The Golden Calf in Art
Idolatry and faithlessness
Of all the people of Israel's backsliding during the course of their wanderings in the desert, the episode of the Golden Calf is the most serious. But a short time after receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai that stress the prohibition against idols and graven images, they demand of Aaron:
Go make us gods which will go before us.
Exodus 32:1
How can ask this lack of faith be explained? The text notes that the people’s demand came in the wake of the continuing absence of Moses – the leader, savior, legislator and prophet – who went up to the summit of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. In other words, the people— although liberated from slavery in Egypt, were not yet free of their slave mentality—panicked at the loss of human and spiritual leadership. And therefore they seek emotional support based on patterns familiar from Egypt, known for its many gods, with their unique forms and countless idols.
Naturally, this episode served as the subject of many artists, because of the dramatic nature of the event and its description and because of its subject matter— tangible and physical description of the Divine. We must look at this artwork from two main perspectives:
• How did the various artists understand this embarrassing incident?
• What is the original meaning of the Golden Calf specifically and of idols in general?
The Ancient Near Eastern Background
Archeological finds from the Ancient Near East show that the Bible's material culture was influenced by two imperial civilizations – Egypt and Babylon/Assyria. Neither of these worshiped an abstract concept like the God of Israel, but rather physical figures representing fertility and strength. Their gods were often depicted in human form and each one had a means of transport and a symbol of his role. The storm god, for example, clutched lightning bolts in his hands; the sun god wore rays of light.
One of the most impressive examples of such means of transportation is this Assyrian rock relief, found at Maltai on the Iraqi-Turkish border— each god rides/stands on his vehicle.
Procession of Assyrian Gods, Maltai, 704-681 BCE
In the Ancient Near East, the most popular vehicle was – a calf! The reason for this popularity seems to be the calf's unique combination of tender fertility and power. Therefore it is no wonder than when in despair, the children of Israel also chose the calf to represent the absent god and leader.
A closer look at this bas-relief and other ritual objects from all over the Ancient Near East shows that the biblical Golden Calf was not meant to be an image of God Himself, but of His symbolic representative animal. But as the medieval biblical commentator Radak (Rabbi David Kimche) explains, regarding the golden calf of Jeroboam I of Israel (I Kings 12), the people of Israel turned the vehicle into the object of their worship – as happens in many religions, where a drawing or figurine meant to symbolize the divinity is misunderstood by the believers as the divinity itself. And even in the modern, secular world, this is a familiar occurrence: for example, money changes from a means to an end in and of itself. Therefore, the phrase “Golden Calf” is widely used today to refer to reverence for unworthy objects.
Dubi Keich, The New Calf, 2002
The Medieval Calf - Jewish Midrash and Christian Art
Several standard depictions of the Calf developed during the Middle Ages. For example, Christian artists often presented the sin of the Golden Calf alongside a description of the giving of the Torah, in order to highlight the infidelity and ungratefulness of the people of Israel. But the photo below is of a highly unusual portrayal of the incident from a 12th century church in the French town of Vezelay.
To the left of the calf, a figure raises the Tablets of the Ten Commandments and it is therefore clear that this is Moses, who is descending from the mountain and sees the worship of the calf (Exodus 32:19)
(יט) וַֽיְהִ֗י כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר קָרַב֙ אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הָעֵ֖גֶל וּמְחֹלֹ֑ת וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיַּשְׁלֵ֤ךְ מִיָּדָו֙ אֶת־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת וַיְשַׁבֵּ֥ר אֹתָ֖ם תַּ֥חַת הָהָֽר׃
(19) As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.
To the right of the calf, another figure carries a lamb on his shoulders. This is Aaron, the high priest, Israel's ritual leader during the period of wandering in the Sinai Desert, who is about to offer a sacrifice. His role in the Golden Calf affair, as the creator of the idol, is very problematic, as is evident from the Midrashic attempts to justify his actions.
But the most striking element in the capital from Vezelay is the frightening figure standing on the Calf. Close examination reveals that this figure, with the talons of a bird of prey and wild hair, is emerging from the mouth of the Calf. Although obviously a Christian work, this strange figure is actually related to a popular medieval Jewish Midrash, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer. It is Samael, i.e., Satan, who entered the idol and mooed from inside it! The Midrash expresses the Jewish imagination regarding the story and the object and tries to explain the power of an inanimate object over the people of Israel – the idol spoke, thanks to Satan. And as a result of the intervention of this demonic power, who functions as a sort of Trojan horse (inside the statue the enemy is hiding!), human leadership, Moses and Aaron is pushed aside.
Multiple Readings of the Israelite's Behavior
Let us now consider the role of the congregation in this episode. The two paintings below, drawn around the same time, represent two essentially different approaches to the people of Israel’s behavior during the Golden Calf incident.
On the right is a painting by the French artist, James Tissot, on the left a painting by the German artist Emil Nolde.
In Tissot's rendition, the crowd is composed primarily of men wrapped in prayer shawls; they are worshiping the idol, their hands outspread and bowing, in an atmosphere of awe and holiness. In contrast, in Nolde’s painting, characterized by intense colors, uninhibited movement and nudity, the crowd consisting of both women and men appears to be in unbridled ecstasy, a kind of orgy. Many other depictions of the Golden Calf episode portray the crowd in a similar fashion. The basis for both interpretations is found in the text (Exodus 32:5-6)
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron
announced: Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.
So they arose early the next morning and brought burnt offerings
and well-being offerings and the people sat down to eat and
drink, and rose to make merry.
On one hand, the text contains elements of the ritual practices common in the biblical era (altar, burnt offerings, well-being offerings). On the other hand, there are elements that deviate from the usual ritual practice (making merry, and dancing – verse 19 above); the interpretation of verse six by Rashi (the foremost medieval Jewish commentator) further strengthens the frenzied impression reflected in the works of Nolde and others.
Idolatry - Ancient and Modern
Lastly, let us take a look at a painting by Filippino Lippi, a 15th century Italian artist.
This painting is actually not called “the worship the Golden Calf” but “the worship of the Egyptian god, Apis.” The god Apis, or Hape, is mentioned in very early Egyptian documents but he became particularly important during the New Kingdom (1500-1000 BCE). He is pictured as a bull and associated with the God of creation, Ptah. The crescent on the shoulder of Lippi’s flying bull is one of the identifying symbols of Apis, according to Egyptian sources.
It appears that Lippi was familiar with the worship of Apis from Roman writings on the Egyptian religion, which generated great interest during the Renaissance. Music, dance, wild abandon and spiritual elation accompanied this cult symbolized fittingly by the flying calf. It seems that Lippi concluded that the worship of the calf in the biblical story was an adaptation of the Egyptian religion and rites – actual idol worship. The association of the Golden Calf with Egyptian gods also appears in Midrashic sources.
But one might say that any attempt to depict God in a tangible manner is a misunderstanding. The contemporary priest and philosopher, Thomas Merton, said, without elaborating further, that the photograph below is the only known image of God.
Thomas Merton, The only known photograph of God,
In response to the question of what is so divine about such a hook, we might answer that it can elevate us and rescue us, that it is unclear where it comes from, that it can also cause pain.
But it seems that Merton actually meant that any visual or verbal depiction of God can only be partial and incomplete at best. What is idol worship? The belief that such a partial depiction is whole.
For additional images on this subject see TALI Visual Midrash