Bacchiacca’s painting of Moses striking the rock is notable for its extraordinary variety of people, animals, and vessels. The clothing, head coverings, and jewellery that so engaged Bacchiacca reflect the fact that this crowd is drawn from all strata of society: nobles, peasants, and everything in between. Most probably, according to the courtly artistic practice known as maniera, these are imitations of diverse figures in works by other artists of his day.
But the artist aims far beyond aesthetic gratification. The variety of social and physical types ensures that Bacchiacca’s cast of characters is no homogenous band of wilderness wanderers bent on quenching their thirst, but an eclectic assembly of pilgrims, coming from the four corners of the earth to participate in a miracle.
The animals he portrays may have been based on studies from the menagerie of Duke Cosimo I de' Medici of Florence, or made after earlier works Bacchiacca had painted in the Duke’s palace. Here, however, they reflect the infinite variety of God’s creation: from the tiny lap dog drinking from a noble lady’s platter (bottom left); to the lamb in the arms of a shepherd (centre) that may recall the agnus dei of John 1:29 or the lost sheep carried home in Luke 15:5–6; to the giraffe (top right) inspired by a gift (probably by the sultan of Egypt) to the private Medici zoo in 1487. These creatures—like their human counterparts—have come from far and wide to partake in the miracle. A homogenous flock of thirsty sheep and goats—though they would have been more likely attendants at the biblical event—might have downgraded the miraculous water; they could have seemed too ordinary by far. Bacchiacca’s extraordinary menagerie elevates it.
Finally, and most importantly, there’s the variety of vessels, from simple ceramic bowls (centre right) through ornate glass pitchers (lower right) to highly decorated jugs (centre left) such as the artist’s father perhaps made—his father, Ubertino di Bartolomeo (c.1446/7–1505), was a goldsmith. The vessels could owe their prominence to the painting’s possible original commission by a guild of jug makers. But, again, theology prevails. These people aren’t coming to drink. They’ve come equipped with a fabulous range of empty vessels, the best that each can muster, ready to fill with the miraculous water that confirms God’s presence in their midst.
17 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephʹidim; but there was no water for the people to drink. 2Therefore the people found fault with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the Lord to the proof?” 3But the people thirsted there for water, and the people murmured against Moses, and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” 4So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7And he called the name of the place Massah and Merʹibah, because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, and because they put the Lord to the proof by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
20 And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.
2 Now there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3And the people contended with Moses, and said, “Would that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord! 4Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.” 6Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, 7and the Lord said to Moses, 8“Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water; so you shall bring water out of the rock for them; so you shall give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” 9And Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as he commanded him.
10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” 11And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. 12And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” 13These are the waters of Merʹibah, where the people of Israel contended with the Lord, and he showed himself holy among them.