Steen only painted a couple of religious scenes – and this is one of them. The story is about Moses who, as a child, is seen by the pharaoh’s counsellors as a threat to Egypt. They test the toddler by making him choose between gold and a dish of glowing coals. In his innocence, Moses picks up a coal and burns himself.
Steen depicted the story as a farce, focusing on the annoyance of the pharaoh and the crying toddler, who turns to his foster mother for comfort.
Moses and Pharaoh’s Crown, the first history painting by Jan Steen to be acquired by the Mauritshuis, portrays an apocryphal story from the infancy of the prophet. It shows Moses as a crying toddler, seeking refuge in the arms of his foster mother, Pharaoh’s daughter. A shady adviser whispers in the ear of Pharaoh, who is furious because the child has just smashed his crown to pieces. Steen portrayed the story as an amusing farce, concentrating on Pharaoh’s chagrin and the toddler’s distress. It is the only painting by Steen showing an episode from Moses’ infancy. This scene is rarely depicted, unlike the popular story of Pharaoh’s daughter finding little Moses in a basket in the Nile (which Steen did not portray, as far as we know).
In the course of his career, Steen painted various scenes from the life of Moses, one of the most important Old Testament prophets. An early work is Moses Striking the Rock for Water (Städel Museum, Frankfurt), a theme he took up again shortly after 1670 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia).1 One of Steen’s last masterpieces – The Worship of the Golden Calf (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh) – also depicts an episode from Exodus, the book of the Bible that relates the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.2 The rather complicated, apocryphal story of the infant Moses and Pharaoh’s crown has been told in various versions.
Medieval (illustrated) retellings of the Bible and traditional exegesis of the Torah offer an explanation of the brief statement in Exodus (4:10) that Moses was ‘slow of speech, and of a slow tongue’. Moses, who had been adopted by Thermuthis, daughter of Pharaoh, was still a toddler when he ended up with Pharaoh’s crown on his head while playing with his foster grandfather. He threw the crown to the ground and trampled on it – all because of a pagan idol that was attached to it. Pharaoh’s counsellors, infuriated, recognised the child who was prophesied to destroy the kingdom of Egypt. Some of them wanted to kill Moses immediately, but others persuaded Pharaoh to give him one more chance by undergoing a trial by fire. The child was given a pan of burning coals and a dish of food (another version describes it as a dish of gold) to choose from. Moses proved his childlike innocence by grabbing a burning coal and putting it in his mouth – the act that caused his speech impediment.3
Steen depicts the outcome of this episode: the crying Moses seeks comfort in his mother’s arms while pointing to his burning mouth. Behind Moses’ back, the trampled crown, the moneybag with gold coins spilling from it, and the brazier of burning coals testify to what has just taken place. A young servant, wearing what looks like a page’s livery,4 holds the brazier by its handle while averting his face from the heat of the burning coals. An old man, probably a priest, wearing headgear with two horn-like points, raises his hands in dismay.5 The onlookers who have flocked to the scene bear halberds that indicate the imminent danger to the child. Steen used the poses and facial expressions to portray these farcical proceedings. Slumped on the throne and furrowing his brow, Pharaoh listens to whispered advice while resting his head on his hand and clutching his sceptre.6 The adviser at his ear, with a grimace on his face and a wreath on his bald head, looks just as ludicrous as Pharaoh. This sly figure is beautifully rendered, right down to the dagger, moneybag and bunch of keys hanging from his belt.
Thermuthis, kneeling on the floor beside the throne and taking the child in her arms as she makes a pleading gesture with her right hand, is exquisitely depicted. Her delicately painted profile stands out lightly against her father’s dark blue cloak. The principal actors come to the fore due to the gleaming satin of their clothing. Steen was a master at suggesting the shimmering fabric, rendered with rapid back-and-forth movements of his brush. Just as beautifully painted are the carpet that serves as a baldachin above Pharaoh and the Oriental carpet beneath his throne, behind which stand two companions of Thermuthis.7 A humorous detail is the lion dog at right, which looks at us from the corner of its eye and wears a collar with bells. Steen depicted the supporting actors more sketchily, in a darker palette, thereby effectively pushing them farther into the background.
Known for having studied the works of his predecessors, Steen frequently drew inspiration from them in his constant search for useful examples. In doing so, he resolutely availed himself of borrowed motifs, applying these ‘quotations’ with a personal touch. Steen had a special relationship with some of the great masters of the past. He felt deep admiration for his fellow townsman Lucas van Leyden, whose work was a source of profound inspiration. The painting discussed here contains a notable borrowing from the Leiden master, whose print of David Playing the Harp before Saul depicts King Saul just before he explodes with anger and throws his spear at the innocent David.8 Saul clenches his hands and feet with pent-up rage as he slumps in his throne. Steen borrowed this figure’s body language for his portrayal of Pharaoh, who holds his sceptre as though it were a murder weapon and seems ready to strike the child. In Steen’s day, art connoisseurs would have had no trouble recognising such a quotation.
Steen also seems to have sought out prints containing examples of the same subject, such as a series depicting the infancy of Moses by the Liege artist Pieter Jalhea Furnius.9 In the print Moses Trampling Pharaoh’s Crown, the ruler is depicted in approximately the same pose, leaning his head on his hand and clutching his sceptre. The baldachin is also similar, as are the two figures next to the throne (mirrored in Steen’s painting by the women behind the throne). The following print in Furnius’s series depicts the trial by fire, but the outcome that Steen portrayed – the upset child scrambling into his mother’s arms – is not depicted. Moses trampling Pharaoh’s crown was occasionally portrayed in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, but with no reference to the trial by fire.10 A painting by Jan Lievens, who was related to Steen by marriage,11 might also have served as an example for the present work.12 This is suggested by the mother kneeling to comfort the child next to the throne, a motif that is similar in Lievens’s painting, in which a white lion dog jumps up at the mother from behind.
Steen was a highly productive painter, but as far as we know he drew very little.13 This is the conclusion to be drawn from the fact that there are almost no extant works on paper by his hand. It is possible, however, that his stock of studies and sketches was simply lost, as often happened to the drawings in artists’ estates. Because Steen used numerous motifs over and over again in his paintings, he might well have had albums with model drawings at his disposal in the studio.14 Yet Moses and Pharaoh’s Crown is the only painting by Steen for which a preparatory drawing survives.15
On the whole, the composition of this wash drawing is the same as the painting, but the spatial context is compressed and the accessories are simpler. Only three figures appear in the left background, and Pharaoh’s adviser wears a different headdress. The boy holding the brazier and the lion dog are not depicted, but there is an additional figure behind the throne. The drawing is a typical working sketch: Pharaoh’s upper body is drawn on a cut-out piece of paper, evidently as a correction to an earlier version. In the drawing, Pharaoh stares at the floor, whereas in the painting he looks at the viewer out of the corner of his eye. The modelling of the main figures, executed with the brush, has a painterly quality that makes the attribution to Steen plausible. Where the details of the figures are sketched in pen and brown ink, however, the drawing looks rather academic and stiff, making it likely that an assistant or pupil was at work here.16
A telling detail in the drawing that does not occur in the painting is a small figure lying on the floor to the left of the crown: the idol which in some versions of the story was cited as the reason that little Moses trampled the crown. It is described, for example, in Petrus Comestor’s twelfth-century retelling of the Bible, Historia Scholastica, which first appeared in a Dutch translation in 1473.17 In biblical typology, the story of Moses is related in various ways to the history of Christ, which sees the prophet as a prefiguration of the Messiah. In the fourteenth-century Speculum humanae salvationis, a typological handbook that pairs stories from the Old and New Testaments, the idol on the crown is compared to the idols that toppled from their pedestals as the Christ Child passed by during the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.18
Steen gives an original twist to the story of Moses and Pharaoh’s crown by portraying the child as a crying toddler, pointing to his burned mouth. The depiction of the shocked child is a lifelike detail of the kind Steen frequently incorporated in his genre scenes as well. In this painting he succeeded in forging all the elements of this complex story into an original whole.
Jan Steen (Leiden 1626 - 1679 Leiden)
Moses and Pharaoh's Crown
Nome do objeto
Número de inventário
Em exibição em
Material e detalhes técnicos
78 x 79 cm
David Grenier, Middelburg (sale Middelburg, 18 August 1712, lot 53); Ewout van Dishoek, Den Haag (sale The Hague, 9 June 1745, lot 20); private collection, France; Heim Gairac Gallery, Paris; S. Nijstad Gallery, The Hague, 1953; Hans Wetzlar, Amsterdam; by inheritance into the family; on loan to the Mauritshuis, 2008-2011; acquired with the support of the VriendenLoterij, 2011
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