has almost disappeared.

The pictures of Saint Savin are very old, but the figures of Moses and God are very well drawn and the scene is lively. The artists may have lacked the skill of the later Italian geniuses like Giotto, but more than representing beauty and keen observation of nature the Saint Savin artists wanted to tell stories in a clear and simple way. God and Moses look to each other and the artists caught vivaciously the act at the very moment of the handing over of the tables. The scene is thus not static and we must admire the efficiency with which the artisans of Saint Savin, who had probably very little instruction in the techniques of artistic representation, took and then captured in lines and colours the very meaning and immediacy of the scene. The painters of Saint-Savin had not yet mastered essential techniques that would be discovered in the late Gothic and in the Renaissance. They did not know yet how to create volume and depth, how to set figures in realistic landscapes and in architectures. They only applied a crude form of chiaroscuro to give volume to their figures and their drawings remained very two-dimensional. But they were master storytellers.

The mandorla is decorated with a pearl-like border and it also has a white flame-like decoration around it to indicate the divine rays. The painters of Saint Savin were only artisans, but they had read their Bible with great attention. They also knew symbols used in Europe that were of Roman and Byzantine tradition. They could not have been just local artisans. They were people with education, people who could read Latin, the only language in which the Bible could be read in the eleventh century. They must have seen many other pictures in other churches or monuments. Therefore they must have been professionals who went from church to church, who were known in the religious community for their trade, who could be contacted and who had reached some degree of fame in their time. These artists knew how to introduce action in a scene and how to narrate to the delight of the viewers and their commissioners. They also had a keen eye for detail as can be shown in the way they painted the feathers of the angel on the left of our scene. This was a sign these artists were becoming slowly conscious of the beauty of detail when enough patience could be given to a fresco. We know that Roman painting of frescoes and Roman mosaic artists knew all these qualities of art, but much of that knowledge was lost in the five hundred years that separated Roman times from the Saint Savin period. But we see in Saint Savin revive a new search and taste for art.

‘Moses receiving the Tables of the Law’ is one of the best-preserved scenes in the nave of the church of Saint Savin, one of the liveliest and among its best.

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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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