The Israelites gathering Manna by Ercole de' Roberti

Ercole de' Roberti

The Israelites gathering Manna, c.1490, Tempera on canvas, transferred from wood, 28.9 x 63.5 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought 1886, NG1217, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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A Stage on the Journey

Commentary by

This small scene is painted with the restraint, precision, and harmony for which  Ercole  de’ Roberti became chief painter to the rulers of Ferrara in the late 1480s. 

It is a fragment of a polyptych  made to commemorate Eleonora of Aragon, the Duchess of Ferrara, who died in 1493. We know from a copy that the  main panel of the altarpiece  (now lost) showed  the dead Christ lying across his mother’s lap, a pose known as the Lamentation or ‘Pietà’. 

Ercole’s skill was to marry elegance with earthiness, arguably a visual parallel of the encounter of human and divine encapsulated in Exodus 16. This story of God’s providence to the Israelites was read by Christians as a prefiguration of Christ’s salvific sacrifice. 

The slender figures of Moses and Aaron oversee the event from a position on the left. As witnesses rather than participants they are intended perhaps to share with the viewer an understanding of the significance of this episode in God’s revelation through the events of an unfolding history.  

By contrast, the Israelites busy scooping up the heavenly bread seem to represent the mundane reality of human hunger and desperation. The result of drawings from life,  Ercole  expresses their physicality in a range of poses: kneeling, crouching, balancing. A hefty woman tilts a jar straight into her mouth, a reminder that despite scrabbling or greed each was miraculously satisfied (Exodus 16:18).  

The desert appears vast because it is enclosed. Ercole  has created a deep stage set demarcated by the simple wooden structures of the Israelites’ camp. The makeshift huts—one is still under construction—might serve to compare humanly-fabricated security with that afforded by God. The raw wooden beams against the wide blue sky emphasize the contrast—and meeting—of earth, the source of need, and heaven, the source of sustenance. 

The theatrical backdrop lends the scene grandeur, framing a very human plight with dignity. Ercole’s image reassures us that suffering can have a divine purpose, which in the theological scheme of the altarpiece applies not only to the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land but to the Christian worshipper of the fifteenth century. And today.

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