Despoiling Egypt in Art


The two images shown here depict the Biblical episode of despoiling the Egyptians mentioned in Shemot 3:22, 11:2 and 12:35–36 – see Reparations and Despoiling Egypt. Both are from 14th century Catalonian illuminated Haggadot, one known as the Golden Haggadah1 and the other as the Brother Haggadah.2 Neither artist's identity is known, and it is also uncertain whether they were Jewish or Christian.3 In both paintings, the despoiling is depicted in the bottom half of a dual-pane image, with the top half of the panel portraying one of the plagues. The juxtaposition suggests a connection between the two scenes. The artists, though, differ in their choice of plague and hence in their interpretation of the entire episode, reading the nature, timing, and motivation of the transfer of wealth in very different ways.

Contrasting ImagesThe Golden Haggadah

The image is divided horizontally into two connected scenes. The top half focuses exclusively on the Egyptians as they grope in the dark during the Plague of Darkness. Paroh sits to the left, disoriented, supporting himself on the picture's panel. To his right, other Egyptians are depicted in a variety of poses, all equally helpless. The bottom half of the image turns to the actions of the Israelites during the same time period as they loot precious possessions from their unknowing neighbors. One carries away an entire box while two others reach to take golden chalices. A fourth figure looks on as he grasps his own treasure to his chest.4

Here, too, the picture is divided into two halves, but with the top half depicting the Plague of the the Firstborn rather than the Plague of Darkness. On the right, two figures (presumably Moshe and Aharon) are pointing, perhaps warning of the plague to come. In the middle, a distraught Paroh speaks to his courtiers, a dead body in a dungeon visible underneath them.5 The left side of the image is lined with corpses, the upper four are human and the fifth is that of an animal. The bottom pane moves to the next episode in the Biblical text, the transfer of the articles of gold, silver and clothing.6

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

The Golden Haggadah sets our scene during the Plague of Darkness,7 while the Brother Haggadah8 places it after the final Plague of the Firstborn. In the Biblical account, the timing of the story is ambiguous, as the episode is spoken of both in Shemot 11 after the Plague of Darkness and again in Shemot 12 immediately prior to the Exodus – see Reparations and Despoiling Egypt for the dispute among the commentators.

The Golden Haggadah uniquely9 portrays the Israelites as exploiting their masters' helplessness during the Plague of Darkness and stealing from the Egyptians. The Golden Haggadah thus completely inverts the Midrashic theme which highlights the Israelites' honesty in not looting the Egyptians' homes during the Plague of Darkness.10 In contrast, the Brother Haggadah depicts a knowing exchange, where it appears that the articles are being given very willingly.

The respective captions capture the difference between the Haggadot's understandings of the episode. The Golden Haggadah selects the words "וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת מִצְרָיִם" even though this does not match its chronological ordering of the events,11 because these words are the most apt description of its perspective. However, the Brother Haggadah instead opts for the more positive account of "וַה' נָתַן אֶת חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם"‎.12 This, of course, raises the question of both the meaning of and relationship between these two phrases in the Biblical text itself. Did the nation deceive the Egyptians or was this a friendly transaction? Why were the Egyptians willing to give of their possessions anyway? Was this related to the deaths of firstborns and a desire to hasten the Israelite departure? For an in depth analysis, see Reparations and Despoiling Egypt.

B. Narkiss13 identifies the looted objects depicted in the Golden Haggadah as Christian liturgical vessels, a chalice and a ciborium.14 This choice relates to an unknown in the Shemot narrative. What exactly were the "gold and silver vessels" and for what purpose were they given? Were they ritual objects loaned to the Israelites for their three day holiday to worship Hashem15 or even the golden and silver Egyptian idols themselves?16 Or, were they perhaps simply cooking and eating utensils loaned for the journey,17 or, alternatively, valuables given as reparations for years of unpaid wages?18

Interestingly, an allusion to this idea may perhaps be found in both Haggadot. The portrayal of the looted vessels as liturgical objects in the Golden Haggadah may relate to the notion that through the Exodus, Hashem emerged as the victor in His battle with the powerless Egyptian gods. In the Brother Haggadah, this idea is perhaps embodied in the dead animal which appears under the column of human corpses. This is perhaps meant to represent the death of the Egyptian consecrated animals which they worshipped as gods.19