Exodus 16

Manna in the Desert

Commentaries by Elena Greer

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Bill Viola

Emergence, 2002, Colour high-definition video rear projection, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; 2004.61, © Bill Viola; Photo: Kira Perov

Bread of Heaven

Commentary by Elena Greer

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Emergence is one of a series of over twenty works that Bill Viola made as part of a study of the representation of human emotion called The Passions. The works were inspired by medieval and Renaissance painting. As Viola notes, he ‘wanted to get inside these pictures … to inhabit them, to feel them breathe…’ (Walsh 2003: 199). 

Along with its baptismal resonances, the work can also be read in parallel with the story of the manna in Exodus 16, as a miraculous physical intervention that defies human understanding. The film shows—in extreme slow motion—the emergence of an almost naked man, his skin as white as hoarfrost (Exodus 16:14), from a marble sarcophagus or cistern.  

Emergence is the result of Viola’s experience of the fifteenth-century Florentine artist Masolino’s fresco of Christ as the Man of Sorrows in the church of San Giovanni Battista, Empoli. The Man of Sorrows is a type of image that focuses on the naked torso of the dead Christ: his body shown half-enclosed by his marble tomb. The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist are occasionally—as in Masolino's work—shown holding his limp hands, their faces wrenched in grief. 

Viola, like Masolino, does not abstract the emotion of this scene from its human forms; rather, he uses the body as his principal medium of expression.

Accompanied by choral music, set against a mottled blue background resembling the now-deteriorated blue pigment that Masolino used to evoke an abstract heavenly setting, this emergence has an undeniably miraculous quality.  

Two women witness the event as though on our behalf—they stand in for us, the viewers. At the same time, they are like the Israelites in Exodus 16: recipients of an otherworldly phenomenon, testifying to it with their touch.  

Viola reinforces the body’s breach of our understood physical surroundings by revealing that he has broken through the surface of still waters, as if from another world. As he rises up from this amniotic place a seemingly endless supply of clear, fresh water flows over the edges of the ‘tomb’, disrupting the women’s physical as well as emotional space: the emergence has created a change in the space in which they live. God’s divine manifestation in the wilderness is paralleled here in this body's purity and presence. 



Walsh, John (ed.). 2003. ‘A Conversation: Hans Belting and Bill Viola’, in Bill Viola: The Passions (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) 

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin

Bread plate 'Waste Not Want Not', c.1850, Stoneware, Diameter: 33 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art; Gift in memory of Mr and Mrs Orrel A. Parker, 2009.377, Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, USA / Gift in memory of Mr and Mrs Orrel A. Parker / Bridgeman Images

Give Us This Day…

Commentary by Elena Greer

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Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the English designer and architect responsible for the success of the Gothic Revival style, made this encaustic plate in 1849 at the height of his career. His collaboration with the ceramics manufacturer Herbert Minton—with whom he produced this plate, as well as the encaustic floor-tiles for the Palace of Westminster—began in 1840. 

This plate belongs to a set featuring mottoes in Gothic script. The words ‘waste not, want not’ are here paired with a design of radiating ears of wheat, indicating its function as a bread plate.  

In a literal sense the saying reflects the text of Exodus: the Israelites are encouraged to consume all their daily rations of manna and, however much or little they gather, they do not want for more (Exodus 16:20–21). The divine rituals and instructions accompanying the gathering of the manna convey the message that obedient respect will be rewarded with fulfilment, a message that is reflected in the motto. This fulfilment was not the result of the Israelites’ hard work of gathering but, like the feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14:13–21; Mark 6:31–44; Luke 9:12–17; John  6:1–14), it was a miraculous sustenance.  

Such themes of obedience, ritual, and miracle have clear eucharistic connotations too. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Pugin’s writings stressed the primacy of Gothic (or rather pre-Reformation) design as the one ‘true’ spiritual style. The use of Gothic script for the message on this plate thus emphasizes the sanctity of bread. The language of Victorian moral instruction has an allusion to Christ and the Eucharist couched within it, just as, for Christians, such allusions are figured in the episode of the manna.  

The message of the plate works regardless of whether, like  Pugin, one regards physical bread as transubstantiated in the Mass, or as only symbolic of Christ’s body. In its apparently simple design and message, it expresses the convergence of the most humble and commonplace foodstuff with the divine; the sustainer of mortal life with the provider of eternal life.

Ercole de' Roberti

The Israelites gathering Manna, c.1490, Tempera on canvas, transferred from wood, 28.9 x 63.5 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought 1886, NG1217, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

A Stage on the Journey

Commentary by Elena Greer

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This small scene is painted with the restraint, precision, and harmony for which  Ercole  de’ Roberti became chief painter to the rulers of Ferrara in the late 1480s. 

It is a fragment of a polyptych  made to commemorate Eleonora of Aragon, the Duchess of Ferrara, who died in 1493. We know from a copy that the  main panel of the altarpiece  (now lost) showed  the dead Christ lying across his mother’s lap, a pose known as the Lamentation or ‘Pietà’. 

Ercole’s skill was to marry elegance with earthiness, arguably a visual parallel of the encounter of human and divine encapsulated in Exodus 16. This story of God’s providence to the Israelites was read by Christians as a prefiguration of Christ’s salvific sacrifice. 

The slender figures of Moses and Aaron oversee the event from a position on the left. As witnesses rather than participants they are intended perhaps to share with the viewer an understanding of the significance of this episode in God’s revelation through the events of an unfolding history.  

By contrast, the Israelites busy scooping up the heavenly bread seem to represent the mundane reality of human hunger and desperation. The result of drawings from life,  Ercole  expresses their physicality in a range of poses: kneeling, crouching, balancing. A hefty woman tilts a jar straight into her mouth, a reminder that despite scrabbling or greed each was miraculously satisfied (Exodus 16:18).  

The desert appears vast because it is enclosed. Ercole  has created a deep stage set demarcated by the simple wooden structures of the Israelites’ camp. The makeshift huts—one is still under construction—might serve to compare humanly-fabricated security with that afforded by God. The raw wooden beams against the wide blue sky emphasize the contrast—and meeting—of earth, the source of need, and heaven, the source of sustenance. 

The theatrical backdrop lends the scene grandeur, framing a very human plight with dignity. Ercole’s image reassures us that suffering can have a divine purpose, which in the theological scheme of the altarpiece applies not only to the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land but to the Christian worshipper of the fifteenth century. And today.

Bill Viola :

Emergence, 2002 , Colour high-definition video rear projection

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin :

Bread plate 'Waste Not Want Not', c.1850 , Stoneware

Ercole de' Roberti :

The Israelites gathering Manna, c.1490 , Tempera on canvas, transferred from wood

Corpus and Community

Comparative commentary by Elena Greer

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Eleonora of Aragon, commemorated by the altarpiece for which Ercole de’ Roberti’s predella panel was made, was particularly devoted to the Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ (the eucharistic host). Christ’s dead body, stretched across his mother’s knees was the focus of the main panel of the altarpiece. 

The predella panel showing the Israelites gathering manna was originally situated directly to the left of a ciborium—a compartment that held the host—incorporated into the predella. Ercole painted the ciborium door with The Institution of the Eucharist (The National Gallery, London, NG1127). 

Thus—reading from left to right—the manna literally precedes and prefigures the body of Christ, the bread of the Eucharist, the true bread of heaven as described in John 6:58.  

The first part of John 6 recounts the miracle of the bread and the loaves (vv.1–14) when Jesus fed the 5000. But, according to John, the Jews continued to ask him for a sign (v.30)—one like the manna that God gave to their Hebrew forefathers in the desert, as told in Exodus 16. At the time this altarpiece was made, Christ’s claim that he was the true manna, the Bread of Life, was interpreted typologically (Hylen 2007: 137). The manna foreshadowed the bread of the Eucharist and the nourishment provided by Christ’s body.  

The inscription on Augustus Pugin’s bread plate is a reminder of the sacred nature of this staple in daily life. The exhortation to ‘waste not, want not’, in religiously-symbolic and somewhat  forbidding Gothic script, demands respect for this most essential and timeless food. The motto also recalls Moses’s command to the Israelites that they collect and consume as much as they could, for the bread would rot and perish if they did not (Exodus 16:20–21).  

The rot of the manna is the rot of the physical body and all material things. As Jesus told his hearers in reference to the manna: Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you’ (John 6:27). Pugin’s plate is a reminder, though, of the importance of material types in their reference to spiritual things: manna/bread symbolizes, or even transforms into, the heavenly body. One might extend this analogy to the Gospels: their words are human and centre upon the divine Son’s incarnation in mortal flesh, but they are fundamentally concerned with the Kingdom of Heaven. 

The origins of the Man of Sorrows of Masolino’s fresco, the inspiration for Bill Viola’s work, lie in Byzantium but it became popular in Italy in the thirteenth century on account of its association with Pope Gregory the Great’s vision in which Christ appeared in this form—after death, standing in his tomb—as Gregory was celebrating Mass. The miracle was thought to prove the reality of transubstantiation. As displayed in this form, Christ’s body is shown to be the real eucharistic body, the sacramental fulfilment of Pugin’s bread.  

Viola’s video finishes in a Lamentation scene: the body of the young man lying, limp, in the arms of the two women like that in Ercole’s altarpiece. In Emergence Viola conveys both the religious and secular inflections of The Passions, the title of the series, conflating emotional responses with physical suffering through the medium of the body.  

By enlivening (literally animating) the witnesses to this appearance of physical suffering through the engaging and emotive medium of video, Viola uses all three bodies to convey recognizable and shareable emotions. The suffering of the pale and bloodless body is transferred to the women and through them to us, and so we meditate upon his and our mortality.  

Like bread itself, all three artworks have a communal aspect, which can speak to the communality that is centre-stage in Exodus 16. Viola’s video invites humane identification with personal suffering; it establishes fellowship. The daily bread on Pugin’s plate reminds us of our shared bodily dependence on physical nourishment. The consecrated host within Ercole’s ciborium constitutes a communion of eucharistic participants as Exodus’s miraculous bread constituted a community of manna gatherers.  

Viola’s pale youth in his tomb is not so much ‘rescued’ as embraced: received. The women as Viola describes them are midwives of a ‘rebirth’ and emergence—accompanied by overflowing water—a reminder of baptism and new life. ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35). 



Hylen, Susan. 2005. Allusion and Meaning in John 6, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 137 (Berlin: De Gruyter)

Next exhibition: Exodus 17:1–7

Exodus 16

Revised Standard Version

16 They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2And the whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3and said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your murmurings against the Lord. For what are we, that you murmur against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you in the evening flesh to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the Lord has heard your murmurings which you murmur against him—what are we? Your murmurings are not against us but against the Lord.”

9 And Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, ‘Come near before the Lord, for he has heard your murmurings.’ ” 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11And the Lord said to Moses, 12“I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”

13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning dew lay round about the camp. 14And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground. 15When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat. 16This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, every man of you, as much as he can eat; you shall take an omer apiece, according to the number of the persons whom each of you has in his tent.’ ” 17And the people of Israel did so; they gathered, some more, some less. 18But when they measured it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat. 19And Moses said to them, “Let no man leave any of it till the morning.” 20But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and became foul; and Moses was angry with them. 21Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers apiece; and when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay by to be kept till the morning.’ ” 24So they laid it by till the morning, as Moses bade them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. 25Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. 26Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.” 27On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. 28And the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? 29See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days; remain every man of you in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” 30So the people rested on the seventh day.

31 Now the house of Israel called its name manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. 32And Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ ” 33And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before the Lord, to be kept throughout your generations.” 34As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the testimony, to be kept. 35And the people of Israel ate the manna forty years, till they came to a habitable land; they ate the manna, till they came to the border of the land of Canaan. 36(An omer is the tenth part of an ephah.)