PICTURES OF THE BIBLE  © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008






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Moses comes down from Mount Sinai
with the Ten Commandments
; Gustave DORÉ;
engraving from “The Illustrated Bible”.




Moses and the Tables of the Law







God has given His Law engraved on tables of stone to Moses. According to the biblical narrative, he gives them to him twice. The first time, Moses breaks them out of anger when he sees the people worship an idol, the Golden Calf. The second time Moses comes down from the mountain and presents them solemnly to the people so that they should keep them.

Moses is an old bearded man. Two rays of light radiate from his face while more often than not he has horns of gold or of light. This is due to an error of translation: the Hebrew “ray of light” has become “horn of gold” in Latin. Hence a Moses with two horns, for a long time portrayed so, especially in sculpture, where horns are easier to be represented than rays.


God remains concealed, but He sometimes manifests himself at the top of the mountain by his “glory”, that is to say by a bright light or, more traditionally, by holding out his hand towards Moses.

The tables of the Law are almost always represented as two flat slabs of stone joined side by side and rectangular with semi-circular tops.

To receive the Tables, Moses has an attitude of respect with his hands veiled and his sandals taken off. The people do not attend the scene or else only from a distance, separated by a fence.

If Moses is portrayed in anger and breaking the Tables, the scene takes place in the middle of the people dancing round the Golden Calf.





Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments; Gustave DORÉ; engraving from “The Illustrated Bible”.



Moses and the Tables of the Law

The Book of Exodus

After coming out of Egypt, the Hebrews walk towards the Promised Land. God, as a sign of alliance, wants to give them His Law.

And the LORD said to Moses, Come up to me into the mountain, and be there: and I will give you tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; (Exodus 24:12)

Moses goes into the cloud which is the sign of God’s presence and he stays there forty days. But the people, who do not see him come back, ask Aaron, his brother, to return to the cult of idols. He has a gold statue representing a calf melted and the people worship it. When Moses comes down: “as soon as he came near the camp, … he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses' anger became hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them at the foot of the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire.(Exodus 32:19-20)

Once His anger has calmed down, God accepts to give back new Tables: “And the LORD said to Moses, Cut two tables of stone like the first ones: and I will write on these tables the words that were on the first tables, which you broke. And be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. And no man shall come up with you” (Exodus 34:1-3)


And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread, nor drank water. And he wrote on the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mountain, that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him.” (Exodus 34:28-29)





For Jews, this is a founding scene since Moses receives the Torah, that is to say the Law that is at the basis of life. Moses is more than a prophet, he is the only man who has met God face to face.

For Christians, this is the revelation of the Only God and of the foundation of morals; Christ will be a new Moses coming to fulfil and not to abolish the Torah.






Moses and the Tables of the Law


Moses comes down from Mount Sinai
with the Ten Commandments
; Gustave DORÉ;
engraving from “The Illustrated Bible”.




The meeting between Moses and God.

The miniature makes God an emperor.


Moses receiving the Tables of the Law; François MAÎTRE; c. 1475-80; miniature from “The City of God”; manuscript MMW 10 A 11 Koninklijke Museum, The Hague.

 Museum Meermanno



Moses receives the Tables of the Law; Marc CHAGALL; 1960-66; oil on canvas; Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, France

Académie Nice


God manifests himself on the mountain. For Gérôme, it is Moses who becomes the God-idol.


God speaks on Mount Sinai; Unknown illustrator of the writings of Caspar Luiken; 1712 engraving on copper; Pitts Theological Library, Atlanta

Pitts Library



Moses on Mount Sinai; Jean-Léon GÉRÔME ; c. 1895-1900; oil on canvas ; private collection

 Site Artrenewal


The greatest artists have given very different portraits of Moses’ face.



Moses (detail); MICHELANGELO Buonarroti; 1515; marble; San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Web Gallery of Art



Moses with the Tables of the Law; REMBRANDT; 1659; oil on canvas; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum


When Moses comes down, he finds the Israelites adoring a golden calf. Blake makes him break the tables with a gesture of anger which models itself on the sacrilegious dance.


The Israelites dancing before the Golden Calf; Sébastien BOURDON; c. 1645; feather and brown ink enhanced with white and brown oil; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Paul Getty trust



Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf, William BLAKE; 1799-1800; tempera on canvas; Tate Gallery, London.

Tate on line






Moses comes down from Mount Sinai
with the Ten Commandments
; Gustave DORÉ;
engraving from “The Illustrated Bible”.



Moses and the Tables of the Law

Moses is the legislator of the Decalogue, which means ten words or ten commandments. This Decalogue founds a strict monotheism definitively and is at the basis of Western morals.

Varied classifications of the 10 commandments are possible. Here is the most classic one, established by St Augustine in the 5th century.

1. You shall have no other gods before me.

2. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God

3. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy

4. Honour your Father and Mother

5. You shall not murder

6. You shall not commit adultery

7. You shall not steal

8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour

9. You shall not covet your neighbour's house

10. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife



The Tables of the Law with their so characteristic form have become a current symbol to give power and authority to the Law. This engraving of the Rights of Man of 1789 perfectly shows it but God is replaced by less religious symbols.




 To sacrifice to the golden calf”or “to adore the golden calf”  remains a phrase used with the meaning of loving riches, whereas, in the Bible, it means “to turn away from God in order to worship idols, and particularly the small wooden picture of the god Baal.


This picture from the French “Petit Journal” of 1892 denounces the profiteers of the Stock-Exchange.






BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008