The Sin of the Golden Calf in Art

This topic has not yet undergone editorial review

Overview

The Sin of the Golden Calf represents one of the low points in Israel's history.  The three paintings displayed here, Francken's Worship of the Golden Calf,1 Raphael's Adoring the Golden Calf,2 and Tissot's The Golden Calf,3 all portray the infamous scene.  Each of the artists depict the story's characters (the calf, Aharon, and the sinning nation) in unique ways, allowing for different understandings of both the nature of the nation's sin and Aharon's role therein.

Contrasting Images

Frans Francken II

Francken's image is divided into two scenes. In the forefront, Aharon, dressed in high-priestly garb, sits on a throne-like chair as the Israelites deposit gold vessels and jewelry at his feet. In the distance, a group of men and women dance around a tall column bearing the golden calf. Others lounge nearby, eating and chatting. On the mountain to the viewer's left, Yehoshua and Moshe appear faintly.

Raphael

Raphael's rendering focuses on but one scene, the worship of the calf itself. A small group of Israelites kneel on the floor around it. Several point to the calf while others raise their arms in prayer. The assembly contains men, women and children, but Aharon himself appears to be absent. The calf itself is small, just slightly larger than the worshipers' heads. On the left, Moshe and Yehoshua descend the mountain, with the former poised to throw the tablets.

Tissot

Like Raphael, Tissot, too, chooses to portray the moment of worship. He depicts a crowded assembly of men, many of which bow their heads and raise their arms to the large calf. The atmosphere is somber, as the joyous frivolity and dancing of Francken's worshipers is replaced here by awe and supplication. Aharon is highlighted on the left, donning what appears to be a white prayer shawl, apparently leading the others in worship.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

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

Who Worshiped the Calf?

While Tissot depicts a full assembly of people worshiping the calf, Francken and Raphael have only a small portion of the nation participate.  In addition, whereas Tissot includes only men, the other artists also portray women. Which depiction is closer to the Biblical text?  What percentage of the people actually worshiped the calf?4  Were males and females equally involved?5

Aharon's Role

In Tissot's painting Aharon actively worships the calf, whereas in the other renditions he is absent from the devotional service. What does the Biblical text say about his participation? The Torah is surprisingly silent, and never explicitly vindicates Aharon. On the other hand, the only sin he is consistently blamed for is making the calf, not worshiping it. As Aharon not only avoids punishment, but assumes the role of High Priest, most commentators assume his guilt was less than that of the worshiping nation and look for ways to defend him.6  See Sin of the Golden Calf for a variety of ways to explain his actions.

Nature of the Worship

In Francken's painting the Israelites worship the calf through revelry, as they dance and eat in its presence. In the images of Raphael and Tissot, in contrast, the people kneel and pray. Shemot 32:6 supports both depictions, as it has the people engage in both laughter and sacrifice, suggesting that the worship had elements of both somber devotion and frivolity.

Nonetheless, the different tones of the works might also reflect conflicting understandings of the people's intentions.  Did the people view the calf as an alternative deity, worshiping it in the manner of idolaters replete with "צחוק" and food?7  Or, did they think of it as a vehicle through which to serve Hashem himself,8 in which case frivolity might have played a lesser role.  See Sin of the Golden Calf for elaboration.

Size of the Calf

The three artists depict calves of varying sizes. As the Biblical text provides no measurements, it cannot be determined which is most accurate. The issue raises important questions about Aharon's motives in building the calf. Did he really agree to make an alternative deity for the people, or, as several commentators suggest, were all his actions aimed at procrastinating until Moshe arrived?9 If the former, any sized idol should have sufficed. If the latter, however, he might have attempted to make as big a calf as possible so as to prolong the process.

Jewelry or Vessels?

Francken presents the people as giving Aharon not only earrings, but also golden vessels.  There is no hint to this in the text which explicitly speaks of "נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר בְּאׇזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם", but the rendition makes the viewer wonder, why didn't Aharon also ask for vessels? Would it not have made more sense to ask for articles with significant amounts of gold, rather than for a measly earring? 

This could support the possibility spoken of above, that this, too, was a delay tactic of Aharon, who was intentionally not being efficient.  Alternatively, Aharon had no choice, since the people might not have had other gold.  This depends on how one understands what was included in the "כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב" that were "borrowed" from the Egyptians.  See Rashbam in Reparations and Despoiling Egypt who suggests that the terms refer not to vessels but to jewelry.

Aharon as High Priest

While Frans Francken II dresses Aharon in the breast plate of the high priest, Tissot clothes him as an ordinary Israelite.  The contrasting portraits reflect a controversy regarding when Aharon was selected to be high priest: before or after the Sin of the Golden Calf.  While a simple reading of Sefer Shemot presents Aharon's designation as part of the commands regarding the Mishkan given prior to the Sin, Moshe's recounting of the episode in Devarim 10 suggests that the appointment only took place afterwards. For a full discussion of the issue, see Selection of the Priests and Levites.

Pedestal

Each of the artists depicts the calf on top of some sort of pedestal, be it a pillar or a more simple platform. No evidence for such a base is found in the description in Shemot. Cassuto suggests that this is because, in reality, the nation had meant the calf itself to serve as a pedestal, or throne, for Hashem's glory. In the Ancient Near East, deities were often depicted as standing on bases of beasts. Aharon imitated the standard artistic convention, with the important difference of not adding any image of Hashem Himself atop the pedestal.

×