The three images discussed here all display Moshe with the Tablets of the Covenant, ("לֻחוֹת הַבְּרִית") but at slightly different points in the narrative. In Reni's image,1 Moshe simply holds the tablets, while in Tissot's painting2 he prepares to throw them in response to the sin of the Golden Calf. Chagall3 illustrates the next moment, after the tablets have already been dropped. The three artists' depictions of Moshe vary, reflecting their different understanding of his emotions at this juncture. Similarly, their portrayals of the tablets differ, highlighting how little we really know about their shape, size, and what was written on each of them.4
Reni's painting is almost a portrait of Moshe. The majestic leader fills the image, his red robes contrasting with the grey clouds in the sky. He holds one of the long stone tablets against his body and lifts the other above his head. It is not clear if he is reacting to the Golden Calf, or if he is simply calling out to the nation to present them with the tablets.
Unlike Reni, Tissot chooses to render Moshe in action, capturing his fury at the sinning nation. Moshe stands on a rock, body arching back, as he prepares to hurl the tablets below. A second figure, presumably Yehoshua, reaches for Moshe's robes, perhaps attempting to prevent the sacred tablets from being destroyed. The scene is set, not amidst lofty clouds, but against a mountainous range. The harsh lines of the stones reflect Moshe's severe response to the Golden Calf.
Chagall, like the other artists, opts to portray just Moshe and the tablets without the accompanying nation. The image is divided on a diagonal with a hint of grey-black clouds filling the left half, and a greenish mountain covering the right. A dismayed Moshe stands on Mount Sinai, his hands held aloft in a gesture of helplessness. At his feet lie the still intact stone tablets which have apparently dropped from his hands.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
One or Two?
While Tissot portrays the tablets as two connected blocks of stone, Reni depicts them as two separate tablets.5 Which depiction is closer to the Biblical text? The tablets are consistently referred to as "two tablets of testimony" or "two tablets of stone",6 suggesting that they were two distinct slabs. Why, then, do Tissot and many earlier artists7 depict them as attached? This may be due to the fact that writing tablets in medieval times took the form of diptychs (a two-leaved tablet). Artists naturally worked off contemporary models, leading them to this shape.8 Alternatively, the popular assumption that each tablet contained only five commandments9 may have led artists to view each tablet alone as incomplete, and, thus, to join the two.
Throwing the Tablets
In Tissot's image, an angry Moshe is about to heave the tablets down below. In Chagall's painting, in contrast, Moshe looks as if he has simply dropped the stones. What really happened? Shemot 32:19 states, "וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מִיָּדָיו אֶת הַלֻּחֹת וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם תַּחַת הָהָר", which is commonly understood to mean that Moshe intentionally smashed the tablets.10 Rashbam, though, suggests that upon seeing the Golden Calf, Moshe's strength left him and the tablets fell from his hands.11 Instead of focusing on Moshe's anger, Rashbam and Chagall highlight Moshe's frustration and disappointment with the nation.
Division of the Decalogue
How were the commandments written on the tablets? Of the three artists, only Reni relates to the question. While many assume that there were five commandments on each stone,12 Reni divides the Decalogue unevenly, displaying "Honor your father..." as the first commandment on the second tablet. What are the origins of such a division?
The Torah actually never states how the commandments were distributed amongst the two stones, and this allows for various possibilities. According to R. Chanina ben Gamliel in the Mekhilta, there were five on each tablet, with each commandment in some way relating to its partner on the second tablet. The Sages there, in contrast, suggest that there were ten on each tablet.13 Reni, here, follows the division of Augustine,14 who has the three commandments between man and God on one tablet and the seven commandments between man and man on the other.15 For elaboration, see The Decalogue – Division and Design.
Shape and Size
All three artists paint the tablets as curved on top,16 but they differ in the way they envision their overall size. While Tissot and Chagall portray the tablets as a relatively small and square twosome, Reni depicts long and rectangular tablets. The Biblical text is silent on the tablets' shape and size but Rabbinic sources17 suggest that each was a square, six handbreadths in width and length, and three handbreadths in thickness. It is not totally clear how these measurements are obtained and, in fact, the only known limiting factor is related to the dimensions given for the ark which contained them.18 For more, see Ark of the Covenant.
Chagall portrays Moshe with two horns on his head. These are absent from the other depictions, but are a prominent feature of many renderings of Moshe. In Shemot 34:30, after Moshe descends with the second set of tablets, we are told, "כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו" (Moshe's skin took on a radiant glow).19 The conception that the verse speaks of a horned Moshe stems from the translation in Jerome's Latin Vulgate which renders "קָרַן", as cornuta, or horn.20 It is perhaps surprising, though, that Chagall, a Jewish artist, would be influenced by the Vulgate, and it is possible that his source is actually Rashi's comments on the verse.21 When explaining the phrase, Rashi also connects the word "קָרַן" to horns, writing: "because the light shone and protruded like horns." If so, Chagall is portraying shining beams, which simply appear like horns.22