Sunday, March 19, 2017

Water From the Rock

Moses Striking the Rock
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c.1547-1559
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1429, fol. 45r

“In those days, in their thirst for water,
the people grumbled against Moses,
saying, "Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?
Was it just to have us die here of thirst
with our children and our livestock?"
So Moses cried out to the LORD,
"What shall I do with this people?
a little more and they will stone me!"
The LORD answered Moses,
"Go over there in front of the people,
along with some of the elders of Israel,
holding in your hand, as you go,
the staff with which you struck the river.
I will be standing there in front of you on the rock in Horeb.
Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it
for the people to drink."
This Moses did, in the presence of the elders of Israel.
The place was called Massah and Meribah,
because the Israelites quarreled there
and tested the LORD, saying,
"Is the LORD in our midst or not?"

(Exodus 17:3-7) First Reading for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A

From its early days Christianity has been a religion of images, in spite of the anti-image rhetoric and actions of some Christians over its two-thousand-year span.  Images have told the stories of the Bible, both of the Old Testament and the New, even before the canon of the New Testament was finally determined.

One of the ways in which images were used was to remind the faithful and those who were investigating the faith of the stories that they heard in the liturgies in which they participated.  These stories were drawn from the Old Testament and from the new books that were beginning to be recognized as of equivalent inspiration and value, what we now call the New Testament.  Frequently, the stories of persons or events from the Old Testament were seen as precursors or pre-figurations or “types” of persons and events from the New.  For example, the story of Jonah and the Whale was seen as a pre-figuration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. 1
Moses Striking the Rock
Roman, Early 3rd Century
Rome, Catacomb of Saint Callixtus

One of the stories represented on an early painting from the catacomb of Saint Callixtus in the 3rd Century is that of Moses Striking the Rock (Exodus 17:3-7), which is the First Reading for the Third Sunday of Lent in Year A and is also the First Reading used during the Third Sunday of Lent in Years B and C, when catechumens who are preparing for Baptism at Easter Vigil are present.   This story, in which Moses brings water out of desert rock, is on its original level a great sign of God’s love for His people, sustaining them and giving them life.
Watercolor Copy of Wall Painting with Biblical Scenes
Roman, 4th Century
Rome, Catacomb under the Vigna Massimo

On a more developed level, when seen in the light provided by the Gospel, it becomes also the symbol or type for Christian participation in the new life in Christ offered through Baptism, the Eucharist and the Church.  Therefore, in an early 4th Century painting in the catacomb of the Vigna Massimo, we see the image of Moses striking the rock in the upper left corner of a wall painting that presents some of the most important stories of the Old and New Testaments, including in the upper register:  Christ Dividing Loaves, Adoration of the Magi, Susanna, Noah, the Raising of Lazarus; and in the lower register: Daniel, Tobias with the Fish, the Healing of the Paralytic, Job.  It is particularly interesting that Moses Striking the Rock is shown as a sort of pair to the Raising of Lazarus, both are large figural images in more or less the same, outer edge, position in the composition. 2   

"Sarcophagus of the Apostles"
Roman, 346-355
Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano

This pairing was repeated in the so-called “Apostles Sarcophagus” dating to the mid-fourth Century at the Museo Nazionale Romano.  The sarcophagus presents the Adoration of the Magi and the story of Jonah in the upper rim level and images of the Apostles and three miracles of Jesus in the lower level.  At the lower level corners, clearly posed as terminations to the other images in that level because they both face out of the sequence, looking outward from the two front corners, are Moses Striking the Rock on the left and the Raising of Lazarus on the right.  Thus we see that the early Christians saw the connection between the miracle of the water in Exodus as a prefiguration of the new life resulting from Baptism and as related to the resurrection of Lazarus, in which he also was raised to a new life.

Moses Striking the Rock and Angel at the Tomb
From the Orations of Gregory Nazianzus
Byzantine (Constantinople), c. 879-882
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Grec 510, fol. 226v

Similarly, artists followed the typological thinking of the early Church Fathers.  A ninth-century Byzantine painter saw the connection between Moses/Baptism and Resurrection, when he included the two scenes on the same page in an illustrated copy of the Orations of Saint Gregory Nazianzus.  In the upper register we find the image of Moses Striking the Rock.  In the lower register, an angel appears to the tomb guards and they flee in panic.

During the Middle Ages in western Europe the story of Moses striking the rock and bringing forth water was told primarily as an illustration of the Exodus text, minus the more resonant imagery of the early period.

Moses Striking the Rock
German, c. 1170
Gröningen, Benedictine Monastery Church of Saint Cyriacus, Chapel
Although difficult to see because of the wear of centuries this image shows Moses at left striking a large rock at the center.  At the right an Isrealite man and woman drink.

Moses Striking the Rock
From the Bible of Clement VII
Italian (Bologna), End of 13th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18, fol. 53v

Medieval images frequently show Moses with what appear to be horns.  This is an attempt to represent the beams of light which shone from his face following his encounter with God on Mount Sinai.

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Moses Striking the Rock
From a Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1300-1325
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 156, fol. 59v

Moses Striking the Rock
From a Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1300-1325
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 160, fol. 55

Claes Brouwer, Moses Striking the Rock
From a History Bible
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1430
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 38-Dl1, fol. 57v
This unusual image not only is done in grisaille (with little color) but also shows the rock as a separate slab lying on the ground, not as an outcrop.

Master of the Boéce Flamand, Moses in Prayer (top) and Moses Striking the Rock
From Jewish Antiquities by Flavius Josephus
Flemish (Bruges), 1483
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 11, fol. 64

However, the connection between Baptism, Eucharist and Resurrection was not lost entirely.  It continued in the tradition of the Biblia pauperum, an illustrated book that was the most widely read of all books intended for the laity, with the exception of the Book of Hours, which was the lay prayer book.  The Biblia pauperum taught its readers through a three-tiered series of images.  Central to each set of images were scenes “Under Grace”, that is from the New Testament, to the left of the center were scenes from “Before the Law”, that is from the Book of Genesis and on the right were scenes from “Under the Law”, that is from the other books of the Old Testament.   The scenes which interest us here were those that included Moses Striking the Rock.  These were “Before the Law”, the creation of Eve from the side of Adam; “Under Grace”, the centurion pointing to the wound of the lance in Christ’s side as He hung on the cross; and “Under the Law”, Moses striking the rock.

Rambures Master, Creation of Eve, Christ's Pierced Side, Moses Striking the Rock
from a Biblia pauperum
French (Hesdin or Amiens), c. 1470
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 A 15, fol. 32v

These are interrelated in a famous catechesis of Saint John Chrysostom, which is still read today as part of the Office for Good Friday, which reads in part:
“…The gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood. Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood of the holy Eucharist. The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it. 

There flowed from his side water and blood. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you. I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy Eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit, and from the holy Eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh! As God then took a rib from Adam`s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and water after his own death…” 3

And the entry into the Church through Baptism had its prefiguration in the water that Moses struck from the rock at God’s command.

Images of this event from the Renaissance through the modern period are not as explicit about the connections, but there is often a connection in how these works of art were placed, especially when commissioned for the decoration of churches.   All focus on the element of water and on the figure of Moses and his actions.  Some artists, such as Jordaens and Poussin, returned to the subject multiple times.

Jan Snellinck, Moses Striking the Rock
Flemish, c. 1575-1600
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Jacob Jordaens. Moses Striking the Rock
Flemish, c. 1618-1620
Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle

Joachim Wtewael, Moses Striking the Rock
Dutch, 1624
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Nicolas Poussin, Moses Striking the Rock
French, c. 1630s
Edinburgh, Private Collection

Jacob Jordaens, Moses Striking the Rock
Flemish, c. 1645-1650
Los Angeles, Getty Center

Nicolas Poussin, Moses Striking the Rock
French, 1649
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Jan Victors, Moses Striking the Rock
Dutch, 1655-1676
Private Collection

Charles Le Brun, Moses Striking the Rock
French, c. 1660
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Jan Steen, Moses Striking the Rock
Dutch, c. 1660-1661
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Corrado Giaquinto, Moses Striking the Rock
Modello for mural in S. Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome
Italian, c. 1743-1744
London, National Gallery

Jacques-Francois Amand, Moses Striking the Rock
French, c. 1760
Dijon, Musée Magnin

Atelier Charles Lorin, Moses Striking the Rock
French, c. 1912-1914
New York, Church of St. Jean Baptiste

Marc Chagall, Moses Striking the Rock
Franco-Russian, 1960-1966
Nice, Musée national Marc Chagall

In the majority of images, the emphasis is on the action of Moses and the flow of the water.  However, some images, dating to the first century after the breakup of Christianity at the so-called Reformation, present a darker image.  They treat the event in a very different way than earlier or later artists.  In these images the action of Moses and the springing of the water from the rock is not the central image.  Indeed, Moses and the spring are often actually difficult to locate.  The emphasis is on the people and their reaction to the event, far more than one sees in somewhat similar paintings.  There is some controversy about what this short-lived aberration may mean and whether it is in some way a comment or reflection on the religious turmoil of Europe at the time. 4

Lucas van Leyden, Moses and the Isrealites after the Miracle of Water from the Rock
Dutch, 1527
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Gillis Mostaert, Moses and the Isrealites after the Miracle of Water from the Rock
Flemish, c. 1560
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Abraham Bloemaert, Moses Striking the Rock
Dutch, 1596
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hendrick van Balen and Jan Bruegher I, Moses and the Isrealites after the Miracle of Water from the Rock
Flemish, c. 1610-1615
Private Collection

Gioacchino Assereto, Moses and the Israelites after the Miracle of Water from the Rock
Italian, c. 1640
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

One other work stands out in a unique way.  This is the monumental Roman fountain, called the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice.  The fountain stands in the Piazza San Bernardo, just across from the church of Santa Maria della Victoria which houses the famous Cornaro Chapel of Gianlorenzo Bernini.  Both monuments are famous, but for different reasons.  Bernini’s work is one of the most sublime creations of the Baroque.  The fountain is famous because it is so ugly.  Constructed on the orders of Pope Sixtus V and built between 1585 and 1589, it was planned as the terminus of the first new aqueduct to enter Rome since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Acqua Felice.  Sixtus was proud of his efforts to improve the lives of the people of Rome and commissioned this fountain to commemorate it.  No doubt Sixtus visualized himself as a new Moses, by providing clean water.

Domenico Fontana, Prospero Antichi and Leonardo Sormani  Fontana dell'Acqua Felice
Italian, c. 1585-1588
Rome, Piazza San Bernardo

The monumental triumphal arch was the work of the architect Domenico Fontana, who also completed the great dome of St. Peter’s, left unfinished at the death of Michelangelo, and who added the lantern at its top.  The center niche of the arch is filled by a statue of Moses which has borne the reputation of ugliness since the day it was unveiled.  It is an object lesson in the perils of artistic cooperation, for apparently one sculptor modeled it in clay and began cutting it in marble, but found his skills not up to the task.  Another sculptor completed it.  The result is a huge and ungainly body topped by a too small head.  5  The visual effect is quite unpleasant.

Prospero Antichi and Leonardo Sormani, Moses
Fontana dell'Acqua Felice
Italian, c. 1585-1589
Rome, Piazza San Bernardo

It is easy to see why the Church pairs the reading of this portion of Exodus, with the array of meanings with which it has been associated, with the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Lent, the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, during which Jesus reveals Himself as the true source of “living water”.  He is the true rock from which the water of life springs (1 Corinthians 10:1-5) and the fulfillment of the promise which the story in Exodus foreshadows. 

© M. Duffy, 2017

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
  1. Lee M. Jefferson, “Picturing Theology: A Primer on Early Christian Art”, pp. 410-425 @
  2. For baptismal reference see:  Ethel Ross Barker, “The Symbolism of Certain Catacomb Frescoes-I”, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 24, No. 127 (Oct., 1913), p. 47
  3. From the Catechesis of Saint John Chrysostom @
  4. Lawrence A. Silver, “The Sin of Moses: Comments on the Early Reformation in a Late Painting by Lucas van Leyden”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Sep., 1973), pp. 401-409.
  5. Steven F. Ostrow, “The Discourse of Failure in Seventeenth-Century Rome: Prospero Bresciano's "Moses", The Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, No. 2 (Jun., 2006), pp. 267-291.

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