Moshe at the Burning Bush in Art

Introduction

The three artworks displayed here, the image from the Sarajevo Haggadah by an unknown artist, (c. 1350),1 Eugene Pluchart's God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush (1848),2 and Domenico Feti's Moses Before the Burning Bush (1613),3 all portray the same Biblical scene, God's revelation to Moshe at the burning bush in Shemot 3. Each imagines Moshe's appearance, character, and response to revelation quite differently.4

Contrasting Images

Sarajevo Haggadah

In the Sarajevo Haggadah, a thin Moshe, his clothing hanging limply, stands on the left side of the picture. His sandals have been removed, he grasps his staff and moves to cover his eyes. The image is one of a pious, almost monastic man, humbled before the revelation. His sheep fill the bottom right of the picture, while above them stands a somewhat stylized burning bush, with just the hint of an angel's wing at the top. The rust color of Moshe's clothing matches the reddish-yellow of the bush, serving to connect the two.

Pluchart

In Pluchart's oil painting, it is the figure of the angel emerging from the bush which overpowers the viewer. With white garb billowing about him, he stares down at an older Moshe, who half kneels and covers his eyes in response. The angel figure points to the left, presumably sending Moshe to speak to Paroh. No sheep are portrayed in the painting, though Moshe's shepherding staff lies on the floor curled, snakelike, at his feet.5 The bush itself is much brighter than in the other renderings, with its pinkish-red flames resembling a rose.

Feti

Feti's painting, in contrast, is all about Moshe. He sits at the center of the painting and fills it. He is portrayed as a young man, muscular and strong, but his pose is of a man at rest, contemplating. One almost does not notice that he is in the midst of removing his sandals. On his right, the bush burns, and in the lower left corner a single sheep's head looks out. One can just make out part of his shepherd's staff lying on the floor. The image is a dark one, lending a pensive feeling to the painting.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

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

Character of Moshe

Feti's Moshe with his strong, muscular physique contrasts sharply with the thin Moshe of the Sarajevo Haggadah. While the latter covers his eyes and seems in awe of the sight that he beholds, the former looks straight ahead, thinking, with no signs of fear.6 One can easily imagine Feti's Moshe killing an Egyptian and defying Paroh, while Sarajevo's Moshe, in contrast, would seem to be better at communing with God. Pluchart's Moshe is a mixture. He is physically fit and his stance is not quite one of subservience but he nonetheless covers his face in fear. The contrasting images make one question the nature of Moshe as described in Tanakh. How does the confident image of the defiant Moshe of Shemot Chapter 2 correspond with the insecure and apprehensive Moshe of Chapters 3–4? Is Moshe a man of the people or a mystical man of God? See Moshe for elaboration.

Age of Moshe

While Pluchart renders Moshe as a graying, older man, both Feti and the Sarajevo artist portray him as much younger. Is there room in the Biblical text to support both reads? When did Hashem reveal himself to Moshe at the bush? A simple reading of Shemot would suggest that this was shortly before Moshe returns to Egypt and approaches Paroh. As we know that Moshe was 80 when he performed the signs and wonders before Paroh,7 it would seem that Moshe was the same age when he received the vision. Some though, suggest that quite a bit of time elapsed between Moshe's first failed attempt at negotiations in chapter 5 and his second attempt in chapter 7. This would allow for a much younger Moshe.8 See Moshe's First 80 Years.

The Angel

While Feti does not portray an angel emerging from the bush at all, and the artist of the Sarajevo Haggadah merely alludes to one,9 Pluchart emphasizes this figure, perhaps even more than he does the image of Moshe.10 It is not clear from the painting, though, whether this figure is meant to be an angel or God Himself, an ambiguity which emerges from the biblical text. Shemot 3:2 mentions an angel speaking to Moshe while in verse 4, we read that Hashem Himself calls forth.11 Furthermore, it is not clear if Moshe saw the form of an angel at all. Though verse 2 says that an "angel of Hashem appeared in a flame of fire," in verse 3, Moshe only seems to note the unnatural phenomenon of a burning but unconsumed bush. How one answers these questions relates to one's perception of prophecy, revelation and the relationship of Hashem and Moshe. See God and Angels.

The Bush

The three artists' depictions of the bush itself vary greatly. In the Sarajevo Haggadah the bush looks almost like a tree, while Feti's bush looks like a mere stick with only a few leaves. Both stand in contrast to Pluchart's lush greenery, with the pinkish rose-like fire emanating from it. Which is truer to the Biblical text? In truth, the identity of the סנה has been debated by many and is ambiguous, allowing for multiple suggestions. Often one's choice relates to the symbolism imparted to the vision. Is the bush lowly to represent the lowly status of the Children of Israel12 or God's humility in appearing to Moshe?13 Or is it a rose-bush full of thorns, symbolic of Israel surrounded by her enemies?14 See סנה for more.

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