The unfaithful in this medieval illustration by William de Brailes worship in stillness. There is no hint of the pre-festival revelry suggested by Scripture (Exodus 32:5, 6) in the sober worshippers. Despite idolatry’s long association with sexual immorality, de Brailes imagines this moment of idol worship devoid of sensuality. His illustration suggests a subtler critique of how the senses go awry.
While the worshippers are modestly dressed and solemnly composed, their eyes betray their idolatry. They are all fixed in an identical, unbroken gaze at the golden calf. With their heads craned upwards, they are literally a ‘stiff-necked people’ (Exodus 32:9). They have given themselves over to what much of the Christian tradition, following Augustine’s gloss on 1 John 2:16, calls ‘the lust of the eyes’.
But this is a strange lust. Where the calf in the scriptural story was made from gold earrings (Exodus 32:2–4), the calf in this image is brown, the same shade as the horns growing out of Moses’s head (a common way of representing Moses in this scene, resulting from the Vulgate’s translation of Moses’s ‘shining’ in the descent account of Exodus 34:29 as Moses’s ‘horns’). The most visually enticing aspect of the scene is the gold-leaf background, made from the same material as the calf described in Scripture. Might this colour choice further distance idolatry from sensuality, as if to affirm that the problem of idolatry lies not in gazing at gold any more than idolatry comes necessarily coupled with sexual immorality? The trouble with idolatry, this image seems to imply, lies not in the senses; nor is the solution to idolatry the repudiation of pleasure that comes by way of them. Instead of denying sensual energies, this illustration proposes to redirect them by using gold—not to mark an idol but the background—thus evoking by it the divine presence uncontained by any particular object.
Augustine. Confessions, Book 10, chs 30, 35.
32 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, “Up, make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2And Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the rings of gold which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made a molten calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; 8they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; 10now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”
11 But Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.’ ” 14And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.
15 And Moses turned, and went down from the mountain with the two tables of the testimony in his hands, tables that were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. 16And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. 17When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” 19And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tables out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink it.