Moses and the Brass Serpent

Cathedral of Assisi

In Numbers 21:4-9, the Israelites in the desert complained about their hardships, so God sent fiery serpents to torment them. When they repented, he told Moses to "make a brazen serpent and set it up for a sign." Those who looked on the serpent were healed. In John's Gospel, Jesus makes the episode a type of his own salvific death, saying, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up" (3:14).

To emphasize the typology, the artist has the serpent raised on a sort of cross. It is unclear why he made the animal look like a live serpent rather than a thing of brass.

The left and right sides of this painting present a "before and after" with the tormented Israelites on the left and those who have been healed on the right. (However, one man on the far right still has a snake to deal with, perhaps because unlike his neighbors he is not looking up at the brass serpent.)

Moses wears the kind of loose tunic and mantle typical in Old Testament images. The traditional rays of light emanate from his head, following Exodus 34:29's account of his radiance when he came down from the mountain, and he carries the rod with which he struck water from the rock.

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Photographed at the cathedral by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.