Aaron was the brother of Moses, who ordained him as High Priest. In Renaissance and Baroque images he typically wears the priestly garb prescribed in Exodus 28:1-38 and Leviticus 8:6-9, as in the first picture at right. Medieval images, however, mostly prefer flowing garments with a vaguely sacerdotal look. The one feature they are likely to adapt from Exodus is a horn-shaped version of the diadem
example.1 When Aaron is not pictured with a horned headpiece he will most often have a pointy "Jew's cap"
In both medieval and later portraits Aaron will sometimes have a censer, as in the first picture at right. The reference is to the narrative in Numbers 16:41-50 (NAB 17:6-13). In his anger over the Israelites' grumblings, God sends a plague upon them. Seeing many of his people dying, Moses urges Aaron to cense them and pray that they be forgiven. Aaron does so, "and the plague ceased." Christians took these actions of Aaron's to be a type of the Christian liturgy and of Christ's intercession for his Church.2 This is the idea behind the image of Aaron on this portable altar from the 11th century: In Numbers the censer narrative is followed immediately by the episode of the staffs (Numbers 17:1-10). God tells Moses to have the leader of each of the tribes give him a staff with the leader's name on it. Moses puts the staffs into the tabernacle, and the next day Aaron's staff has put forth flowers and fruit, as in the second picture at right. By this sign, God says, "I will rid myself of their grumbling." Like the censer narrative, this episode was also taken to prefigure Christ, whose staff is the Cross that "brings believers to it as its fruit."3
Some of the incidents from Exodus in which one is likely to see Aaron include the Fall of Manna (see Moses), his investiture, his brief challenge to Moses' authority, and the brass serpent. Several others are listed in Kirschbaum, s.v. "Aaron." Kirschbaum also reports that sometimes the sculptures of the prophets in medieval portals will include Aaron and his flowering staff.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.