There are a few themes which even the boldest of narrative painters has avoided committing to canvas. One which is particularly topical is the abandonment of babies, something mothers have felt pressured to do since ancient times and probably long before. It’s topical because every Christmas it’s a stock story for the press: alongside photos of Christmas and New Year babies born to adoring couples who’ll undoubtedly live happily ever after, there’s the tragic account of a newborn left on a doorstep. The awful truth is that this happens year-round, but at other times doesn’t seem to merit coverage. An abandoned baby is not just for Christmas.
Some societies have had policies which selected only the most promising infants for support and nurture. The Spartans were notorious among Greek city-states for doing this, leaving those babies deemed weak or unlikely to make good warriors/mothers in Apothetae, a chasm at the foot of Mount Taygetus. In the growing cities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, abandoned babies were so common that institutions were established to care for these ‘foundlings’, and these live on in the ‘baby boxes’ still found in countries throughout Europe, and in North America.
Several major figures in mythology and religion were reputedly abandoned by their mothers, and this weekend they are my theme. This first article looks at paintings of one of the most famous, Moses, and tomorrow’s sequel starts with some paintings of the twins Romulus and Remus before looking at more modern times.
At the time of Moses’ birth, according to the account in the Old Testament book of Exodus chapter 2 verses 3–10, his parents were in Egypt as part of Jacob’s household and their relatives. When he was born, the Pharaoh had decreed that all male children born to the Hebrews would be drowned in the river Nile, so his mother Jochebed placed him in a small ‘ark’ and concealed it among the bulrushess by the bank of the Nile.
The ark and its occupant were discovered by the daughter of Pharaoh and her handmaids when the princess went to bathe in the Nile. Moses’ older sister Miriam saw this, and offered to find a nurse for the infant. Pharaoh’s daughter then adopted and raised him as an Egyptian of royal caste. This enabled him to survive the Pharaoh’s oppression, and to become the great prophet and leader of the Hebrew people, who delivered them from slavery, handed down the Ten Commandments, and led the Israelites to their Promised Land.
This anonymous fresco of Moses Found in the River was painted in about 244-255 CE on the wall of what must be the earliest surviving synagogue at Dura-Europos in Syria. Using multiplex narrative – the infant Moses appears twice – it tells the story as clearly as any more modern painting. Although the synagogue is believed to have been destroyed during recent fighting in Syria, these unique frescoes are thought to have been removed to the National Museum of Damascus, where they may be marginally safer.
Paolo Veronese and his workshop made several copies of this painting of The Finding of Moses in about 1581-82. This image is of the fine example in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. As was conventional at the time, the artist recasts the story in an Italianate city, its figures dressed according to contemporary fashion. The ark is being held by an African maidservant, as another of the princess’s retinue offers the baby to her mistress, for an older nurse to wrap in cloth. To the right of Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam is making her offer to have the infant cared for.
Later paintings continued this composition of figures with the princess and baby at its centre. Orazio Gentileschi, father of the now more famous Artemisia, painted this version of Moses Saved from the Waters in 1633. Moses is being presented here while still in his ark, and none of the figures appears ready to bathe in the Nile.
Nicolas Poussin has been attributed several quite different paintings of this theme. My favourite among them is Moses Saved from the River (1638), which is novel for its use of a man as the rescuer of the baby from the river. The idealised landscape behind the figures has an imposing multi-arched bridge, and a pyramid giving the clue as to its intended location, and a conventional rivergod with his back to the viewer.
The tragically short-lived Elisabetta Sirani’s undated Finding of Moses is most closely cropped on the figures, and dispenses with the ark. The handmaid, perhaps Miriam herself, who holds the baby shows emotion in her face, and there is much to be read from the different gazes and hands.
This painting, which appears intended more as an illustration, is credited to Paul Delaroche, and was therefore probably painted between about 1820-50. Titled Moses Abandoned on the Nile, it’s one of the earliest works which show the moment of Moses’ abandonment, rather than his discovery. It was turned into a popular engraving.
Unusually for what is not just a religious work, but one taken from an Old Testament story, the latter half of the nineteenth century brought a great rise in its popularity as a theme in painting, most probably because of its links with the Pharaohs of Egypt.
In José María Avrial y Flores’s Pharaoh’s Daughter Rescuing Moses from the Nile from 1862, the story is told in the tiny group of figures overwhelmed by its massive buildings. The artist provides a literal account too, with Moses’ sister Miriam watching from the lower left corner as her baby brother is presented to Pharaoh’s daughter.
Then Gustave Moreau selected this story as one of a cycle of three paintings, on the ages of mankind and times of the day, which he exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1878. Its companions were Jacob and the Angel and King David.
Infancy and dawn were represented by Moïse Exposé sur le Nil (The Infant Moses) (c 1876-78), a radiantly beautiful depiction of the infant Moses asleep, prior to his discovery in the bulrushes. Moses is new life, new Judaeo-Christian beliefs, new law, and the new regime. Set against a background – derived from photographs of Egyptian ruins – symbolising the ancient, pre-Jewish, and decaying – it laid out Moreau’s hope for the French nation.
The baby Moses is marked out as being holy by the rays emanating from his temples, and surrounded by exotic flowers and birds. Unusually, Moreau does not show the traditional and popular moment of discovery of the infant in the bulrushes, but this static scene before.
In the Salon that year, Elizabeth Jane Gardner exhibited her far more conventional account of Moses in the Bulrushes (c 1878). The two women shown must be Moses’ mother, and his older sister Miriam.
Around the turn of the century, the story is told in three separate gouaches by James Tissot, as part of his huge project to produce an illustrated Old Testament, as a sequel to his New Testament. I show here the first two of his series, covering the story retold above.
Tissot’s Moses Laid Amid the Flags (above) and Pharaoh’s Daughter Has Moses Brought to Her (below) cover both the scenes which had been used in previous visual narratives, using Tissot’s modern illustrative style rather than the archaeological fantasies of the day.
It took Lawrence Alma-Tadema to transform the story into The Finding of Moses (1904-05), which looks like a still from a widescreen epic with a cast of thousands.
What I find most strange is that, in a century which saw the rise of social realism and Naturalism, not one of these paintings seems interested in tackling the more contemporary issues raised by a mother abandoning her baby because of the oppression she was suffering. Perhaps those were too close for comfort.