“Moses and the Brazen Serpent” Anthony Van Dyck, 1618-20 Prado. At one point when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness they began to speak against God and Moses, asking why had they been brought there to die. God chastised them with a plague of venomous fiery serpents and many of those who were bitten died. When they repented, God ordered Moses to fashion a fiery serpent and place it on a pole promising that when, those bitten saw it, they would live. In today’s gospel passage (John 2:13ff), Jesus alludes to this episode seeing it as prefiguring his own crucifixion, by which we who have been bitten by sin, may live. Van Dyck sets the Israelites, Moses and the bronze serpent against the sky from which serpents descend. In fact, the top of canvas was extended at some point and fiery serpents depicting falling from the sky, a detail not in the original painting and not in the bible. The alteration lays emphasis on God’s punishment whereas Van Dyck actually wanted to show God’s mercy. In the painting, the figures are located on a barely visible ledge and their skin shows red wounds where they have been bitten, and so what is depicted is the moment when the doomed are pulled back from the brink of annihilation by God’s mercy. On the right the woman faints. (She resembles a penitent Magdalene from another work by the artist.) A man supports her as she falls. Several preparatory drawings for this work have survived. One shows her supported by two men who are direct copies of the two figures supporting the dead Christ in Caravaggio’s “Entombment of Christ” (1603) now at the Vatican Museums. These two figures become one in the final version. He places a naked male figure at the front, naked and bitten the serpents, this man on all fours is a visual plea for mercy. He is almost like the serpent condemned in Genesis 3:14. Like Caravaggio’s “Entombment” a central figure is clothed in bright red, a device which lifts the group drawing the eye. In this scene, Van Dyck wants us to see not God’s anger but rather God’s mercy shown to the repentant sinner.
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