Sunday, October 19, 2014

The God Who Met Moses on Nebo

Moses stands on Mount Nebo and sees the land where the people will live. But that's as far as he goes. The reading from Deuteronomy (34:1-12, Proper 25A/Ordinary 30A/Pentecost+20) includes two sentences on the very end of Moses' earthly life. We don't know what Moses thought as he looked out from Pisgah, nor if he had any reply to God's reminder that the promise of land to Abraham's descendants had been fulfilled. We don't know if Moses accepted his end meekly or expectantly or resentfully or gratefully. Artists have told the story in different ways. Alexandre Cabanel's version (below) is one of the more interesting, especially when it comes to the depiction of this God who said to Moses, "You can look, but you don't get to go into the land."

Cabanel, born in Montpellier, France, won the Prix de Rome in 1845. Originally established in 1663, the Prix was awarded to the most outstanding student at the Academie Royaux de Peinture et de Sculpture. The prize was a fully funded period of study (between three and five years) in Rome, at the expense of the French government. Cabanel spent five years in Italy, sending his "Death of Moses" back to France as his dernier envoi - his "final exam project" to show the progress and accomplishments resulting from his time in Italy.
Alexandre Cabanel. The Death of Moses. 1851. Oil on canvas. Dahesh Museum, NY.

In the painting, Moses (with rays of light beaming from his forehead) stretches out his arms as he is ministered to by angels. What is perhaps most interesting, though, is the figure of God, who may look familiar floating in the upper left corner. Living and painting in Italy, Cabanel had easy access to the treasures of Renaissance Italy. In this painting he quotes two of those masterpieces: Michelangelo's Creation of Adam and Raphael's Vision of Ezekiel.

What was it in these two depictions of God that spoke to Cabanel about the God who met Moses on Nebo? While Cabanel may not have consciously asked the question as he composed his painting, there was nevertheless something in these two images that he felt captured the God we see in Deuteronomy 34:1-12.
(Left) Raphael Sanzio. Vision of Ezekiel. 1518. Oil on wood. Palatine Gallery, Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy. 
(Right) Michelangelo Buonarotti. The Creation of Adam. 150-1512. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Italy.

Michelangelo's God is creating. It is not the very beginning of creation, but with human beings God establishes a different relationship than has existed with other creatures. How might that speak to the moment of Moses' death in Deuteronomy and the God we meet there? What is there of creation in this moment?

As did Isaiah's, Ezekiel's call begins with a vision of God seated on a throne. Seeing God, Ezekiel is dead to his former life and on the brink of a new one. What does that have to say at the death of Moses? Might the chronology of the three episodes say something? The death of Moses follows creation but precedes Ezekiel's vision.

Cabanel was no doubt more interested in importing the artistic qualities of Raphael's and Michelangelo's paintings than the theological ones. But his choices can offer questions about the God who created, who led, who called, who ultimately saves...and who met Moses on Nebo.

For thoughts on the reading from Psalm 90 that is part of readings for Proper 25A/Ordinary 30A, click here

Don't forget - Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page provides other art material on each week's lectionary readings. Click on the link at the bottom of the page.  

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