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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Imaging the Word

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What does it mean to look at an image about worshipping an image? Does it not expose the reader to the seductions of images, recreating a scene of visual temptation? But here the image is safe. According to the dominant medieval justification for images, this illustration exemplifies an image in its proper role: as a sacred book for the illiterate.

Where Greek-speaking Christendom determined the fate of the image in 787 at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Second Council of Nicaea), Latin-speaking Christendom initially rejected that Council, which they learned about through a poorly-translated document. King Charlemagne then commissioned the Libri Carolini to respond to the Council, refuting its justification of images and insisting that images have no advantage over words. Their proper place, the document insists, is to instruct or aid in memory, in service of words and text.

The image here even gives the words that it is in service to through an inscription at the bottom. Written in Old French, it reads: ‘When Moses went to the mountain to receive the Law, God said to him, “Go down. Your people sin.” Moses descended and saw his people adoring a calf, which they made of gold and silver. When he saw this, he grew angry at them [and] hurled his tablets against the rock so that they broke.’

With its inscription at the bottom, placement in a book, and service to a Scripture story, this illustrated leaf is a safe image for the viewer, who is encouraged to look at the golden calf the way Moses does, as sin, and reject its power. Moses’s hands are not raised in prayer or veneration but gesture emphatically down, his right hand pointing toward the tablets of the Ten Commandments, broken in an ‘anger [that] burned hot’ (Exodus 32:19). The viewer who holds this image, which is about the size of a paperback book, will find herself holding a text where images play a supporting role, not competing with words but augmenting them, extending their power.



'Walters Ms. W.106, Bible pictures by William de Brailes', [accessed 17 September 2018]



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