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', www.thedigitalwalters.org [accessed 17 September 2018]
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.