The Old Testament is a fountain of cultural knowledge, an unending source of timeless stories, the origin point of Western law, and an endearing triumph of religious writing. In the many volumes of the Old Testament can be found the books of the Jewish Torah, Tanakh, and many other accounts that relate to the history of the Hebrews. For Christians, the Old Testament is the prologue to the life of Christ, whereas to Muslims the Old Testament is a source of knowledge of many of the patriarchs spoken of in the Koran. As the site of origin for so many cultures, the Old Testament has been portrayed on canvas more times than any other single source.
The beginning of the universe as we know it has always been a favorite topic for artists: never ones to shy away from imitating the divine. In the Renaissance, European society, driven by the benefits of the printing press and the spread of knowledge, began to become better acquainted with the Old Testament, and were particularly inspired by the concept that man was created in God’s own image. For Renaissance painters like Michelangelo, the divine was inside every man and woman, and in his iconic Creation of Adam the divine spark is transmitted through the outstretched fingertips of God. The creation of the world and all living things in seven days inspired the mystic engravings of William Blake, whose artistic approach relied on his self-professed, prophet-like visions, and the Mannerist painter Tintoretto, who drew upon pagan traditions to fashion a timeless image of divine order.
In the earthly Eden, the garden of perfection and innocence on earth, the Old Testament situates the first man and woman created by the divine. Jan The Elder Brueghel, however, chose to shrink the figure of Adam to a tiny detail in his luscious and vibrant imagining of the garden. Brueghel drew upon natural and botanical studies that had grown in popularity during the Northern Renaissance, to paint animals and plants that he would never have seen with his own eyes. But it was the calamitous event that bought the serenity of the Eden era to a close that has most captivated the imagination of artists throughout the ages. The Fall of Man is displayed in rich, figurative clarity by Titian, and in a more evocative, expressive manner by Gauguin, who became close to obsessed by the concept of ‘The Fall’ during the last years of his life spent in another earthly Eden; the island of Tahiti.
The story of Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve, the first children on earth, is a tragic tale that leads on directly from the Fall of Man. William-Adolphe Bouguereau engaged in an elegant character study of the pair as infants, already displaying the traits that would lead to their downfall. Jan van Eyck’s magnificent Ghent Altarpiece features a simple yet stirring depiction of the fatal moment. After reaping their harvest, both Cain and Abel offered their crops to God. God accepted Abel’s but refused Cain’s, citing some unknown sin that the latter was harboring. Cain was distraught and invited Abel out for a walk in the recently ploughed fields. Tintoretto’s canvas, full of sudden and shocking violence, depicts what happened next.
As the generations after Adam and Eve became mired in sin and decadence, God placed his trust in the family of one man, Noah. Noah was instructed to take two of every living thing and build an Ark. Jan The Elder Brueghel does not depict the peaceful, bobbing ship laden with life and hope, but the consequence of the furious wrath of God. As the Ark shrinks into the distance, the maddened crowds condemned to drown desperately climb trees, mourn, and wail. The pioneering abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky used the theme of the flood as an engine for one of his musical ‘improvisations’ in paint, seizing upon the tempestuous fury and chaos of the flood itself. Michelangelo, in true Humanist style, decided to paint one of the neglected events in the flood narrative. After reaching dry land, Noah does the most human thing of all; he celebrates and gets drunk. The argument between his sons on how best to deal with this event gives a warming sense of the humanity of this biblical tale that anyone can relate to.
The generations that followed the family of Noah after the flood soon came to be united as one people, and despite their multitudes, ensured that they kept a shared language with which to communicate. Having congregated in a great city known as Babel, the occupants began building a tower to reach to the heavens. Offended by their pride and conceit, God made it so that they all spoke different languages. This vengeful act ensured that the occupants of Babel could no longer collaborate on the great tower. Pieter The Elder Brueghel created perhaps the most iconic depiction of the Tower in paint. Submitting to little sense of spatial order, Brueghel’s Tower is a symbol of a world utterly separated from our own.
Later on in the book of Genesis, the Grandson of Abraham dreams about another structure leading to heaven, a ladder. Known in Biblical lore as Jacob’s Ladder, the imaginary structure has often been seen as a symbol of the need to attain virtue and earn a place in the afterlife. But, as William Blake’s engraving reminds us, the angels in the dream are going both up and down the ladder, and have the ability to both ascend and descend. Marc Chagall’s ladder takes the tale back to its Jewish roots, and places a humble wooden stepladder in the middle of a small town at sunset, taking the timeless dream back into the present.
The master of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt van Rijn, dedicated a substantial period of his working life to committing the stories of the Bible to the canvas. Due to his profound interest in Jewish mythology and history, as well as the prevalent Christian life that pervaded Europe at the time, Rembrandt’s Old Testament studies are profoundly insightful. The three primary monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, all call themselves Abrahamic as together they trace their lineage back to the patriarch Abraham. The patriarch took his family to Canaan, a land promised to them by God, and left the city of Ur. After God promised that he would be the father of nations, Abraham’s wife Sarah offered a local Egyptian woman, Hagar, to help speed up the process. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, who Muslims trace their lineage from.
Following the birth of Isaac to his wife Sarah, Abraham was issued a divine test. Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s 1617 painting portrays a sense of family warmth surrounded by an ominous force apparent to anyone familiar with the tale. Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The patriarch bound his son and took him to Mount Moriah – the site of the Garden of Eden and future home of the Temple Mount - where his hand was stopped at the last moment by God, eventually sacrifices a lamb in his place. Rembrandt’s canvas portrays with horrifying clarity the upturned neck of Isaac, with the hand of Abraham clutching the mouth of his son to stifle his cries. Whereas Caravaggio’s interpretation draws all attention to the terrified expression on Isaac’s face. Naturally, theologians and intellectuals throughout the ages have been both captivated and mystified by this seemingly cruel request.
The subject of a famous Broadway musical, the story Joseph, the grandson of Isaac, certainly is a dramatic goldmine. The favorite son of his father Jacob, Joseph was given a multicolored coat as a symbol of his love. In jealously, his brothers plotted against him and saw him sold into slavery. Eventually sold to a guard of the Egyptian Pharoah, Joseph finds himself the subject of his new owner’s wife’s affections. Refusing her advances, the wife of the Pharaoh’s guard becomes angry and claims Joseph tried to rape her. After a spell in prison, the Pharaoh soon realized that Joseph’s vivid interpretation of dreams could serve the good of the realm and the young, exiled farmer was given a place at court as the adviser to the Pharaoh. Following a famine at home, Joseph’s brothers travelled to Egypt to request alms, finding themselves in front of the royal adviser. Peter von Cornelius captured the moving moment when the brothers recognized each other, and Pontormo portrays the reunion of father and son in Egypt, while the vibrant metropolis goes about its business.
In the second book of the Old Testament appears a crucial figure for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Moses was born at a time when the Pharaoh of Egypt was suspicious of the growing number of Israelites and so ordered an entire generation of Hebrew male babies killed. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and floated him down the Nile River in the hope that he would be found and be given a new life. Claude Lorrain foregrounds the landscape in this crucial scene and shrinks the action to a minor detail of nature. Whereas Lorrain’s contemporary Poussin focuses on the moment Moses is found by the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh, and, with the prominent appearance of a chateau, situates the action firmly in his own contemporary France. Moses grew up as a Prince of Egypt, ignorant of his origins. Despite this, Moses killed an Egyptian slave driver who was beating a Hebrew slave. For this he fled into the desert and received the first of his divine revelations, the burning bush, which would lead to his becoming a prophet.
The burning bush had revealed to Moses his divine mission; to deliver to freedom those of his people enslaved by the Egyptians. Moses took them from their bondage in Egypt and into the desert, where they miraculously lived on a foodstuff known as manna. Guido Reni portrays this edible gift as emanating from God in the Hebrew’s most desperate time. Tintoretto goes even further, to display the flake-like food raining down as the heavens part. As they travelled through the desert Moses imparted to his people the shared laws that would bind them together as a people. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s bombastic and cinematic depiction of the moment that the Ten Commandments were revealed would greatly influence twentieth-century cinematic versions of the story.
If the life of Moses would lay the foundations for countless cinematic narratives, the parting of the Red Sea was surely the climax in the tale. From medieval church murals and frescoes to the present day, the dramatic stand-off, and the miraculous divine intervention, has been the stuff of artistic dreams. Pursued by the Pharaoh’s army, Moses and his people reached the shores of the Red Sea. This was surely the end of their journey. Without boats to cross and with the aggressors in hot pursuit, Moses parted the waters to allow his people to cross through the middle. After they had passed, and with the Pharaoh’s army following closely behind, the Red Sea returned to its natural state, engulfing those hell bent on the Hebrew’s destruction. From the stirring Renaissance visions of Andrea Previtali and Bronzino, to the mass-produced engravings of Siegfried Detler Bendixen, the parting of the Red Sea has provided artists with an unparalleled moment of raw drama.
In the book of Judges, a prominent hero of the Hebrew people appears, a man called Samson imbued with supernatural strength. Léon Bonnat’s tense and sinewy painting of Samson prizing open the jaws of a lion has been a popular gesture for painters across the centuries to depict. After a life of heroic might and all-out war against the Hebrew’s ancient enemy, the Philistines, Samson falls in love with a woman called Delilah. Bribed by his enemies, Delilah agrees to discover the source of Samson’s superhuman strength and take it from him. In a tender and tragic scene, Gerrit Van Honthorst shows the warrior Samson resting peacefully while his lover cuts locks of his hair after discovering his weakness. With his hair all shorn off, Samson loses his powers and his defeated and blinded by the Philistines. Following the turbulent scene depicted by Rembrandt, the former strong man is put to work monotonously grinding a mill in an underground cavern.
Into the biblical narrative of the Hebrews came a child called David, a figure who would become an inspired and troubled King, a writer of religious poetry, the Psalms, and the origin of a new Judean dynasty, the House of David, from which Jesus would trace his lineage centuries later. As a child David was send to assist the Israelite army in its battles against the Philistines. Merely a supplies runner, David was present when the giant Goliath suggested the two armies decide their differences in one-on-one combat. While King Saul was deciding who out of his men would be strong enough to defeat Goliath, the child David put himself forward as a candidate. With a few small stones in his slingshot, David defeated the giant and set himself on the way to divinity. Caravaggio’s memorable take on the aftermath features one of the only known images of the painter himself. But rather than imagine himself as David, Caravaggio painted his self-portrait on the decapitated head of Goliath, as a testament to his shame at having lived a life of sin.
Lord Frederick Leighton’s 1868 painting depicts David and his friend Jonathan, son of the King Saul, as ideal personifications of male heroism. It was shortly after this event, when both Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle, that David was proclaimed King. The first thing David did following his royal ascent was to bring the Ark of the Covenant, the box containing the holiest items in the Jewish faith, back to Jerusalem where they remained outside his private tent. William Brassey Hole’s painting of this scene captures the joy and pomp that is often associated with King David’s reign. David has been represented countless times in art and literature, occasionally as a triumphant symbol of male prowess, and occasionally, as with Gustav Moreau’s painting here, as a thoughtful and contemplative philosopher-turned-king.
Like all the patriarchs, prophets, and figures in the Old Testament, David is portrayed as profoundly human, in comparison to the divinity of God. He is shown making mistakes driven by raw, human impulses. The point is: he was not without fault. The story of David and Bathsheba is one of the most poignant in the whole of the Old Testament. As Jean-Léon Gérôme magnificently shows, the beautiful Bathsheba was bathing on her roof when King David saw her from the roof of his palace. Paul Cezanne shows Bathsheba in the eyes of King David, her figure swollen and dwarfing the surrounding countryside, which shrinks in the face of her beauty. David and Bathsheba become pregnant, and in fear of being seen to have committed a sin, David sends her loyal husband Uriah, a solider of David’s army, to the front line where he is killed. Nathan, David’s personal adviser and prophet, is sent by God to warn David of his grave sin. Nathan tells a tale of a poor man whose only possession in the world was his beloved lamb. A rich man steals his lamb and leaves him without hope. David rose up in anger, asking who this rich man was so he could kill him. Nathan proclaimed to him “Thou art the man!”
The son of David, King Solomon, would continue in his father’s footsteps as a fair and wise king. Indeed, the Wisdom of Solomon is often used as an example of logical, rational, decision-making, and judicious reasoning. Luca Giordano paints the scene in which God ordains Solomon with the knowledge and wisdom for which he would become known. One of the most famous examples, known simply as the Judgment of Solomon and depicted by Raphael, saw two women come to the King, both arguing that they were the true mother of the baby they had bought to him. Solomon decided that the baby should be cut in half and shared between the two, after which the woman who would rather give up the baby than see it killed was granted custody. A brief passage in the life of Solomon has kindled the imagination of many artists. Hearing of the Wisdom of Solomon the Queen of Sheba visited him, bringing him gifts, and ensuring that she herself left the encounter duly satisfied.
The Ark of the Covenant, known to most people through its dramatic history, loss, and subsequent portrays in art, literature, and cinema, was a small box filled with certain artifacts relating to the life of Moses and the Exodus from Israel. To house this essential collection of holy objects, King Solomon build the first Temple on the site of Mount Moriah, where Abraham was instructed to kill his son, and where the Garden of Eden was supposed to have been located. After a destructive war with the Babylonians, the first Temple was destroyed and the Ark forever lost. Some centuries later, the Second Temple was built on the Temple Mount, an imposing structure that Jesus frequently prayed at and demonstrated against. Even Alexander the Great was said to have visited the grandeur of the Second Temple, as shown in a scene painted by Sebastiano Conca. The Roman army destroyed the Temple in AD70, a catastrophic moment in Jewish history. From that point onwards Jews pray, as Jean-Léon Gérôme depicts, against the last surviving wall of the Second Temple.
As much of the Old Testament includes books of scripture that originally formed the Jewish canon, many stories can be found to have increased significance depending on the faith. One such example is the Book of Esther, which traces the story of a Jewish girl who becomes Queen of Persia, all the while hiding her origins from her husband and King. Due to the book of Esther bearing no mention of God whatsoever, theologians often take the text to be more historical than other elements of the Bible. The prime minster, Haman, after developing a hatred for the Jewish people, deigns to commit genocide on those Jews living in Persia. Esther steps in and thwarts Haman’s plans. This joyous delivery from doom is celebrated in the Jewish festival of Purim, where people are encouraged to rattle a noisemaker every time the name of Haman is mentioned.
A less obviously monumental scene than the parting of the Red Sea has also come to be a source of fascination for artists over the centuries. The Feast of Belshazzar, from the Book of Daniel, sees the action set at a time when the Israelites have once again been committed to slavery, this time in Babylonia. Having destroyed the first Temple and captured the inhabitants of Jerusalem, King Belshazzar settles down for a boozy feast with his best one hundred men. They celebrate by drinking wine out of the holy goblets captured from the Temple, and thus insulting the Jewish faith. At that very moment a disembodied hand appears on the wall of their feasting hall in a language which no-one present understands. Rembrandt, inspired by his lifelong fascination with Jewish culture, interprets this script as Hebrew, a language that no one outside of the small Jewish community of the Netherlands at the time would have understood. John Martin, in his typically cinematic style, does not show us the “writing on the wall” that predicts the fall of Belshazzar. Instead, he shows the anger brewing in nature, and the sublime terror that would soon engulf the Babylonian King.
Following the rule of Belshazzar, his successor Darius ruled over the Persian Empire. One of his advisers and one of the Jewish captives, Daniel, was conspired against by the court of Darius and thrown to the lions. Wincenty Slendzinski perfectly captures the horror of the moment when he found himself in the lion’s den, looking either towards the taunts of his aggressors or to the divine light of God, his protector. Convinced that God would protect him, Daniel prayed throughout the night. Eugene Delacroix’s canvas shows the divine will of God closing the mouths of the lions and laying them down prostrate before the man. In the morning, Darius noticed the miracle, proclaimed respect for the Hebrew God, and had Daniel’s conspirators thrown to the lions instead.
Finally, one of the most powerful and evocative stories of the Old Testament can be found in the Book of Job. For millennia artists, intellectuals, and those having a crisis of faith, have looked to this complex and intricate allegory of that frequently voiced question: “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” Here, Georges de la Tour turns the tests, perils, and misfortunate of the unlucky Job into a sorrowful, domestic drama, focusing on the cruelest of Job’s many trials.