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Moses And The Brazen Serpent

  • Object:

    Plaque

  • Place of origin:

    Mosan (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1160 (made)
    ca. 1160 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Copper alloy, engraved; gold; enamel

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Dr W.L. Hildburgh

  • Museum number:

    M.59-1952

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 21

This is one of a group known as the Llangattock or Rolls Plaques which is of outstanding interest both technically and iconographically. The absence of the enamel which would have once brought the scene vividly to life, has revealed the depth of engraving necessary to hold the enamel, as well as the surface roughening or 'keying' which was intended to provide better adhesion. The plaque depicts the Old Testament story of Moses and the brazen Serpent, a popular theme in Mosan art of the period, which was thought to pre-figure The Crucifixion. Three other plaques relating to the present example are owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum: A camel rider, Samson and the lion, and Alexander in his chariot. The plaques could equally have decorated an altarpiece or shrine.

Physical description

A square plaque with beaded border. Only tiny fragments of the original enamel are present and are only visible under a microscope. The plaque depicts the Old Testament story of Moses and the brazen Serpent. Aaron and Moses stand to the left of a central column, both have beards, halos and are attired in long drapery. They are labelled AARON and MOYSES respectively and Moses hold the tablets of the law labelled LEX. The column, which has an Attic base and is topped by a simple capital, supports the serpent. Labelled SERPENSENEUS the creatures body is twisted in a single coil. To the right of the capital a group of five figures gaze up at the serpent, their clothing is of a later style than that of Moses and Aaron, with two of the figures in pointed caps and a female figure wearing a mantle. Three of the five are shown in shorthand, without legs. All have been bitten by snakes and are seeking a cure from the serpent, they are labelled VVLNERATI.

Place of Origin

Mosan (made)

Date

ca. 1160 (made)
ca. 1160 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Copper alloy, engraved; gold; enamel

Marks and inscriptions

AARON
MOYSES
SERPENSENEUS
LEX
VVLNERATI
Aaron
Moses
Serpent
Law

Dimensions

Height: 10.2 cm, Width: 10.2 cm, Depth: 0.25 cm, Weight: 0.24 kg

Object history note

Created in the area around the Meuse Valley, centred on the Bishopric of Liége in Belgium.
Given to the museum by Dr W.L. Hildburgh, who acquired the plaque in Janurary 1951 from a Roman Catholic Proest who had bought it in Lancashire.

Historical significance: The plaque is of outstanding interest both technically and iconographically.

Historical context note

Neil Stratford has suggested that the enamel was carefully removed from the plaque at some unknown date, perhaps so that the plaque could serve as a mould. However traces of tool marks on the plaque suggest a rougher removal of the enamel, perhaps even an indicating that it was defaced or forcibly dismantled.

Other plaques from the same group feature a subtle range of enamel colours, often blended to emphasise figure contours or drapery folds. Without its enamel this plaque is particularly revealing of the drawing style of the artist and of his technique of cutting: there was no keying of the enamel in the champlevé fields. The tiny fragments of enamel which remain give an indication of the original colour scheme used to create the scene: green at the end of the serpent's lower jaw, blue and green on the draperies, blue filling the inscriptions and opaque red on one of the caps and in the hair of one of the Israelites, the top of one of he boots and the border of Aaron's robe.

Saint John's Gospel (John III, 14) contains the typological parallel for the Old Testament story.” This son of man must be lifted up as the serpent was lifted up by Moses". Thus the erection of the Brazen serpent was considered to prefigure the Crucifixion. This typological story appears on other surviving examples of Mosan work : an enamelled altar cross, a semi-circular plaque and a rectangular plaque set in a modern book cover in the British Museum. In each case the serpent appears with a characteristic single coil and dog- like head.
The iconography of the brazen serpent is not unique to this region at this time. A 12th century walrus ivory altar cross which features a depiction of the brazen serpent now in the Cloisters collection of the Metropolitan Museum New York (no. 63.12) offers a near contemporary example of the typology. Here as with the British Museum cross the type is associated not just with the crucifixion but with the legend of the True cross.

A group wearing similar caps and with similar short-hand representation to the VVLNERATI depicted on the present plaque can be seen on an enamelled plaque attached to the Stavelot Triptych now in the Morgan Library Collection New York, dated to ca. 1150.

Kenneth Clarke suggests that the image of the snake on a pole, like the snake intwined with the tree of knowledge, derived from a widespread fertility image, the "asherah" associated with the worship of Astarte, which consisted of a snake and a tree representing the male and female elements. The brazen serpent re-occurs in II Kings 18:4-6. when King Hezekiah destroys it because "the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan".

Three other plaques relating to the present example are owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum (A camel rider, Samson and the lion and Alexander in his chariot) others are owned by the British Museum, (Namaan bathing in the Jordan) ; The Metropolitan Museum New York (The baptism, Crucifixion, the Holy Women at the Tomb and Pentecost) The Louvre, Paris (a Centaur with a bow and arrow, a youth slaying a dragon and saints Sebastian, Tranquillinus and Livinus) Private collection in New York (The sacrifice of Cain and Abel). The complete group perhaps formed part of a large scheme showing the complete life of Christ with typological subjects. It has been suggested that they come from the altar cross of Abbot Suger, however this has been deemed unlikely, since the decoration on the cross probably focused on Christ's Passion and Resurrection. The plaques could equally have decorated an altarpiece or shrine. The plaque is stylistically and technically very close to a semi-circular enamel now in the British Museum, which shows Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester holding and altar. It is suggested in the Medieval Treasury that all the plaques originally adorned one of Henry's gifts to his Cathedral at Winchester.

Descriptive line

A square plaque with beaded border depicting Moses and the brazen serpent

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Williamson, Paul (ed.), The Medieval Treasury, London: V&A Publications, 1998, p. 149
Campbell, Marian, An Introduction to Medieval Enamels, London: HMSO, 1983, p. 18, fig. 10

Labels and date

MOSES AND THE BRAZEN SERPENT
Copper
Mosan (Valley of the Meuse)
Third Quater of the 12th century

This plaque although belonging to the group of panels next to it, has lost all its enamel, and clearly demonstrates the depth of engraving necessary to hold the enamel, as well as the surface roughening or 'keying' which was intended to provide better adhesion. [2006]
MOSES AND THE BRAZEN SERPENT
Copper gilt, originally decorated with champlevé enamel
In the style of Godefroid of Huy
Mosan; about 1160
Given by Dr. W. L. Hildburgh, F.S.A []

Materials

Copper; Gold; Enamel

Techniques

Engraving; Gilding; Champleve

Subjects depicted

Snake (animal); Serpents (animal)

Categories

Metalwork; Religion; Christianity

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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