Ezra Reads the Law, from Die Bibel in Bildern (Leipzig, G. Wigand) by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Ezra Reads the Law, from Die Bibel in Bildern (Leipzig, G. Wigand), 1860, Woodcut, p.308, Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

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‘Words, Words, Words’

Commentary by

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s Ezra Reads the Law is a woodcut that appears in Carolsfeld’s folio edition of the Bible, Die Bibel in Bildern (The Bible in Pictures). It was published in Leipzig in thirty parts from 1852 to 1860. An English edition followed the original German in 1861.

Schnorr von Carolsfeld was associated with a group of painters who called themselves the Nazarenes, or St Luke’s Brotherhood (Lukasbund), that eschewed modern styles along with typology and allegory. Schnorr von Carolsfeld himself especially took a literal, narrative approach to his subjects, finding his inspiration in early Renaissance art and, more specifically, in the works of Albrecht Dürer.

Here Ezra, in ecclesiastical robes and bishop’s mitre, is every inch the medieval Catholic priest. He speaks from an elevated lectern, Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s visual interpretation of Nehemiah 8:4–5:

The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose ... And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people.

The scribe raises his right hand, gesturing in the direction of his rapt audience. Some receive his words with adoration, others, in apparent agony (‘For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law’; Nehemiah 8:9). Ezra is flanked by walls of neatly cut stonemasonry; an open archway at centre right, presumably ‘the Water Gate’ (Nehemiah 8:5), is occupied by some of Ezra’s more distant hearers. At far right, a portion of the wall blocks the sunlight, casting mid-morning shadows on an adjoining wall of the courtyard (‘[Ezra] read from [the law] facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday’; Nehemiah 8:3).

Beyond the wall at upper right, outsiders, some of them no more than diminutive silhouettes on the horizon, go about their business and keep their distance. Earlier in the narrative Nehemiah had rebuffed efforts of the indigenous people to become involved in his project, telling their leaders, ‘you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem’ (Nehemiah 2:20).

The separation enforced by Nehemiah’s walls is met here with the separatism enjoined by Ezra’s words.



‎Schiff, Gert et al. 1981. German Masters of the Nineteenth Century: Paintings and Drawings from the Federal Republic of Germany (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), pp. 272–73 

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