The news that Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria is restoring artist John Herbert’s Moses Bringing Down the Tables of the Law is cause for celebration.
Moses, who lived about 1391-1271 BCE, figured in the most momentous events in Jewish history. He led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, guided them in their wanderings through the wilderness, and received the Ten Commandments from G-d on Mount Sinai.
From Jewish Virtual Library:
Moses is born during the Jewish enslavement in Egypt, during a terrible period when Pharaoh decrees that all male Hebrew infants are to be drowned at birth. His mother, Yocheved, desperate to prolong his life, floats him in a basket in the Nile. Hearing the crying child as she walks by, Pharaoh’s daughter pities the crying infant and adopts him (Exodus 2:1-10).
Moses marries Tzipporah, one of the Midianite priest’s daughters, and becomes the shepherd for his father-in-law’s flock. On one occasion, when he has gone with his flock into the wilderness, an angel of the Lord appears to him in the guise of a bush that is burning but is not consumed). The symbolism of the miracle is powerful. In a world in which nature itself is worshipped, God shows that He rules over it.
God commands…that he go to Egypt and along with his brother, Aaron, make one simple if revolutionary demand of Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” Pharaoh resists Moses’ petition, until God wreaks the Ten Plagues on Egypt, after which the children of Israel escape.
Months later, in the Sinai Desert, Moses climbs Mount Sinai and comes down with the Ten Commandments, only to discover the Israelites engaged in an orgy and worshiping a Golden Calf. ..
The law that Moses transmits to the Jews in the Torah embraces far more than the Ten Commandments. … the Jews are instructed to love God as well as be in awe of Him, to love their neighbors as themselves, and to love the stranger-that is, the non-Jew living among them-as themselves as well.
… Moses impressed his monotheistic vision upon the Jews with such force that in the succeeding three millennia, Jews have never confused the messenger with the Author of the message. As Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann has written: “in Greece, the heroes of the past were held to have been sired by a god or to have been born of a goddess … [and] in Egypt, the Pharaoh was considered divine.” But despite the extraordinary veneration accorded Moses — “there has not arisen a prophet since like Moses” is the Bible’s verdict (Deuteronomy 34:10) — no Jewish thinker ever thought he was anything other than a man.
Hopefully the restoration of this picture will provide a much-needed reminder of the origin of our laws, which form the basis of our civilization. Fairfax media reports:
Michael Varcoe-Cocks, the National Gallery of Victoria‘s head of conservation, has worn his best black sports jacket for the occasion – the unrolling of John Herbert’s 1878 epic Moses Bringing Down the Tables of the Law.
Measuring 3½ by 6½ metres, Moses is epic in its scale of ambition and, for the gallery, for the scale of conservation complexity. Painted on paper glued paper-mache-style to canvas, and stored since the middle of last century on a huge log roughly studded with half-hammered nails, the painting has been through a lot.
Herbert’s epic comes out first in a muddy brown, with dull blues and reds slowly resolving themselves into Israelites as more of the painting is revealed. Moses, bearded, towers above all.
Mr Varcoe-Cocks lets out a little sigh as the canvas comes to rest, its corners still slightly curling.
“It’s held up surprisingly well, to be honest,” he says.
“Its scale and ambition of composition – the complexity of the figures, the rendering of all the detail and the costumes. Herbert travelled to the Middle East and did sketches of the landscape, tried to capture the light and the colour as much as possible. It’s not just a studio depiction – it’s a scholarly attempt to recreate a sense of the moment.”
In full public view, it will spend the next few months having its surface-dirt cleaned and its canvas repaired and strengthened, before finally being hoisted onto a wall.
Moses is actually a copy of the same work the artist did for the House of Lords, in London, which says something about the thinking of the men in charge of the gallery at the time of the painting’s acquisition, as does the mid-century decision to send the work to storage.
“There are actually two other versions, the other scaled version of this in Westminster deteriorated quite badly and doesn’t look great at all, so this is the best colouring and best preserved depiction that exists,” Mr Varcoe-Cocks says.
The fact that the original work was commissioned for the UK Parliament attests to its importance at the time:
Description: This water glass painting by John Rodger Herbert depicts Moses bringing down the second tables of the Law. These Tablets of stone in the bible are two special stones that have the Law (the Ten Commandments) written on them and were given to Moses by God. In the bible two sets of these stones exist. This Image shows Moses coming down from Mount Sinai carrying the second set of tablets. He is depicted surrounded by the Israelites who camped out at the bottom of Mount Sinai awaiting Moses return. This huge canvas gave its name to the room it is located in. The work was painted in 1864 by John Rodgers Herbert. It was commissioned for the new Palace in 1850.
The Ten Commandments, on which much of our common law is based, has had a profound effect on the development of Western civilisation. The values embedded in these laws are often referred to as Judaeo/Christian values, and countries that follow them have a much more enlightened system than many others. Dennis Prager writes:
The United States of America is the only country in history to have defined itself as Judaeo-Christian. While the Western world has consisted of many Christian countries and consists today of many secular countries, only America has called itself Judaeo-Christian. America is also unique in that it has always combined secular government with a society based on religious values.
But what does “Judaeo-Christian” mean? Along with the belief in liberty — as opposed to, for example, the European belief in equality, the Muslim belief in theocracy, and the Eastern belief in social conformity — Judaeo-Christian values are what distinguish America from all other countries. That is why American coins feature these two messages: “In God we trust” and “Liberty.”
Yet, for all its importance and its repeated mention, the term is not widely understood. It urgently needs to be because it is under ferocious assault, and if we do not understand it, we will be unable to defend it. And if we cannot defend it, America will become as amoral as France, Germany, Russia, et al.
First, Judaeo-Christian America has differed from Christian countries in Europe in at least two important ways. One is that the Christians who founded America saw themselves as heirs to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, as much as to the New. And even more importantly, they strongly identified with the Jews.
For example, Thomas Jefferson wanted the design of the seal of the United States to depict the Jews leaving Egypt. Just as the Hebrews left Egypt and its values, Americans left Europe and its values …
Founders and other early Americans probably studied Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, at least as much as Greek, the language of the New. Yale, founded in 1701, adopted a Hebrew insignia, and Hebrew was compulsory at Harvard until 1787. The words on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land . . . ,” are from the Torah. Vast numbers of Americans took Hebrew names — like Benjamin Franklin and Cotton Mather (kattan in Hebrew means “little one” or “younger”).
The consequences included a strong Old Testament view of the world — meaning, in part, a strong sense of fighting for earthly justice, an emphasis on laws, a belief in a judging, as well as a loving and forgiving, God, and a belief in the chosenness of the Jews which America identified with.
The significance of this belief in American chosenness cannot be overstated.
It accounts for the mission that Americans have uniquely felt called to — to spread liberty in the world.
This sense of mission is why more Americans have died for the liberty of others than any other nation’s soldiers.
It is why those who today most identify with the Judaeo-Christian essence of America are more likely to believe in the moral worthiness of dying to liberate countries — not only Europe, but Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. That is why America stands alone in protecting two little countries threatened with extinction, Israel and Taiwan. …
The second meaning of Judaeo-Christian is a belief in the biblical God of Israel, in His Ten Commandments and His biblical moral laws. It is a belief in universal, not relative, morality. It is a belief that America must answer morally to this God, not to the mortal, usually venal, governments of the world.
That is why those who most affirm Judaeo-Christian values are unmoved by the idea that the war in Iraq is moral if Germany, France, China and Russia say so, but immoral if they oppose it. We ask first what God and the Bible would say about liberating Iraq, not what Syria and other members of the U.N. Security Council say.
That is why those who most affirm Judaeo-Christian values believe that war, while always tragic, is on more than a few occasions a moral duty. Nothing “Judaeo” ever sanctioned pacifism. Of course, the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah yearned for the day that nations will beat their swords into plowshares. But another Hebrew Prophet, Joel, who is never cited by those who wish to read the secular value of pacifism into the Bible, said precisely the opposite:
“Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say, ‘I am strong!’”
And that is why those who want Judaeo-Christian values to disappear from American public life affirm multiculturalism, seek to remove mention of God from all public life, and make Christmas a private, not a national, holiday.
The battle over whether America remains Judaeo-Christian or becomes secular like Europe is what this, the Second American Civil War, is about.
So back to the painting and its significance. Note that when it was painted, it was acknowledged that Moses led the Children of Israel towards the promised land. Not a Palestinian in sight then, no suggestion that Jesus, an observant Jew, was a Palestinian and therefore a Muslim. Back then there was no historical revisionism, and no propaganda claiming the Palestinians were the indigenous people who had been there since time immemorial.
It’s way past time to reassert the supremacy of truth and historical accuracy. If we succumb to a nihilistic view of society, where all cultures are equal, not only Jews, but all nations will lose their liberty and their rights under the law.
To truly appreciate the significance of the Passover story of our liberation from slavery, we need to stand up for those universal values which underscore the desire for all humanity to be free of repression.