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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael/Moses Striking the Rock/1624,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed June 20, 2024).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version
Jan 01, 1995 Version

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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.[1] Except for the agitated pose of a man in the background who directs a caravan to the pools of water, no one seems in the least astounded by the miracle. A woman in the left foreground lies languidly on her side while her child sips contentedly from a small cup. Most of the Israelites are intent on scooping up water from the ground with pails and pitchers: two mothers, each grasping her child with one arm, hold dishes under the stream of water coming from the rock; others drink the refreshing liquid from hats, cups, and pitchers. Despite the array of elegantly and brightly clothed figures, the wide variety of animals, and the plethora of utensils in the setting, the mood is surprisingly quiet and subdued as man and beast alike pause to accept the goodness of God’s bounty.

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.[2]

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.[3] Even before William’s assassination in 1584, however, an association had been established between him and Moses, which became part of Dutch mythology. In 1581 Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558 - 1617) surrounded his portrait of the Prince of Orange with scenes from the life of Moses, including the pillars of clouds and fire, the burning bush, and the passage through the Red Sea [fig. 1]. The latter image, as with the miraculous scene depicted here by Wtewael, focused on the powerful symbolism of water in the Moses legend. For the Dutch, whose land was both nourished and protected by water, the imagery suggested that God’s beneficence had guided their destiny just as it had that of the Israelites.

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.[4] As early as 1595 he designed a stained-glass window for the Cathedral of Gouda that depicted allegorically Holland’s Chariot of Freedom of Conscience victorious over Spain and Idolatry. In 1605 he engraved a cycle of scenes of Thronus Justitiae, which depicted historical exempla of justice that had clear propagandistic overtones. Shortly after the Twelve-Year Truce was signed, Wtewael designed a series of political allegories that focused on many of the famous patriotic incidents in the Eighty Years’ War, personified by the maid Belgica, an allegorical figure symbolizing a united Netherlands. Finally, in 1618 he participated in a revolt of Calvinist and Roman Catholic burghers against the domination of Arminian (also known as Remonstrant) officials in Utrecht’s municipal government, which earned him a seat on the city council for the remainder of his life.

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.[5]

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 [fig. 2].[6] Surprisingly, given his penchant for reusing elements from his own works, none of the motifs in this richly varied painting appear to be exact quotations from his earlier images, although Lowenthal has identified close prototypes in a number of instances.[7] Lowenthal also suggests that Wtewael adapted the child in the lower left from a painting by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (Dutch, 1562 - 1638).[8]

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 Karel van Mander I (Netherlandish, 1548 - 1606) in Den grondt der edel vrij schilder-const, a long didactic poem on the rules of art that Van Mander published in his Het schilder-boek of 1604.[9] In the chapter entitled “Van der ordinanty ende inventy der historien” (On the Composition and Invention of History Pieces), Van Mander describes how the corners of the composition should be filled with large repoussoir figures, while the composition should be arranged in a circular fashion around a central focal point “in such a way that a number of figures encircle the focus of the story, which remains standing as the center of the picture.” The painting should also have variety: “a profusion of horses, dogs and other domestic animals, as well as beasts and birds of the forest; but it is particularly pleasing to behold fresh youths and beautiful maidens, old men, matrons, and children of all ages.” Finally, Van Mander recommends discreetly introducing witnesses who appear behind and to the side of the central event and comment upon it. In every respect Wtewael has followed Van Mander’s recommendations, enlivening them still further with striking colors and effective use of light and shade.[10] Particularly remarkable in this work is Wtewael’s delicate touch, seen in the way he has articulated the textures and people’s expressions. The surface shimmers with light and color, adding to the visual pleasure of the complex narrative unfolding before us.[11]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


lower left, JO in ligature: JO Wtt / wael fecit / Anno.1624



(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.[1] 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."[2] 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);[3] sold 1967 to (Edward Speelman, London);[4] purchased 31 January 1972 by NGA.

Exhibition History

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.
Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), Centraal Museum, Utrecht; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2015-2016,

Technical Summary

The support is a single member, horizontally grained oak panel, beveled on the back, with narrow, oak strips attached to edges.[1] 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.


[1] 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).


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.
Wheelock, Arthur K, Jr. "The Evolution of the Dutch Painting Collection." National Gallery of Art Bulletin no. 50 (Spring 2014): 2-19, repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Clouds, ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2020: 26, fig. 12, 27.

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symbols and prefigurations
homage to a ruler
revolution +Dutch Revolt
armistice +Twelve Years Truce
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Moses striking the rock
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