Sketch with bulls by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso

Sketch with bulls, 1946, Pen and ink, 210 x 350 mm, Private Collection, France, © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist's Rights Society (ARS), New York Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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Idol Sketches

Commentary by

The bull, the subject of this study by Pablo Picasso, hovers over the second commandment: ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’ (Deuteronomy 5:8). This command prohibits a practice that was not just common in the world of ancient Israel, but the absolute norm in ancient worship. Often called idols, finely crafted statues representing a goddess or god filled the temples and shrines of the ancient world.

By contrast, the authors of Deuteronomy rejected this norm, and this rejection was a crucial element of what would identify Israel as a unique community. Israel was to demonstrate its allegiance to its God by rejecting other deities (the first commandment, Deuteronomy 5:6–7) and by declining to adopt the dominant mode of engaging with those gods: worshipping a statue.

Israel would fail miserably. The story of the golden calf is well known: while the people wait for Moses to return from the top of Mount Sinai with more of God’s words, they tire of the delay, and they ask Aaron, Moses’s brother and lieutenant, to make them a statue to worship. Offering up their own jewellery as raw materials, they watch as Aaron produces a golden calf: their rejection of God takes the physical form of a young bull (Deuteronomy 9:8–21; Exodus 32).

Creatively adapted, Picasso’s images of the bull can help us to reflect on the second commandment and successive human responses to it. His diverse depictions of the bull can be read in a way that recalls the myriad ways that the people of God have expressed their disobedience.

No two people love in the same way, nor do they rebel in the same way. Ever was it so.

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