The Israelites Worship the Golden Calf and Moses Breaks the Tablets by William de Brailes

William de Brailes

The Israelites Worship the Golden Calf, from Bible pictures by William de Brailes, c.1250, Illumination on parchment, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MS Bible Pictures, shelf mark W.106, fol. 13r, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

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All that Glisters

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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.

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