The Bronze Serpent
Oil on canvas, 331 x 205 in. (840 x 520 cm.)
Ceiling of the upper hall
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy
The painting illustrates Numbers 21:5-9. Having complained to Moses about the harsh conditions on their journey, the Israelites are punished with a plague of fatally venomous serpents. But then God relents and tells Moses to raise a brass serpent on a pole; whoever looks at the pole will be saved. Because Jesus refers to the brass serpent as a type of his own salvific crucifixion (John 3:14-15), the artist places this painting in the very center of the ceiling, with images of the Resurrection and Ascension on the side walls below it. In other words, it stands in for a painting of the Crucifixion, which is pictured separately in an adjoining room.
In the lowest register serpents bite dead and dying Israelites on their thighs. The thigh is where the first sign of bubonic plague appears on an infected person. The date of this painting coincides with one of the worst outbreaks of this plague in Venetian history (Nichols, 183). Thus the angry God pictured above the dying Israelites provides a warning to the people of Venice that their sins have caused the epidemic and the only recourse is to look to the Crucified, "that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting."
The latter is what is happening at the very top of the heap of dead and dying Israelites. One of them, though lying supine among the dead, has turned his face with open eyes toward the serpent. Above and to the right, a man looks directly at the serpent and is starting to stand. Then above him another man stands with an arm raised in acclamation, echoing the gestures of Miriam and Moses above him. To Miriam's right two worshipers kneel and pray facing the pole, and two more do so on the height above them. There is of course no kneeling in the Numbers narrative: the worshipers are modeling the conversion to Christ that the painting urges on the people of the city.
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Photographed at the site by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.