Ezra Shows the Ten Commandments on Tablets, from Doré Bible by Gustave Doré

Gustave Doré

Ezra Shows the Ten Commandments on Tablets, from Doré Bible, 1866, Engraving, Universal History Archive / UIG / Bridgeman Images

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The Bloody Book of Law

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This engraving is by Gustave Doré (1832–83), a French artist famous for his printed illustrations of over 100 books, among them Dante’s Divine Comedy, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and, most famously, the Bible.

Doré’s illustrated Bible in folio format, published in 1865, was a runaway international bestseller. It is featured in a scene in the Stephen Spielberg film Amistad, in which two imprisoned African slaves, though illiterate, ‘read’ the story of Jesus through Doré’s illustrations of scenes in the Gospels.

Its subject is Nehemiah 8:2–4: ‘accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly ... Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose’. The ‘book of the law’ that Ezra brings forth should be a scroll. But here Doré gives an iconographic nod to Israel’s first encounter with divine Law at Sinai. Ezra points to what is inscribed on a large tablet with twin lobes at the top, suggesting the two ‘tables of the law’ that Moses delivered to the Israelites after his forty-day audience with God. Doré’s representation concurs with widely held rabbinic esteem for Ezra as a second Moses who delivers the Law of God again to the wayward Israelites: Ezra saved the Law from oblivion (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 20a); he was the equal of Moses, and would have been the one to deliver the Law to Israel had not Moses done so first (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21b).

This second dispensation of holy Law, however, is attended with none of the sound and fury of the first at Sinai. Ezra stands not at the foot of a volcanic mountain, but atop a handmade pedestal facing the town square. And unlike the cowed multitude at Sinai, Ezra’s hearers do not maintain a horrified distance but instead draw near, some close enough to touch him. At lower left, a woman bows her head as a man standing nearby appears to look disdainfully upon her—an ominous intimation of things to come.

 

References

Richardson, Joanna. 1980. Gustave Doré (Cassell: London)


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