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Moses is shown in half-length. He has short hair and beard, which is the usual manner of depicting the prophet in icons - though sometimes he is also slightly bald (as in fig. b). He is dressed in a green chiton and a red himation - the classical clothes of prophets in icons, and which is based on the clothing of the Antique to Late Antique period. Moses holds a scroll with an inscription (see below) in his left hand and points to it with his right hand. The fact that he is turned slightly to his left indicates that the panel was originally part of the 'Prophet Tier' of an iconostasis (see cat. no.WW005 in this exhibition).
Moses is a crucial figure in Judaism and Christianity. The first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch) are traditionally ascribed to Moses. He is a mythic hero who freed the Israelis from bondage in Egypt and miraculously led them across the Red Sea (Exod. 14) to the Promised Land (Canaan/Israel). Importantly, he received the 'form' or 'pattern' (tavnit) for the Tabernacle which was based on the heavenly archetype (Exod. 25 et al), as well as the Tablets of the Law (Exod. 19-24) during a visionary and theophanic experience on Mount Sinai.
The inscription on Moses' scroll reads: Аз купину прозвах тя, человеком покрове, тайну сице стояние. These words are addressed to the Virgin, but they are fragmented and incoherent: 'I called you a [burning] bush, O protectress of humans...mystery...' The inscription is not directly taken from the Pentateuch, but it does refer to the episode from Exodus of Moses' vision of the Burning Bush, but seen through a Mariological and incarnational lens. The vision takes place at the foot of Mount Horeb:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Mid′ian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. (Exod. 3:1-2)
Early Christian writers interpreted Moses' vision of the Burning Bush as a prophetic typology of the Virgin and her miraculous ability to bear God - who is consistently imaged in the Bible as a 'consuming fire' (e.g. Exod. 15:7; Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29) - in her womb. In other words, the Virgin is not consumed by the consuming fire. For example, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 332-395 CE) writes:
From this we learn also the mystery of the Virgin: The light of divinity which through birth shone from her into human life did not consume the burning bush, even as the flower of virginity was not withered by giving birth.
The Virgin of the Sign iconography (fig. a) - which would have originally been the object of Moses' 'gaze' at the centre Prophet Tier - is also related to this theme
The style of our version suggests that it was painted in Northern Russia, possibly in Vologda. Icons from late 16th century Vologda of Moses and Daniel (fig's b and c) - also from the Prophet Tier of an iconostasis - have a comparable manner of depicting the faces with soft, simple brushstrokes that impart a calm, contemplative feel to the saints. The contemplative inwardness Moses' expression recalls the ascetic quality of 15th century icons from Moscow (for example, see fig. d), which probably influenced workshops in the North during this period.