The viewer’s eye is drawn both to the gleaming calf that commands the top half of Nicolas Poussin’s Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633–34) and to the worshippers circling that calf in dancing adoration. The movement, energy, and crowdedness of the bottom half stand in tension with the stillness and relative emptiness of the top half. Below, the arms of the worshippers stretch out to one another and up toward the calf, while above, the calf’s hoof, necklace, and eyeline all point back down, and so the gaze circulates between these two sights: the unmoving, dead idol and the lively ones giving themselves over to it.
It is easy to miss Moses coming down the mountain in dark fury, his tablet raised. This is not the shining Moses who descends Sinai for the second time in Exodus 34 but the Moses described in Exodus 32, descending unnoticed to the dancing and noise (vv.17–19). Placed far in the background, Moses is so much smaller than the revellers and the calf, and so much more obscure. It is easy for the eye to glide over this one who bears divine presence and instead circle with the dancers, moving between their revelry and the idol’s bright presence. As art historian Richard Neer (2006) has argued, this is an image that warns about the dangers of images, about how they can tempt us to devote ourselves to false divinities. In rendering the golden calf so visually appealing, Poussin shows the viewer how easily her eyes are drawn to idols.
But, of course, this is not simply an iconoclastic message. Poussin warns about images, not verbally but visually. This painting may perform a sort of therapy, helping us to see God better in the world; teaching us to look in the shadows for the divine presence descending; exhorting us to wait patiently for the glorious presence and content ourselves, in this time of waiting, with a God who may come in shadows and traces.
Neer, Richard T. 2006. ‘Poussin and the Ethics of Imitation’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 51/52: 297–344
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.