Moses Striking the Rock by Bacchiacca


Moses Striking the Rock, After 1525, Oil and gold on panel, 100 x 80 cm, National Galleries Scotland; Purchased 1967, NG 2291, © National Galleries of Scotland, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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A Miracle of Presence

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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.

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