Miriam's Song of Praise by Wilhelm Hensel

Wilhelm Hensel

Miriam's Song of Praise, 1836, Oil on canvas, 190.1 x 190.2 cm, Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 408985, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

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Composer of Songs

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In this portrait Wilhelm Hensel depicts his composer wife Fanny Mendelssohn (1805–47) as the Miriam of Exodus 15—the sister of Moses and Aaron. Alongside Miriam/Fanny, Hensel included his wife’s younger sister Rebecka (a singer), and their sister-in-law, Albertine, who is carrying the double pipes.

As the sister of the celebrated composer Felix Mendelssohn (and granddaughter of the eminent Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), Fanny was an ideal model for the biblical musician who led the Israelite women in their Song of Praise by the Red Sea.

In Hensel’s painting, we see Miriam beating her frame drum as an accompaniment to her song, ahead of the other women musicians who ‘went out after her with tambourines and dancing’ (Exodus 15:20). Hensel embellished the biblical narrator’s account of the women’s music-making by showing them playing a variety of ancient and medieval instruments.

Although Fanny Mendelssohn was a prolific composer, she remained in the shadow of her more famous brother with some of her compositions misattributed to him. Queen Victoria, who loved to sing, praised Felix Mendelssohn for his composition of her favourite song Italien (op. 8, no. 3) which she sang for Mendelssohn when he visited Buckingham Palace in 1842. Only then did she find out that this song had been composed by his sister Fanny. Similarly, down through the centuries, Miriam the Prophetess has resided in the shadow of her brother Moses.  

Despite living in the shadows of their brothers, Fanny Mendelssohn and the Prophetess Miriam take centre stage in Hensel’s Miriam’s Song of Praise (1836) at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace, London. Appropriately, it was presented by Hensel as a gift to Queen Victoria in 1843.

 

References

Brooke, George J. 1994. ‘Power to the powerless: A Long-Lost Song of Miriam’, Biblical Archaeology Review, 20.3: 62–65

Kugel, James L. 1997. The Bible as It Was (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Paton, John Glenn (ed.). 1992. 24 Songs: Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (Van Nuys: Alfred Publishing)

Russell, Brian D. 2007. ‘An Exegetical Analysis of Exodus 15:1–21’, in The Song of the Sea: The Date of Composition and Influence of Exodus 15:1–21 (New York: Peter Lang), pp. 19–44

Setel, Drorah O’Donnell. 1998. ‘Exodus’, in The Women's Bible Commentary, ed. by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press), pp. 30–39


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