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Gustave Moreau

Head of Moses (Study in connection with Moses, in View of the Promised Land, Takes off his Sandals), c.1854, Lead pencil, white chalk on laminated tracing paper, 326 x 235 mm, Musée national Gustave Moreau, Paris, 2202, René-Gabriel Ojéda © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Tracey Emin

I Fell in Love Here, 23 Feb 2014, Neon, 22.9 x 160 cm, Location currently unknown, © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved DACS / Artimage, London and ARS, NY 2018. Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin

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

No Place for Complacency

Comparative Commentary by

God’s instructions for humans are both simple and complex, both straightforward and multilayered. Tracey Emin prompts us to consider the many layers of meaning that may attend a simple phrase. So, too, Pablo Picasso’s line drawings of bulls have a crisp elegance even while one knows they are the expression (and the product) of a multiplicity of experiments in depicting his subject.

Neither work is facile. What does it mean to fall in love? And what makes the place where it happened so special? Emin poses questions with her work that reward sustained reflection. Meanwhile Pablo Picasso’s sketches have a simplicity and clarity born of diligent work and painstaking analysis of the subject.

Analogously, the statements in the Ten Commandments are immediately transparent while also pregnant with layers of meaning. It might take a lifetime, for example, to discover the implications of ‘honour thy father and thy mother’. So, too, the prohibitions against murder, lying, adultery, theft, and covetousness are all indexed to an infinitely-modulated world of human reciprocity.

All the more so God’s declaration that ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me’ (Deuteronomy 5:6). In arresting, staccato statements, God confronts us with what it takes to have strong, loving relationships. A stripping away of the idols of our own making, in favour of the absolute truth of God, stands as the necessary condition of such flourishing.

And yet, God’s face is nowhere to be seen in this passage. In a book that depicts both a deity capable of parting the seas and also a people who will conquer a multitude, a single man emerges as the central figure. Deuteronomy 5 cements his centrality. Just as Moses’s head is the only thing in Gustave Moreau’s sketch, so God does nothing in Deuteronomy without his chosen servant. God’s speech is simultaneously Moses’s words. The entire text emerges from Moses’s mouth, in a series of three speeches. He stands ‘to declare … the words of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire’ (Deuteronomy 5:5). Moses embodies God’s thoughts, words, and power in human form. He operates as the source of all wise instruction and the judge of all that is just.

We too may see the divine only in the other human beings with whom we are in relationship. Moreau’s Moses reminds us that the human face may be that vehicle through which we encounter God most intensely. Indeed, Moses’s concentrated gaze in Moreau’s sketch evokes the God of Deuteronomy, whose character is made manifest in both compassion and unyielding intensity.

The compassion that Deuteronomy proclaims is that of a God who saves people from bondage; it depicts a deity who commands people to rest each week, despite all that need be done, so they never forget that liberating act of compassion; it teaches about the LORD who desires that ‘you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land’ (Deuteronomy 5:33).

But beware! Complacency has no place here. ‘You must therefore be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you’ (Deuteronomy 5:32–33). The compassionate God remains prepared to judge disloyalty; he has a power greater than the fiercest strength of any bull, and requires faithfulness to his instructions. The eyes of Moreau’s Moses may remind us of how the divine gaze penetrates our external façades and of how this God perceives what rebellion lurks inside us.

Emin’s neon remains an apt representation of the apparent tensions in humanity’s relationship with God envisioned by Deuteronomy 5. God’s love for his people glows warm and bright, ready to meet them in the place they stand, wherever that is. But to experience this love, one must accept a risk—that God’s fierce determination to make us fit for such relationship might, like the electric current in the neon tube, cause us pain.