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.
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.)