Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Brazen Serpent

Miniature Altarpiece with the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Crucifixion and Moses with the Brazen Serpent
Dutch, Early 16th Century
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
John 3:14-21  Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B

What is this serpent lifted up by Moses in the desert that Jesus refers to when speaking to Nicodemus?  Well, since the earliest years Christians have seen this incident, described in the Book of Numbers, as a metaphor or sign of the Crucifixion of Jesus.  As described in the Book of Numbers:
“From Mount Hor the children of Israel set out on the Red Sea road,
to bypass the land of Edom.
But with their patience worn out by the journey,
the people complained against God and Moses,
"Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,
where there is no food or water?
We are disgusted with this wretched food!"

In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,
which bit the people so that many of them died.
Then the people came to Moses and said,
"We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.
Pray the LORD to take the serpents away from us."
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,
"Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,
and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live."
Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,
and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent
looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”
Numbers 21:4-9

This bronze serpent, often called the brazen serpent, set on a pole by Moses and lifted up so that that those who had been bitten could view it, has been interpreted as a prefiguration of the body of Jesus, lifted up on the Cross.  Where the bronze serpent cured those who looked at it of the effects of deadly snakebite, the body of Jesus (the Son of Man) on the Cross will cure those who look at it and believe in Him of the greatest death, the permanent death of the soul.  Belief in the One lifted up will lead to Eternal Life for those who look and believe. 
 
Moses and the Brazen Serpent
From Orations by Gregory Nazianzenus
Byzantine (Constantinople), 11th-12th Centuries
Paris, Bibliotheque natinale de France
MS Coislin 239, fol. 18
Christian artists embraced the significance of this image from Saint John’s Gospel and produced many visual works that reminded viewers of the significance of this idea.  I think that it is fair to say that behind each image of the brazen serpent, lies the text of this Sunday’s Gospel. 

Most images present the Old Testament text from Numbers without much adornment and without needing to hammer home the analogy to the Crucifix.  In fact, they set the serpent, often conceived of as dragon-headed, with ears and sometimes wings, on top of a column or pedestal, instead of hung on a pole.  
Moses and the Brazen Serpent
From a Picture Bible
French (Saint-Omer), c. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol.  6v

Enameled Plaque of Moses and the Brazen Serpent
Mosan, c. 1160
London, Victoria and Albert Museum























Frequently, additional figures beside Moses and his brother Aaron are shown.  These figures often are entangled with the biting serpents, or hold out parts of their bodies that have been bitten, asking for healing.


Enameled Plaque of Moses and the Brazen Serpent
German, c. 1200
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art




(A word about the depiction of Moses.  He is frequently shown with what look like horns coming from his head.  This motif, which seems very strange to our eyes, is common from the middle ages through the Renaissance.  (See, for instance, the great statue of Moses by Michelangelo now in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome.)  It is due to the fact that when Saint Jerome was preparing the Latin translation of the Hebrew Old Testament he used the word “cornuta” or “horned” to translate the reference in Exodus 34:29 to the radiance which shone from Moses face after he had been on Mount Sinai with God for the second time to receive the second set of the tablets of the Law.  In short, they represent not horns, but rays of light.)  


Moses and the Brazen Serpent
From a Book of Hours
German (Bamberg), c. 1204-1219
New York, Pierpont
MS M739. fol. 16v
Here the figures wear the traditional pointed hats that indicate Jewish identity in medieval Europe.  In this image, which is at once both somewhat comical and nightmarishly terrifying, some of the sufferers are actively being bitten by snakes, which are wrapping themselves around them and biting at mouths, eyes, nose and throat. 

Moses and the Brazen Serpent
German, c. 1240
Soest, Evangelical Church of Saint Mary
Moses and the Brazen Serpent
From the Psalter of Saint Louis
French (Paris), c. 1270
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10525, fol. 37v























(Both of the above images combine the story of Brazen Serpent with the incident in which Moses strikes water from the rock.  See "Water from the Rock".)

Michiel van der Borch, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
From Rhimebible by Jacob van Maerlant
Dutch (Utrectht), 1332
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS MMW 10 B 21, fol. 35r
Moses and the Brazen Serpent
From Histoires bibliques
French (Saint-Quentin), 1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 1753, fol. 48v
Jean Bandol and Others, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
From Grande Bible Historiale Completee
French (Paris), c. 1371-1372
The Hague, Meeromano Museum,
MS MMW 10 B 23, fol.90r

Moses and the Brazen Serpent
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9, fol. 179v























Bible Masters of the First Generation, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1430
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 38, dl1, fol.  103v

Jan Joest von Kalkar, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
Dutch, 1508
Kalkar, Catholic Paris Church of Saint Nicholas
Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Brazen Serpent
Italian, 1511
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel
Anthony van Dyck, The Brazen Serpent
Flemish, c. 1618-1620
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Peter Paul Rubens, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
Flemish, c. 1634-1640
London, National Gallery
Tapestry After Charles Le Brun, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
French, c. 1686
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Brass Tobacco Box with Moses and the Brazen Serpent
Dutch, 18th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Corrado Giaquinto, the Brazen Serpent
Italian, c. 1743-1744
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Corrado Giaquinto, The Brazen Serpent
Italian, c. 1749-1751
Rome, Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
Here Corrado Giaquinto used the same basic composition
in two paintings, with different color effects,
to produce two very different looking paintings.

























Some images, however, do include a reference to the foreshadowing of the Crucifixion, either by direct juxtaposition, or by some sort of allusion.  One of the primary, as one of the earliest, is in making the "pole" on which the serpent is displayed, into a cruciform shape, with a crossbar, instead of the simple pole referred to in the biblical text.  

Agnolo Bronzino, The Brazen Serpent
Italian, c. 1542
Florence, Palazzo Vecchio, Cappella di Eleonora
 
Moses and the Brazen Serpent
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1547-155
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1429, fol. 37
Johann Brabender, The Brazen Serpent
German, 1546
Hildesheim, Catholic Church of Saint Anthony






















Maarten van Heemskerck, The Brazen Serpent
Flemish, 1549
Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Art Museum
The miniature from the Book of Hours above and the painting by Heemskerck at left illustrate the impact that the discovery of the already famous statue of Laocoon and His Sons had on artists.  The statue was known from preserved ancient texts before it was found in the ruins of the Baths of Trajan on January 10, 1506.  Its horrifying image, taken from the history of the Trojan War, of struggling human figures in the coils of a strong sea serpent had an enormous impact on artists from the date of its discovery.
Athanodorus, Agesandrus and Polidorus of Rhodes,
Laocoon and His Sons
Roman, 40-20 BC
Vatican City, Museo Pio Clementino, Cortile del Belvedere






















Vincenzo Danti, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
Italian, 1559
Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Maarten de Vos, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
Flemish, 1569
Celle, Castle Chapel
Moses and the Brazen Serpent Glass Panel
German, 17th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Hans Hacke, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
German, 1612
Stendal, Evangelical Church of Saint James





Peter Paul Rubens, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
Flemish, c. 1609-1610
London, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery





















Sebastien Bourdon, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
French, c. 1653-1654
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Luca Giordano, Erection of the Brazen Serpent
Italian, c. 1703-1704
Naples, Certosa di San Martino
Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, Moses
and the Brazen Serpent
Italian, 1707
Venice, San Moise
Johann Jacob Stevens, The Brazen Serpent
Czech, c. 1718-1725
Ossegg, Convent Chapel of the Assumption




























Jean Charles Frontier, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
French, c. 1750
Gray, Musee Baron Martin
Charles Francois-Hutin, The Brazen Serpent
French, 1753
Dresden, Holy Trinity Catholic Church

























William Blake, Moses Erecting the Brazen Serpent
English, c. 1800-1803
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts


James Tissot, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
French,c. 1896-1902
New York, Jewish Museum

Some images went further.  They made a direct juxtaposition of the brazen serpent and Christ upon the Cross.

Foot of the Same Chalice with Moses and the Brazen Serpent
German, c. 1201-1225
Hildesheim, Papal Basilica of Saint Godehard
Bowl of Chalice showing the Crucifixion
German, c. 1201-1225
Hildesheim, Papal Basilica of Saint Godehard






















Chalice with Crucifixion on the Knob and Moses and the Brazen Serpent on the Foot
German, c. 1230-1250
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cloisters Collection
Bedford Master and Workshop, Crucifixion
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 111v
Here the image of Moses and the Brazen Serpent is found in the lower left corner.  

Hugo van der Goes, Calvary Triptych
Flemish, c. 1465-1468
Ghent, Cathedral of Saint Bavo
Here the Brazen Serpent story if found in the right hand panel.
One of the most common ways in which this direct juxtaposition was transmitted was through works such as the Biblia pauperum, which divided the history of salvation into three eras:  Before the Law, that is stories from the Books of Genesis and Exodus; Under the Law, that is the remainder of the books of the Old Testament; and Under Grace, that is the books of the New Testament.   The sample shown here compares the Crucifixion with the Sacrifice of Isaac, in which before the Law Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at God’s command and is stopped at the last minute by an angel, and the setting up of the brazen serpent by Moses, under the Law.  The Crucifixion is under Grace and is the lifting up of God’s son as He willingly accepts a sacrificial death to save mankind.
Rambures Master, Sacrifice of Isaac, Crucifixion of Jesus, Moses and the Brazen Serpent
From a Biblia pauperumFrench (Amiens), c. 1470
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS MMW 10 A 15, fol. 32r
In this enameled pyx (a sacred vessel for storing the consecrated hosts after Mass), one side depicts Moses and the Brazen Serpent, while the other side depicts the episode of “Doubting Thomas” when the resurrected Jesus encourages the doubting disciple, Thomas, to probe His wounds to prove that He is alive and no ghost.
Enamel Pyx with Moses and the Brazen Serpent
French, c. 1501
Ratingen, Private Collection
Enamel Pyx with The Risen Christ Displaying His Wounds
to Doubting Thomas
French, c. 1501
Ratingen, Private Collection

























The early Protestant reformers adopted the image of the Brazen Serpent to emphasize their belief that one is saved solely through grace and belief, without necessarily engaging in good works.  Lucas Cranach the Younger produced what might be considered a painted manifesto of this idea in his rather odd painting known as the Weimar Altarpiece.  
Lucas Cranach the Younger, The Weimar Altarpiece, Center
German, 1555
Weimar, Stadtkirch Sankt Peter und Paul
In it we see Jesus in the foreground twice.  He is shown as the Crucified, lifted on the cross.  Blood pours from His wounds as in a standard Catholic Crucifixion scene.  However, one stream from His side projects out and curves so as to hint that it will hit Martin Luther squarely in the face, a possible sign of divine approbation.  Luther stands to the right of the picture, his finger pointing to a passage in an open book, presumably his translation of the Bible.  Behind him stands Lucas Cranach the Elder, the painter’s father, who may have been an early convert to Luther’s point of view (there is some uncertainty about this because, while producing work for Luther, he also continued to produce works of art with a Catholic viewpoint).  Behind Cranach is a figure that is usually interpreted as John the Baptist, wearing a red cloak, the symbol of martyrdom, over his goatskin clothing.  He points up at the Crucified Christ and down at the Paschal Lamb.  At the left of the painting we see Jesus again, as the Risen Savior, triumphing over Death and a monstrous devil.  In the central background we see Moses delivering the tablets of the Law to the people, while a skeletal figure chases a near naked man away from the group.  Above the heads of Luther, Cranach and John the Baptist we see the episode of Moses setting up the Brazen Serpent.  Nothing in the painting, however, is actually at odds with Catholic beliefs, apart from the inclusion of Cranach and Luther.  Cranach, however, through his prayerful gesture hints at the common Catholic practice of including living donors in prayer before sacred figures.  Again, we are left in doubt about Cranach’s real intentions


In Cristobal de Villalpando’s immense altarpiece for the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Puebla, Mexico, there is little ambiguity, but there is a surprise.  Villalpando chooses to compare the episode of the lifting up of the Brazen Serpent, not to the usual Crucifixion scene, but to the lifting up of Jesus during the Transfiguration.  The theme is reinforced by the fact that his figure of Moses in the Transfiguration scene, is holding a staff with a winged snake, just like the one in the scene below.  
Cristobal de Villalpando, Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus
Mexican, 1683
Puebla, Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Immaculada Concepcion


Franz Georg Hermann, The Glorification of Divine Wisdom
German, c. 1755-1757
Bad Schussenried, New Convent Library
In the painting above, made for a Catholic convent, Moses and the Brazen Serpent is seen just to the right of the Crucified Jesus, while in the painting below, made for a Protestant church, the two are presented directly opposite each other at the narrow ends of the ceiling.  By the eighteenth century there was no difference in the iconography, just as before the Reformation.
Johann Nepomuk Nieberlein, Ceiling
German, 1774
Dinkelsbuehl, Evangelical Hospital Church

The Biblical Aftermath


While the story of the setting up of the Brazen Serpent and its connection to the Crucifixion are fairly common in the history of art, there is a small body of works that record the after effects.  All of them date to the fourteenth century. 
Hezekiah Destroys the Brazen Serpent
From Histoires bibliques
French (Saint-Quentin), 1350
Paris, Bibliotheque natinale de France
MS Francais 1753, fol. 107v

Apparently, the bronze serpent on a pole, set up by Moses, was preserved after the Israelites settled down and, over time, became an object of cult worship.  However, the pious king of Judah, Hezekiah, who ruled during a period in which Jerusalem was besieged by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in the eighth century BC, destroyed such cult objects.  As Second Book of Kings tells the story:

Hezekiah Destroys the Brazen Serpent
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), 14th-15th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 159, fol. 166





“In the third year of Hoshea, son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah, became king.
He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi, daughter of Zechariah.
He did what was right in the LORD’s sight, just as David his father had done.
It was he who removed the high places, shattered the pillars, cut down the asherah, and smashed the bronze serpent Moses had made, because up to that time the Israelites were burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)


Jean Bandol and Others, Hezekiah Ordering the Smashing of the
Brazen Serpent
French (1371-1372)
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS MMW 10 B 23m 184

He put his trust in the LORD, the God of Israel; and neither before nor after him was there anyone like him among all the kings of Judah.
Hezekiah held fast to the LORD and never turned away from following him, but observed the commandments the LORD had given Moses.”
2 Kings 18:1-6

Presumably, the people had lost track of the real meaning of the Brazen Serpent and were worshipping it as an idol in its own right and not as a helpful sign of God's love and protection.










© M. Duffy, 2018

  1. Mellinkoff, Ruth.  The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1970.
  2. Harrison, Jefferson C.  “The Brazen Serpent” by Maarten van Heemskerck:  Aspects of Its Style and Meaning, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Volume 49, 1990, pp. 16-29.



Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.








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