Death of a Forest by Paul Landacre

Paul Landacre

Death of a Forest, 1938, Wood engraving on black on wove paper, 269.9 x 282.6 mm (sheet), National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Gift of Bob Stana and Tom Judy, 2015.115.29, © 2020 Estate of Paul Landacre / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Sinai Future

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

Paul Landacre’s engraving tells of a theophany of a different kind from what Joseph Mallord William Turner and Francis Frith (both also featured in this exhibition) envision. While it does not represent Sinai, the fire and smoke of Death of a Forest evoke the biblical author’s description of the mountain as ‘wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln’ (Exodus 19:18). The same divine presence that serves as a positive force for the good of humankind seems a destructive force in its effects on the mountain. We may imagine the fire of YHWH like a wildfire—burning vegetation and wildlife without warning. It causes such upheaval as to elicit a violent response from the mountain’s very core: ‘the whole mountain shook violently’ (v.18).

In Exodus 19, Nature is just as involved in the theophany as YHWH or Israel. The episode begins on a new moon (v.1), is located in the desert wilderness (vv.2, 3), and requires the people to wash their bodies and clothing with precious water (vv.10, 14), while YHWH manifests using dense cloud (vv.9, 16), thunder (vv.16, 19), lightning (v.16), fire (v.18), and smoke (v.18)—some of nature’s most ominous phenomena. Thunder is the very voice of God (v.19). The mountain itself, mentioned fourteen times in 19:11–23, bears witness to the terror of theophany, trembling with a holy charge so great that any human or beast who touches it becomes a danger to the entire community (vv.12–13, 21–24).

The inclusion of animals in the prohibition against touching the mountain underscores how all species are equally beholden to the power of YHWH. Today, as species vanish and mountains burn with the fire of humanity’s presence, Sinai calls homo sapiens to remember that the natural world both bears and bears witness to the divine presence on earth. Its degradation at the hands of humankind stands in contrast to our humble position alongside the animals at Sinai. Nature, too, is part of the divine story and it serves us all well when we remember that.

Read comparative commentary