The Song of Miriam by Luca Giordano

Luca Giordano

The Song of Miriam, Late 17th century, Oil on canvas, 152 x 230 cm, Private Collection, Photo: © Agnew's, London / Bridgeman Images

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Prophetess and Musician

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After the crossing of the Red Sea, marking their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Miriam the Prophetess leads the Israelite women in worship, singing to the accompaniment of her ‘timbrel’ (Exodus 15:20).

The Song of Miriam by Neapolitan baroque artist Luca Giordano (1634–1705), and based on Exodus 15:20, depicts the ‘prophetess’ clad in a heavenly blue cloak, with eyes raised in ecstatic praise of the Lord, as she directs the women’s choir with her drumstick (cf. Philo, Moses, 1.180 and Ephrem, Commentary on Exodus, 15.3).

Drorah Setel (1998: 36) notes that:

Miriam’s designation as a prophet and her unquestioned leadership of the victory celebration in Exodus indicate that ancient Israelites were also familiar with forms of female authority that did not exist into later periods.

And, much earlier, Augustine suggested a parity in the separate leadership roles of Moses and Miriam in the liturgical life of their community: ‘This is what Moses sang and the sons of Israel with him, what Miriam the prophetess sang and the daughters of Israel with her’ (Sermon, 363.4).

Early Christian writers likened Miriam to the female biblical prophets: Deborah, Huldah, Judith, Mary, Elizabeth, Anna, and the daughters of Philip (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, 8.1.2). In addition, she was regarded by the Church Fathers as a type of Church—for example in Ambrose's description of her ‘as a virgin [who] with unstained spirit joins together the religious gatherings of the people to sing divine songs’ (Concerning Virgins, 1.3.12). They also understood Miriam as a type of Mary the Mother of Christ. Notable among these was Peter Chrysologus who drew a parallel between the two women’s names, Miriam (Hebrew: Miryam) being the same as Mary (Greek: Mariam) (Sermon, 146). Giordano, who painted many representations of the Virgin Mary, might well have intended to represent Miriam as a type of Mary, given the similarity of Miriam’s attire in this rendition to the Virgin’s attire in his many other paintings.  

This typological approach is further seen in the Church Fathers’ allegorical interpretation of Miriam’s frame drum—with stretched skin across its wooden frame—as a type of the Cross (Augustine, Sermon, 363.4), and its lack of moisture as a reference to Mary’s virginity:

For as the tambourine produces a loud sound, having no moisture in it and being quite dry, so also virginity is clear and noised abroad and has nothing in itself of the life-preserving moisture of this life. (Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity ,19)



Lienhard, J. T. (ed.). 2001. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament, 3 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), pp. 82–83

Rotelle, J. E. (ed.). 1995. Works of St Augustine: A Translation for the Twenty-First Century (Hyde Park: New York City Press)

Schaff, P. et al. (eds). 1994. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2.10 (Peabody: Hendrickson)

Setel, Drorah O’Donnell. 1998. ‘Exodus’, in The Women's Bible Commentary, ed. by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster/John Know Press), pp. 30–39

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