This carved relief is one of twenty-two tall rectangular panels, each possessing a similarly pleasing simplicity in their design, which form the backs of two sets of choir stalls in the Cathedral of Merseburg, in Saxony-Anhalt (part of Old Saxony). Of the artist, we know only what we can glean from his signature—prominently displayed on the stalls on the choir’s south side—that he was a Dominican friar, called Kaspar Schockholz.
The core narrative of the panels is the Life and Passion of Christ. However, each scene from this cycle is flanked on either side by an episode which predates (and in some way pre-empts) the life of Christ. The image of Aaron with his miraculous rod is located to the left of the Nativity of Christ, to the right of which appears the non-biblical episode of the Emperor Augustus’s Vision of the Virgin and Child with the Tiburtine Sibyl. For this format, Schockholz almost certainly took inspiration from a ‘biblia pauperum’, a popular type of printed book at the time, in which scenes from the Old and New Testament were grouped together to show typological frameworks.
Despite having been included within the cycle as a prophecy of the coming of Christ, in the imagery of this specific panel the artist paid close attention to Aaron’s role as high priest. He stands alone before the altar wearing the distinctive headdress of a Jewish priest, as anachronistically conceived in fifteenth-century terms. He holds his left hand against his chest in a manner which suggests that the blessing made by his other hand is directed, in part, at himself. With his blessing hand, he also signals toward the sprouting rod on the altar behind him, though his eyes remain trained on the viewer.
With this subtle economy of gaze and gesture, Schockholz gives visual form to the particular significance of the rod as symbol of the divinely-endorsed priesthood. It is an apt emphasis on the priestly vocation, given Christ’s status in Christian tradition as the true and eternal High Priest. In this respect Aaron is his forebear, as he is of all those who will share Christ’s priestly ministry.
Cottin, Markus, John Uwe, and Holger Kunde. 2008. Der Merseburger Dom und seine Schätze: Zeugnisse einer tausendjährigen Geschichte (Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag), pp.184–86