The Israelites in the Desert: The Manna and the Quails

5th century, with medieval and modern restorations
Nave, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

The upper register illustrates Exodus 16:9-13. On the left, "Moses…said to Aaron: Say to the whole congregation of the children of Israel: Come before the Lord: for he hath heard your murmuring. And when Aaron spoke to all the assembly of the children of Israel, they looked towards the wilderness: and behold the glory of the Lord appeared in a cloud" (16:9-10). The figure in the center is Moses, the one in the orange chasuble is Aaron, and the gold ground pictures the "wilderness" as a desert behind them.

Then on the right of the upper register, "the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: I have heard the murmuring of the children of Israel: say to them: In the evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread: and you shall know that I am the Lord your God" (16:11-12). Moses is pictured a second time, raising his right hand in a gesture of acceptance to God, who is portrayed in the upper right corner as an old man with a gray beard. (Usually paleo-Christian art avoided anthropomorphic representations of God the Father, so one wonders if the figure was added in the course of the medieval restorations.)

Interestingly, Moses' gesture of acceptance of God's instructions on the right looks just like his gesture of address on the left.

Continuing with the narrative, "it came to pass in the evening, that quails coming up, covered the camp: and in the morning, a dew lay round about the camp" (16:13). The lower register duly pictures the quail arriving in the sky. On the left, Aaron organizes the people gathering the quail. The manna is not pictured directly, but on the right Moses' raised hand corresponds to his address when the people ask what it is: "This is the bread, which the Lord hath given you to eat" (16:15).

This is part of the extensive series of Old Testament scenes portrayed in mosaics along the two walls of the nave. To view the others, follow this link.

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