The Death of Moses,
Painting by Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889),
Painted in 1850,
Oil on canvas
© Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France

The Death of Moses,
Painting by Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889),
Painted in 1850,
Oil on canvas
© Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France

Gospel of 31 March 2022

Your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope

John 5:31-47

‘If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true. You sent messengers to John, and he testified to the truth. Not that I accept such human testimony, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But I have a testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.

‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?’

Reflection on the Painting

Our Gospel reading today isn’t one of the easiest readings. What does Jesus mean when saying that ‘Your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope’? Jesus is pointing a finger to a group of Jews who wanted to kill Him. Jesus wanted to make the point that one day, Moses would accuse this group of people to the Father because they did not believe that Jesus was the one that Moses had written about who would come. Jesus was addressing their unbelief.

Our painting from 1851, depicting the death of Moses, is impressive in size at 280 and 390cm. (9ft tall and almost 13ft wide). At the time our artist, Alexandre Cabanel, painted this canvas, he was only 28 years old. He felt challenged by by the subject and by its size. In a letter to his brother he wrote: “I have imposed upon myself a large, very difficult, formidable task, since I seek to represent the image of the Eternal Master of the sky and the earth—to represent God—and next to Him, one of His most sublime creatures, deified in some way by His contact”.

We see God on the left held aloft by cherubs and draped in a blue cloak. Moses, being surrounded by angels, is dying before God while seeing from afar the Promised Land that he would never reach. The starkly diagonal composition is dramatic. The flowing drapery and musculature of Cabanel’s figure of God are clearly inspired by the God of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The group of Jews which Jesus is addressing, knew their Scripture inside out, but they failed to believe Moses’ prophetic words about Jesus.

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  • ChristainArt101 says:

    Gorgeous art!

  • Patricia O'Brien says:

    A most impressive painting! And a gospel reading not familiar to me really. It’s very challenging because it shows how we humans can be so fixed in our beliefs/practices that we think we’re right. Jesus shows us, though devout, how closed we can be. I think that’s rather scary myself…

  • Charles Marriott says:

    Dramatic indeed!

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