Numéro #44 (June 2003)
“La Chair de L’Orchidée”
Photographer: Matthias Vriens-McGrath
As the Getty puts it: “In an era when paintings of mythological subjects often meant sentimentalized renderings or cold recitations of classical sculpture, Gustave Moreau was a pioneer with his intensely personal, fantastic, even perverse, interpretations.”
This painting, The Infant Moses (c. 1876–c. 1878), is a prime example of such interpretations—applied, this time, to a biblical scene.
The strange, packed-in architecture along the banks of the river evoke, rather than accurately depict, Egypt; the flowers, though, are surprisingly accurate. (Not a first for Moreau—the Musée d’Orsay writes, of another work of his, that its “vegetation looks supernatural but was derived from drawings meticulously copied from a book of marine botany in the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, where Moreau had registered as an unofficial student in 1879.”)
Perhaps Moreau’s most striking touch, however, is his blending of the iconography of Moses as an adult and a child.
In the Torah, Moses returns from Mount Sinai with (in addition to the Ten Commandments) a radiant visage. Of course, Hebrew being the delightfully mistranslatable language it is, the passage was believed for a long time to mean that he returned with either horns or rays of light, depending on the reading.
That understanding was incorporated into the standard portrayal of Moses—as an adult. However, even with the misreading, it was an attribute he required well after his infancy.
While I’m sure this isn’t the first instance of an artist putting horns or rays on the infant Moses, it is an unusual choice—and one that suits the ethereal style of the piece quite well.
(Source: Flickr / skyper)