As I promised in the opening post for this tour on finding the story in art, this is “The Gathering of Manna” painted by Ottavio Vannini in 1635.
But wait. Before I can tell you that story I have to tell you this story… You know how when you go to a restaurant they always have music playing in the background, eh? Well when my wife and I go out to dinner we like to play a game with the music – first one to come up with name of the band wins. Now this is pretty easy if it’s Janis Joplin or the Stones. They have a distinctive sound. The difference between England Dan and John Ford Coley versus Christopher Cross is trickier. Look ’em up kids.
To liven up my museum tour I decided to incorporate something like that game. When I led the tour with other docents that know the collection pretty well, I played a tune first and then I asked them to guess what art work it went with. For regular visitors I played it the other way around – I showed them the art and then asked them to come up with a song that fit the image.
This first painting turns out to be pretty tough. Here we have old-timey people gathering something off the ground. Hmmm. Any ideas? If we add a couple of hints, they are Israelites and they are in the desert, maybe we can get something. Anything? How about “A Horse with No Name” by America or the one I ended up playing, “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces from 1969. The first Jamaican Reggae song to make the top of both the UK and US charts.
OK. Back to the painting. In terms of finding the story in art, this one wears its story on its sleeve so to speak. You don’t need to know the biblical text that it’s based on to read the story. It’s all right there on the canvas.
We have a bunch of people gathering something up off the ground. Although there isn’t much of this white stuff left, there must have been a lot at first since the people have filled jars and pots and bags with stuff. The naked kid in the middle is sneaking a taste so this stuff must be good to eat. The main man in the top center is pointing up to the sky with his stick in one hand and extends his other open hand down toward the ground Vanna White style so we get the idea that the stuff was sent from heaven and is there for all to enjoy. In the background we see the peaks of tents so this must be a mobile nomadic type situation. So we have bunch of people wandering about in the wild, they get hungry, and somehow the guy with the stick has caused food to fall from the heavens for them to eat. That’s exactly what this painting is about.
This painting is an illustration of the biblical story from Exodus 16. The full story goes something like this: There is a great famine all over the region where the Israelites live and they are forced to seek food down in Egypt. Fortunately, this is another story, one of their own, Joseph, has a attained a high position in the court of the Pharaoh. He’s like the number two guy in all the land. This is partly due to the fact that he correctly predicted the famine years ahead of time and counseled Pharaoh to store up grain during the good years so that there would be food when the famine hit. So now Pharaoh is sitting pretty – he has food to supply his people and even enough to sell to other people like the Israelites – people fed and coffers full of money. Nice.
When Pharaoh learns that the Israelites are family of Joseph, he invites them to come and live in Egypt. Any friend of Joseph is a friend of mine sort of thing. Well the years go by and Joseph dies and a new Pharaoh comes to power – one that as the Bible says “doesn’t know Joseph”. All he knows is that he has a bunch of foreigners mooching off his land. So he uses his power to enslave them.
After many years of slavery, the Israelites call to God to save them and He sends them Moses (mostly) and his brother Aaron (another story). If you’ve ever watched “The Ten Commandments” movie starring Charlton Heston you know how this goes – cut to the chase scene and the parting of the Red Sea. The whole of the Israelite nation up tent stakes and escape from Egypt into the wilderness.
Once you shake off the Egyptian army, you’re left with thousands of people wandering in the wilderness. Eventually the food runs out. What do you do? Moses turns to God and He sends them two things. In the evening flocks of quail land in the camp to provide meat and in the morning with the dew falls “manna” for bread. Manna is a white flaky substance that can be used as flour and tastes like cakes made with honey. Each morning the people are to go out and gather as much manna as they need for that day. If they try to get extra and save it, it goes bad. They know this because even though Moses told them ahead of time not to do that, they did it anyway.
So here we see Moses pointing to heaven with his staff and to the ground inviting the people to collect the life sustaining manna. Aaron is next to him as always. Not sure what he’s up to. He looks kind of freaked out by the whole deal. We have various people scooping up the manna and putting it in bags and jars and bowls. And we have the naked kid – put some clothes on him already.
As a bonus story I assume you’ve noticed the horns or rays of light coming out of Moses’ head. Aaron wears a helmet to fake the horns, but Moses has the real deal. They must be important. But why would Moses, man of God, have “devil horns”? I won’t go into it here because I’ve already written about it in my post “Moses Has Horns. What’s Up with That?“.
One more bonus story about this artist: Vannini painted a lot of biblical scenes and he also painted a scene of David’s triumph over Goliath. In it he shows David holding Goliath’s severed head.
In 2007 the painting was on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum and a visitor was so upset by the violent imagery that he tore the painting off the wall and stomped on it until he tore a big hole in the canvas over Goliath’s head. Then he laid down on the floor and waited for the police. Weird.
Note that I’m not sure that this image shows the correct painting. This is the image shown in most news articles and called “The Triumph of David”. However its name is really “David with the Head of Goliath”. The painting “The Triumph of David” is a different one that is in the collection of the Hermitage in Russia also with Goliath’s severed head in it. Hmmm.
OK. That’s about all the stories we can pull from this painting so it’s on to the next one – “Casey Jones” by Edwin Fulwider. Let’s roll.