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19.09.08 Broderick, Moses the Egyptian in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch

19.09.08 Broderick, Moses the Egyptian in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch

Moses the Egyptianin the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch presents the reader with an intriguing portrayal of Moses in the Anglo-Saxon illuminated Hexateuch, Claudius B.iv (Canterbury, eleventh century), as Herbert Broderick rightly suggests that it be called (rather than the once common "Aelfric Paraphrase" or "Old English Hexateuch"). The Old English version of the Pentateuch and Joshua is not a paraphrase, but rather a translation, nor is it attributed in its entirety to Aelfric of Eynsham, but only in part; moreover, it is not the only manuscript to contain the Old English Bible text. Some decades ago Claudius B.iv was one of the protagonists of Kurt Weitzmann's and Herbert L. Kessler's reconstruction of what, back then, was known as the "Cotton Genesis recension." [1] Weitzmann's method, many of us remember well, focused on the transmission of iconographic formulae, motifs, and imageries across the Middle Ages. Among the primary targets of "New Art History," Weitzmann's theories and those of his many students were said to be more concerned with models than with the actual works of art they studied. Too often, the critics pointed out, these models were reconstructed, hypothetical, lost archetypes. As far as Claudius B.iv is concerned, scholars were divided as to whether its imagery reflects dominantly ancient archetypes or is anchored in the Anglo-Saxon version of the biblical narrative. [2] In more recent years, Benjamin Withers, focusing on reception, suggested that the Anglo-Saxon artists used a great variety of sources, which they modified according to the needs of the recently translated Old-English text. [3]

The analysis of images of Moses in Claudius B.iv leads Herbert Broderick to such a lost model of the Weitzmannian tradition. It focuses on six attributes the artists of the Anglo-Saxon manuscript attached to Moses. Broderick observes that all of these attributes recall Egyptian imagery and that they are joined by three further elements, likewise of Egyptian background, found elsewhere in the visual narrative (such as Joseph's body in a mummy case). A careful and painstaking examination of some of these attributes, with a special focus on Moses's horned forehead, led Broderick to a portrayal of the prophet in the spirit of early Christian apologetic writers nourished from a Hellenistic Jewish tradition that presented Moses in terms of Greek values with deep roots in ancient Egyptian elements of divinity and royal powers.

The first, very brief, chapter sketches Broderick's method, and the second introduces some of the visual narratives in Claudius B.iv to show its late antique pictorial roots. The chapter begins with a discussion of the Fall of Lucifer, moves on to images of the Creation and their links to the Cotton Genesis tradition, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah, whose ark, indeed, takes the shape of a Nile vessel as it is known from late antique imagery in the eastern Mediterranean. The third chapter introduces Moses and a whole range of unusual attributes either unique to the Anglo-Saxon pictorial or appearing in it for the first time. To name but a few: Moses's horns; the round topped tablets of the Law; a diadem with a priestly frontlet worn not by Aaron, as one might expect, but by Moses; the ark where the infant is hidden takes the very stylized shape of yet another Nile vessel. Challenging Ruth Mellinkoff's earlier suggestion that the appearance of a horned Moses has to do with the horned helmets worn in northern Europe, [4] Broderick links the horns to an ancient Egyptian tradition.

The fourth chapter focuses on the horns based on recent assumptions that Jerome's version of Exod. 34:29 ("cumque descenderet Moses de monte Sinai tenebat duas tabulas testimonii et ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies..."), often considered a misunderstanding, actually grew out of a deliberate choice. Horns, Broderick explains in great detail, were a common symbol of divinity and power in the ancient world, and Jerome was, in all likelihood, quite familiar with their meanings. Pagan figures with horns were often associated and depicted with solar discs. These observations lead Broderick to Hellenistic Jewish portrayals of Moses, portrayals that tend to present the prophet in the cultural language of Greek philosophy; via this path he is imaged with the features of a priest, a king, a commander, and a high priest. These traditions, which were dealt with by such Jewish authors as Philo of Alexandria, Ezekiel the Tragedian, and the enigmatic Artapanus, of whom we know very little, were preserved in the Christian tradition. This was especially true among the early Christian apologists, who sought to emphasize Moses's great antiquity and the historical priority of Judaism vis-à-vis paganism.

Broderick notes that these traditions never speak of a horned Moses and suggests that the association with horns was not grounded in an understanding of the text, or a particular version of that text, but was born out of the way Moses was perceived in these traditions. Here Broderick treads on shaky ground as he chooses to rely on Russel Gmirkin's bold thesis that the Hebrew Bible was a product of third-century BCE Hellenistic Jewish culture, the same culture that produced the Septuagint. [5] The latter (Exod. 34:29) describes Moses coming down from Mount Sinai as "glorified," where Jerome later has cornuta--"horned,"--and the unvocalized Hebrew has q-r-n (radiated or horned), understood as a metaphor in the sense of the ancient meaning of "horn." Broderick suggests that by using the word "glorified," the Septuagint was interpreting the meaning of q-r-n. However, there seems to be no real need to fall back on Gmirkin's thesis in order to create meaningful links among the different versions that eventually affected the visual renderings.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss further "Egyptianizing" elements: Among others, a cloth attached to a cross to illustrate Exodus 34:33-35, which tells that Moses covered his face with a veil while addressing the Israelites after having encountered God, and a depiction of a horned Pan in a late antique textile from Egypt.

Broderick's observations lead him to suggest that the Moses narrative (together with other sequences) in Claudius B.iv harks back to a lost late antique pictorial source of Egyptian background and he supports his claim with Weitzmann's and Kessler's suggestion of many years ago that the Cotton Genesis is also of Egyptian origin. Exploring a great wealth of written sources, Broderick goes well beyond what the traditional search for pictorial sources implied. In part this has to do with the fact that Broderick had no visual sources to rely on. But the journey he makes in tackling the complex set of traditions about Moses is impressive. He is well aware that the search for models has been fiercely criticized and its importance questioned at least since the early 1990s, and at times he becomes quite apologetic in describing his method (9-13). The description of the Egyptianizing portrayal of Moses in itself is certainly of great interest and quite intriguing. However, the depiction we look at is an Anglo-Saxon portrayal and many a reader, including this reviewer, will find it difficult to concur with Broderick's suggestion that the Anglo-Saxon artists were not aware of the original meanings of the images they were copying. Perhaps they were not. But they must have imbued their artistic creations with some meaning. Even if ancient models were very highly valued, do we really have to assume that in their later reproductions they were completely devoid of any topical meaning that would give a voice to the way eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon Christians viewed Moses? The reader is thus left with the hypothetical reconstruction of an intriguing "Egyptianizing" image of Moses with strong Hellenistic Jewish as well as early Christian elements and with open questions: What did the eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon artists and patrons associate with these puzzling images of Moses as commander, as prophet, priest, or scribe? Does it make sense that the patrons could not understand what they were looking at and that they ordered the copy of an ill-understood model just for the sake of its antiquity? Research into medieval visual narration in recent decades seems to suggest otherwise. Whereas Moses's image might very well be a witness of interesting paths of cultural migration reproduced by eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon artists, the question as to how the adopted ancient model was adapted, reinterpreted, and recontextualized must, then, remain the object of future investigation.



1. Kurt Weitzmann and Herbert L. Kessler, The Cotton Genesis: The Illustrations in the Manuscripts of the Septuagint, Volume I. British Library Codex Otho (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

2. C. R. Dodwell and Peter Clemoes, (eds.), The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger, 1974).

3. Benjamin C. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Cotton Claudius B.iv.: The Frontier of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England (London: British Library, 2007).

4. Ruth W. Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997).

5. Russel E. Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).