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
17 The Lord said to Moses, 2“Speak to the people of Israel, and get from them rods, one for each fathers’ house, from all their leaders according to their fathers’ houses, twelve rods. Write each man’s name upon his rod, 3and write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi. For there shall be one rod for the head of each fathers’ house. 4Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. 5And the rod of the man whom I choose shall sprout; thus I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the people of Israel, which they murmur against you.” 6Moses spoke to the people of Israel; and all their leaders gave him rods, one for each leader, according to their fathers’ houses, twelve rods; and the rod of Aaron was among their rods. 7And Moses deposited the rods before the Lord in the tent of the testimony.
8 And on the morrow Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds, and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. 9Then Moses brought out all the rods from before the Lord to all the people of Israel; and they looked, and each man took his rod. 10And the Lord said to Moses, “Put back the rod of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their murmurings against me, lest they die.” 11Thus did Moses; as the Lord commanded him, so he did.
12 And the people of Israel said to Moses, “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. 13Every one who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die. Are we all to perish?”