This depiction of Moses Striking the Rock exemplifies Joachim Wtewael's lifelong commitment to mannerism. The mannerists' use of alternating patterns of light and dark, elongated figures, contorted poses, and pastel colors created elegant yet extremely artificial scenes. This multilayered scene from the Book of Exodus describes the miraculous moment in the arid wilderness when God enabled Moses, who was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, to make water gush from the rock at Horeb. Moses, striking the rock with the same rod he had used to part the Red Sea, stands next to his brother, the high priest Aaron, while around them voluptuous women, children, and a host of animals partake of the refreshing water.
The story of Moses and his struggles to lead the Israelites out of bondage had special meaning to the Dutch, who drew parallels between that biblical story and their own quest for independence from Spanish rule. The initial leader and hero of the Dutch Revolt, Prince William "the Silent" of Orange, became symbolically identified with Moses. Like his biblical counterpart, the Prince, who was assassinated in 1584, did not live to see the realization of his "promised land," a Dutch Republic independent from Spanish rule. Wtewael was a fervent supporter of the House of Orange in its quest to lead all seventeen Netherlandish provinces to independence. His decision to paint this scene in 1624 may reflect an effort on his part to revitalize the allegorical connections between Moses and the House of Orange after the conclusion of the Twelve Year Truce in 1621, at a time when William's son and successor, Prince Maurits, and the latter's half-brother, Prince Frederik Hendrik, were renewing their military efforts against Spanish aggression.
This highly evocative painting by Joachim Wtewael captures a dramatic miracle that was crucial to the successful outcome of the Israelites’ strenuous voyage to the Promised Land. The people of Israel had grown disgruntled during their long exodus from Egypt because they had no water to drink. When Moses and his brother, the high priest Aaron, appealed to the Lord for help, Moses was told to take the rod he had used to part the waters of the Red Sea and strike the rock at Horeb, from which water would come out so “that the people may drink” (Exodus 17:6). “And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice, and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle” (Numbers 20:11). Wtewael depicts the moment when Moses, accompanied by Aaron, has just struck the rock. The stream of water has already created deep pools from which the Israelites and their animals drink and refresh themselves.
Wtewael’s emphasis in this exquisitely refined painting, however, is not on the miraculous nature of the event, but rather on the life-sustaining character of the water that Moses and Aaron have released.
This observation was first made by Christian Tümpel, “Die Reformation und die Kunst der Niederlande,” in Luther und die Folgen für die Kunst, ed. Werner Hofmann (Munich, 1983), 314.
Traditionally, the water that poured from the rock and refreshed the Israelites was understood symbolically as the gift of God’s salvation, salvation granted through the actions of their leader, Moses. The rock was likened to Christ, and the water that flowed from it was seen as the blood flowing from the wounds suffered at his Crucifixion. Thus the episode was typologically associated with the Eucharist and with Christ’s forgiveness and man’s redemption.
Anne Walter Lowenthal, “Wtewael’s Moses and Dutch Mannerism,” Studies in the History of Art 6 (1974): 134–135.
The story also had specific significance to the Dutch, who often found historic parallels between their own history and biblical narratives, associating the tribulations of the early Jews with their own struggles for independence against Spanish domination. The leader of their revolt, William I, known as William the Silent, was likened to Moses in that he personified the identity of the nation yet also failed to reach the “promised land” he had envisioned.
For a full discussion of the symbolic relationships the Dutch felt between their history and the story of Moses see Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (New York, 1987), 87–101.
The allegorical associations contained in this work are consistent with Wtewael’s own religious and political convictions. Although born a Catholic, Wtewael became a fervent Calvinist and firm advocate of the House of Orange. He felt strongly that the Dutch Republic, under the leadership of the House of Orange, ought to continue the struggle to fulfill William the Silent’s original goal of a United Netherlands and should not accept the compromise solution manifested in the Twelve-Year Truce of 1609, whereby the southern provinces would remain under Spanish domination. Wtewael expressed these concerns in both his art and his political activities.
For Wtewael’s political attitudes see Elizabeth McGrath, “A Netherlandish History by Joachim Wtewael,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 38 (1975): 209–217.
Wtewael’s decision to paint this scene in 1624 may reflect an effort on his part to revitalize the allegorical connections between Moses and the House of Orange after the conclusion of the Truce in 1621, at a time when Prince Maurits and Prince Frederik Hendrik were renewing their military efforts against Spanish aggression. One may assume from the complexity of the scene and the refinement of the image that the painting was commissioned by, or at least was painted for, a specific patron. No surviving documents, however, elucidate this matter.
Anne Walter Lowenthal, “Wtewael’s Moses and Dutch Mannerism,” Studies in the History of Art 6 (1974): 135, speculates that the painting was commissioned for a “private chapel or a clandestine Catholic church.” Because of Wtewael’s fervent Calvinist beliefs, however, it seems unlikely that he would have received a commission for such a location.
Not much is known of Wtewael’s working procedure, but in this instance a fragment of an elaborate preparatory drawing for the painting is preserved in the Albertina in Vienna
The drawing (inv. no. 8132) measures 9 3/4 x 12 in. (24.6 x 30.5 cm). It seems to have been trimmed on all sides; the four corners are all later additions.
Anne Walter Lowenthal, “Wtewael’s Moses and Dutch Mannerism,” Studies in the History of Art 6 (1974): 137–138.
Anne Walter Lowenthal, Joachim Wtewael and Dutch Mannerism (Doornspijk, 1986), 151.
Although Wtewael apparently derived his scene from careful readings of both biblical texts in which this story appears (Exodus 17:1–7 and Numbers 20:2–13), he carefully constructed his composition along mannerist principles outlined by
The following English translations of this text are taken from Ben P. J. Broos, “Rembrandt and Lastman’s Coriolanus: The History Piece in 17th-Century Theory and Practice,” Simiolus 8 (1975–1976): 202–203.
Anne Walter Lowenthal, “Wtewael’s Moses and Dutch Mannerism,” Studies in the History of Art 6 (1974): 136, identifies compositional similarities between this work and Venetian paintings by
I would like to thank Karen Lee Bowen for her assistance in compiling this entry.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower left, JO in ligature: JO Wtt / wael fecit / Anno.1624
Marks and Labels
(Sale, Foster, London, 29 November 1833, no. 29, as by J. de Wael); Thomas Chawner, Esq. [d. 1851], London and Addlestone, near Chertsey, Surrey; (his estate sale, Foster, London, 16 June 1852, no. 97); Chance. H. Charles Erhardt, Esq., London, by 1892; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 19-22 June 1931, no. 273, as by J.B. de Wael); "Leffer" or "Lepper." Francis Howard, Esq., Dorking, by 1955; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 25 November 1955, no. 52, as by J.B. de Wael); (Arcade Gallery, London); sold to Vincent Korda, London; repurchased 1967 by (Arcade Gallery, London); sold 1967 to (Edward Speelman, London); purchased 31 January 1972 by NGA.
- A Loan Exhibition of Pictures, Art Gallery of the Corporation of London, Guildhall, 1892, no. 99, as by Jan Baptist de Wael.
- Recent Acquisitions: Mannerist and Baroque Paintings, Arcade Gallery, London, 1967, no. 23.
- Gods, Saints and Heroes: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Detroit Institute of Arts; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1980, fig. 1 (shown only in Washington).
- A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 66.
- Landscape of the Bible: Sacred Scenes in European Master Paintings, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2000-2001, no. 13, repro.
- Temple, Alfred G. Descriptive catalogue of the loan collection of pictures. Exh. cat. Art Gallery of the Corporation of London, 1892: no. 99, as by Jan Baptist de Wael.
- The Arcade Gallery. Recent Acquisitions: Mannerist and Baroque Paintings. Exh. cat. Arcade Gallery, London, 1967: no. 23.
- Lowenthal, Anne Walter. "Wtewael’s Moses and Dutch Mannerism." Studies in the History of Art 6 (1974): 124-141, fig. 1.
- Lowenthal, Anne Walter. "The paintings of Joachim Anthonisz. Wtewael: (1566-1638)." Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 1975: 322-324, A-66.
- National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 358, repro.
- Blankert, Albert, et al. Gods, Saints, and Heroes: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington; Detroit Institute of Arts; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Washington, 1980: 46-47, fig. 1.
- Sutton, Peter C. "The Life and Art of Jan Steen." Special edition of Bulletin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art 78, no. 337-338 (Winter-Spring 1982/1983): 18.
- Tümpel, Christian. "Die Reformation und die Kunst der Niederlande." In Luther und die Folgen für die Kunst. Edited by Werner Hofmann. Exh. cat. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg. Munich, 1983: 314-315, fig. 15.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1984: 5, 8, 9, repro.
- Bosque, Andrée de. Mythologie et Maniérisme aux Pays-Bas, 1570–1630: Peinture, dessins. Antwerp, 1985: 94, 95, repro.
- National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 440, repro.
- Waterhouse, Ellis K. Around 1610: The Onset of the Baroque. Exh. cat. Matthiesen Fine Art, London, 1985: 90.
- Lowenthal, Anne Walter. Joachim Wtewael and Dutch Mannerism. Doornspijk, 1986: 41, 50-51, 55, cat. A-88, 151-152, color pl. 22.
- Sutton, Peter C. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Washington and Grand Rapids, 1986: 454.
- Wansink, Christina J. A. "A ‘Mercury, Argus and Io’ from Utrecht." Hoogsteder-Naumann Mercury 4 (1986): 3, 4, fig. 2.
- National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1992: 122, repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 394-398, color repro. 395.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 68, no. 66.
- Pessach, Gill. Landscape of the Bible: sacred scenes in European master paintings. Exh. cat. Muzeon Yisrael, Jerusalem, 2000: 19, 72-73, no. 13, repro.
- Tummers, Anna. The Eye of the Connoisseur: Authenticating Paintings by Rembrandt and His Contemporaries. Amsterdam, 2012: 204, 205, color fig. 128.
The support is a single member, horizontally grained oak panel, beveled on the back, with narrow, oak strips attached to edges. Paint is applied over an exceedingly thin, smooth white ground in small, precise fluid strokes blended wet-into-wet, with slightly impasted highlights. A history of flaking has resulted in scattered small losses throughout the paint layer, particularly in the trees, distant and shadowed figures, and horse. Losses are inpainted and design elements are reinforced with later repaint. No major conservation has been carried out since acquisition.
 The wood was identified as oak by Dr. Peter Klein, Universität Hamburg, but he was unable to date the panel using dendrochronology (see report dated October 29, 1987, in NGA Conservation department files).
Related IconClass Terms
- symbols and prefigurations
- homage to a ruler
- revolution +Dutch Revolt
- armistice +Twelve Years Truce
- artist +Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem + student of
- Historical person +House of Orange
- Moses striking the rock