The Seventy Elders, from Rudolph von Ems Weltchronik by Unknown Bohemian artist

Unknown Bohemian artist

The Seventy Elders, from Rudolph von Ems Weltchronik, c.1360, Manuscript illumination, 295 x 220 mm, Fulda University and State Library (FUSL), 100 Aa88, fol. 124v, Fulda University and State Library (🇩🇪hebis:66:fuldig-1925724)

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Moses and the Seventy Elders

Commentary by

In the mid-1200s, Rudolph von Ems, a German knight and poet, composed Weltchronik (‘Chronicle of the World’), consisting of ‘some thirty-three thousand lines of rhymed German verse’ (Cohen 1997: 67).

This copy of von Ems’s seminal work was made for the accession of Charles IV to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire in 1355—bolstering the divine legitimacy of Charles’s new earthly authority by casting the empire itself as successor to the nation of Israel.

Numbers 11 (vv.16–17, 24b–25) is similarly concerned with the handing on of power: seventy elders are appointed to transmit Moses’s authority to future generations. The decorative architectural details depicted in this illumination of the episode mimic those atop the flying buttresses of St Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Moses obeys the Lord’s specific instruction to bring these elders ‘to the tent of meeting’ (cf. Exodus 33:7–11; 40:34–35). What better cultural equivalent to Moses’s tent of meeting than Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral? Here, we are dealing with the transfer of authority from Davidic Jerusalem to Carolingian Prague and from Moses to the later Christian church.

The illumination deliberately includes God the Father as a golden circle on a ‘cloud’ (v.25) positioned above the centre of the tent of meeting, with God the Son (a second circle of gold haloing his human face) and the dove of God the Spirit to right and left, respectively. These bring a Christian hermeneutic to the scene. If the golden motifs in the illumination are read as signalling God’s presence and activity, it is striking that the symbols of the Spirit’s progress which we see outside the tent of meeting are a different shape from those representing the divine activity within. Forming triangles like Moses’s (falling) cone-shaped Jewish hat, these golden motifs seem to move from the Spirit via Moses to form a golden aura over the heads of the elders. Here is a specific equipping of scribes (or ‘officers’) and ‘elders of Israel’ (v.16) to prophesy like, with, and from Moses (v.24). They will carry his authority (‘the spirit upon Moses’) beyond his foretold death and into the future.

The depiction of this centralized, authoritative, prophetic but conciliar body receiving Moses’s spirit opens a theological path of continuity to the way that the spirit of Christ’s own person is breathed onto his disciples (John 20:22; cf. Luke 10:1–12, and Acts 2:1–13).



Cohen, Aaron S. 1997. ‘Rudolph von Ems, Weltchronik’, Masterpieces of the J. Paul Getty Museum: Illuminated Manuscripts (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum)

Mengel, David C. 2004. ‘From Venice to Jerusalem and Beyond: Milíč of Kroměříž and the Topography of Prostitution in Fourteenth-Century Prague’, Speculum 79: 407–42

———. 2014. ‘Emperor Charles IV, Jews, and Urban Space’ in Christianity and Culture in the Middle Ages: Essays to Honor John Van Engen, ed. by David C. Mengel and Lisa Wolverton (Notre Dame, IL: University of Notre Dame Press)

Roth, Norman. 2014. Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (Hoboken, NJ: Taylor & Francis)

St Clair, Archer. 1987. ‘A New Moses: Typological Iconography in the Moutier-Grandval Bible Illustrations of Exodus’, Gesta 26: 19–28

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