The four pictures at right illustrate the changes in the portrayal of Moses over the centuries. In the earliest Christian art he is often a beardless young man in a classical dalmatic and pallium. By the 10th century he has a beard and holds his rod, which will henceforth be one of his attributes. The high and late Middle Ages also use the tablets of the Law as an attribute and portray him with a set of horns, as in the third picture.
The horns are due to a mistranslation of the word qaran, "glowed" in Exodus 34:30. The idea is that Moses' face was "radiant" when he came down from Mount Sinai, but the Vulgate understood the Hebrew word as qeren, "sprouted horns," and had the Israelites marveling at cornutam Moysi faciem, "the horned face of Moses" (Berlin 397, Colunga and Turrado 75). For this reason horns became a conventional attribute of Moses in the art and even in medieval drama (Campbell, 579). Indeed, Lydgate's Pilgrimage of the Life of Man devotes over 300 lines to expounding the spiritual significance of Moses' horns and rod (Lydgate, lines 1573-1904).
The horns were never universal, however. They are absent in this statue of Moses from 1170. In the 12th and 13th centuries the conservatively styled mosaics at St. Marks, Venice, ignore Exodus 34:30 altogether. In the basilica's mosaic of the Fall of Manna and Water from the Rock, Moses is without horns and wears the same garments pictured in the San Vitale mosaic at right, with only a short blond beard (Vio, 26f.). And at the approach to the Temptation of Christ mosaic is a portrait of Moses holding a scroll with the replies Christ would give to Satan in the desert and wearing a turban! Molanus in 1570 cited a number medieval exegetes who had recognized that the text meant radiance and not horns, and by the 14th century we start to see a few images that have two sets of light rays emanating from Moses' head (Molanus 527-530, Berlin 272n). The rays are usually placed in the same position and at the same angle as the horns had been. They became the standard after Molanus's strenuous denunciation of the horns (ibid.), as illustrated by the fourth picture at right and this 20th-century window. Even a 19th-century Jewish portrait of Moses has the pair of rays.
Some artists fudged the issue by giving Moses two more or less horn-shaped forelocks (example).
In addition to his portraits, Moses appears very frequently in narrative images because, as Berlin puts it, "his value as a figure or type permeates literature and art" (265).
The Baby Moses in the Nile
Moses' story begins when as a baby he is placed in a basket in the Nile to avoid Pharaoh's order that all Hebrew boy babies be killed. Pharaoh's daughter finds the child and decides to adopt, choosing as his nurse a woman who she does not know is actually Moses' mother Jochebed. The earliest known image of this is one of the panels in the synagogue frescos at Dura Europos. Subsequently it became a fairly common topic in Christian art.
The Burning Bush (Exodus 4-5)
Moses was tending his father-in-law's sheep on Mount Horeb when God appeared to him as a burning bush and commissioned him to lead his people to freedom. In San Vitale, Ravenna, this event is depicted on the right wall of the space leading into the presbytery, where the Mass is celebrated. The walls feature various Old Testament prefigurations of the sacrifice of the Mass and of Christ, who was considered in some ways "the new Moses" (Jensen, Baptismal Imagery, 152).
Crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 14)
This is a popular subject because of 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, "Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. And all in Moses were baptized, in the cloud, and in the sea." Many images give the drowning Egyptians equal or greater attention than the escaping Israelites (examples: paleo-Christian sarcophagus, 15th-century fresco). But in Renaissance and Baroque images, it is the safety of the Israelites on the shore that is emphasized; the death of the Egyptians is either put in the background (example) or ignored altogether (example). Both approaches to the subject can be explained by the notion that the event prefigures baptism, in which death and sin are defeated and the new Christian enjoys the safe harbor of grace.
In celebration of God's victory over the Egyptians, Moses breaks forth into song and Miriam takes up a timbrel and leads the women in dance and chanting (image).
The Manna and the Water from the Rock (Exodus 16-17)
In Exodus 16 the Israelites complain to Moses that they have nothing to eat. Then the Lord sends them bread in the form of "manna" which "appeared in the wilderness small, and as it were beaten with a pestle, like unto the hoar frost on the ground." But by the next chapter in Exodus the people are complaining again, this time about the lack of water. So God tells Moses to strike a certain rock, and water gushes from it.
Jesus himself is responsible for the typological interpretation of the manna, in John 6:31-34:
They said therefore to him: … Our fathers did eat manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say to you; Moses gave you not bread from heaven, but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life to the world. They said therefore unto him: Lord, give us always this bread. And Jesus said to them: I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger: and he that believeth in me shall never thirst.Images that draw this relationship can be seen in medieval (example) and modern (example) contexts. Because the subject is so well suited to large canvases there was also a flurry of non-typological interest in the second half of the 16th century. (Here are examples by Palma the Younger, Tintoretto, and Corona.)
As for the water miracle, Christian exegetes took the water as a type of baptism and the rock as Christ, following 1 Corinthians 10:4, "they [the Israelites] all drank the same spiritual drink; and they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ." Jensen (Baptismal Imagery, 75, 155-56, 189-91) studies the rather small number of paleo-Christian images (one example) that seem to associate the miracle with baptism and suggest it was neglected because the crossing of the Red Sea provided a more powerful "symbol of baptismal cleansing." In medieval images the manna and Red Sea crossing continue to attract more attention, but in Tintoretto's Moses Strikes Water from the Rock the miracle is the central panel in a cycle featuring types of Baptism. At about the same time it is celebrated in Bresciano's outdoor fountain in Rome.
The Ten Commandments
In Exodus 19-32 God delivers the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, partly in the form of two tablets. In 4th-century sarcophagi Moses usually receives a scroll, God's hand is the only part of him that we see, and the mountain is suggested by just a few bulges and the position of Moses' feet (example). In this 6th-century mosaic, which covers a much larger area than a sarcophagus could, the mountain is more fully realized but the hand is still all we see and the Law is still represented by a scroll. By the time we get to Meyring's baroque altarpiece in San Moisè, Venice, God is fully portrayed, the mountain is an enormous pile behind the altar, and the Law is represented by tablets.
Another way of presenting the episode is to show Moses displaying the tablets to the Israelites (example).
The Bronze Serpent
In Numbers 21 those darn Israelites are complaining again, so God sends "saraph serpents" that bite them and kill many. Moses prays for mercy, so God says, "Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover." Moses makes a serpent of brass and mounts it on a pole, and God's promise is fulfilled. In John 3:14-15, Jesus makes this episode a type of his own crucifixion: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him, may not perish; but may have life everlasting." Images of Moses' brass serpent emphasize Jesus' interpretation by making the pole look like a cross, as in this example and this one. Tintoretto uses his painting of the episode as a substitute for a Crucifixion in the iconographic plan for the upper hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
Other Desert Episodes
One less commonly pictured episode is the investiture of Aaron and his sons (Exodus 28-29). A 10th-century ivory has Moses simply standing by while a youthful figure of Christ performs the investiture. The ivory is also interesting as a transitional portrait of Moses as an older person with a full beard but without the horns that will become conventional.
Another rather rare subject is Aaron and Miriam's questioning of Moses' authority in Numbers 12:1-15. This angers God, who calls the three together, confirms Moses' primacy, and leaves Miriam with a case of leprosy (image)
Moses was for a long time believed to be the author of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. As yet I have seen only a couple of images based on this belief. In a mosaic in Cefalù, Sicily, he is placed among a number of prophets holding scrolls representing phrases from their writings. His scroll has the first verse from the Book of Genesis. In the altarpiece at Notre-Dame de Montréal, he figures in one of four sculptures of Old Testament episodes prefiguring the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and in the Mass.
The synoptic gospels have an episode in which Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a high mountain, where "he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow" and Moses and Elijah appeared with him (Matthew 17, c.f. Mark 9 and Luke 9). In the Transfiguration mosaic at Sant'Apollinare in Clase, Moses is a young man in a classical dalmatic and pallium with a full head of blond hair and no attributes other than the label to his left. For other images of this episode see the page on the Transfiguration.
Finally, the Old Testament cycle in Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore includes a large number of panels that trace Moses's story in considerable detail.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-11-26, 2019-03-11.
Moses often appears in sarcophagi of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Here are some examples: