Moses Striking the Stone by Arthur Boyd

Arthur Boyd

Moses Striking the Stone, 1951–52, Ceramics, earthenware, coloured slips, 57 x 57 cm, National Gallery of Australia; Gift of Denis Savill 2012. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program, NGA 2012.819, Photo courtesy National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Reproduced with the permission of Bundanon Trust.

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A Loss of Control

Commentary by

Arthur Merric Bloomfield Boyd (1920–99) was born into an Australian artistic dynasty. His works addressed universal themes such as love, loss, and shame, but also issues particular to Australian society, such as the fate of people of mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parentage. This latter work was painted on an earthenware ‘tile’ measuring 57cm square, with coloured slips and a clear glaze. The choice of this earthy medium may reflect the artist’s sense of connection to the land.

It’s hard to read the expression on the face of Boyd’s Moses. Is he angry, frustrated, confused, determined? We can’t be sure. Thick and black, more weapon than wand, Moses grasps the rod firmly at the centre with both hands. As Boyd depicts it, brute force made the water spring forth, and as much as the rock, Moses’s rod seems to be its source.

Water’s everywhere—drenching Moses’s hands and splashing his feet. Even the sky behind him and the tunic that clothes him share the colours of this elemental cascade. But the effect is far from blessed abundance. The absence of busy Israelites filling vessels or scooping and lapping up the water alongside their thirsty animals gives the scene an ominous dimension. The water threatens an imminent, overwhelming deluge beyond Moses’s control. Without his brother Aaron to share the blame (cf. Numbers 20:2, 10, 12), all the pressure is on Moses, and it’s apparently more than he can handle. His body is crammed awkwardly into the composition, and partially cropped by it. He balances precariously with one bare foot on a rock that must already be wet and slippery. His fall seems imminent.

Boyd’s Moses brings to mind the Little Dutch Boy whose finger could only stop up the dyke for so long, or King Cnut, who could not turn back the tides. He’s in danger of being submerged. This moment of disobedience (Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it as commanded in Exodus 17:7), or faithlessness (he did not trust God enough to affirm God’s sanctity; v.12), will signal the end of Moses’s long and arduous career as Israel’s leader, depriving him into the bargain of the satisfaction of setting foot in the Promised Land to which he’d spent forty years leading his rebellious flock. How perfectly Boyd captures that moment.        

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