CIT Briefs

The Death of Moses

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Initial Brief

A. Exegesis

At one point in the Chosen People’s desert meandering, they grumble over the lack of water.  The Lord tells Moses and Aaron to stand before a particular rock and call forth water.   Moses and Aaron fulfill the first half of the Lord’s directive, i.e., stand before the rock, but Moses disobeys the second half by striking the rock twice.  The Lord gets angry for Moses’ lack of faith and he is not allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land, though he will see it from afar (Num 20:2-13). 

Moses dies on Mount Nebo, viewing the whole promised land. The last section voicing the final tribute to Moses is of particular importance, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut 34:10).  That the Lord knows Moses “face to face” connects, of course to the theophanies on Sinai where Moses’ face shines in glory.

B. Free Association

Thoughts immediately turn to those stories of those people whose lives were examples of patient endurance but who die just short of reaching their deliverance.  It is faith in the redemption which completes what one lacks in this life.  In this line, Moses’ death on Mount Nebo can be considered a blessing.  Moses had worked long and hard to see the people through.  He had to put up with their ceaseless murmuring, settle all their arguments, look after their food and shelter, and command their armies.  They will enter the Promised Land, to be sure, but that endeavor will bring all its own problems.  When all is said and done, dying on Mount Nebo is quite a bittersweet way for Moses to leave the scene. 

Our lives are often like Moses’.   We each have something to do in life, we do it, and die because we are too old to start again. 

Starting with the Byzantine period and running all the way through contemporary time, Mount Nebo, located in present day Jordan, has been a highly popular pilgrimage site.  There were several great basilicas on the spot with superlative mosaic floors.

From atop Mount Nebo, one can see just about everything described Deuteronomy 34; the narrative is only slightly exaggerated.  On a clear day, Jerusalem, about forty miles away (about 60 k) comes into view.

As a possible visual treatment, Moses could be placed on the margin with the Promised Land set on the other side of the page.

C. Local Association

The Promised Land has great resonance in the American myth.  The earliest colonists considered these shores the Promised Land, and that notion has carried through history for nearly four hundred years.  A scene from Ellis Island, the great point of disembarkation where over one half of all Americans can trace their history, could figure into the illumination.

For Black Americans, Moses has been the central icon of their liberation since before the Civil War (1860-65).  Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech at the civil rights march in 1963 continues to ring in the ear, “I have been to the mountain top, I have seen the Promised Land…” and, of course, like Moses, he died before entering it as well, metaphorically speaking.  In the Catholic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the chapel of the Black Virgin has a bas relief of Black slaves marching out of servitude, and at the top of the line are a mother, father, and child in contemporary dress.

Harriet Tubman, a free Black woman in the North, was called the “Moses of her people” because she continued to venture into the South to rescue those Blacks still held in bondage.

The theme of liberation can be carried to the plight of persecuted Christians the world over.

On a more local level, we can tap into Saint John’s own history with monks on a steamboat coming up the Mississippi with our first log cabin on the West Bank.

First Draft-


In this finale/tailpiece to Pentateuch, Donald always had in mind a collaborative illumination combining his own work with that of Aidan Hart and Sally Mae Joseph.  The idea was to portray Moses in somewhat the same spirit as he was shown in the Transfiguration scene in G&A, using the traditional symbology of the tablets to emphasise his identity and importance.  As it is, by breaking off as it were pieces of Thomas Ingmire’s Ten Commandments page, Donald has brought Thomas’ ‘hand’ into the tailpiece as well as linking it artistically with the preceding illuminations. 

As a matter of fact, he painted the mountainside and the vision of the promised land “ far as the western sea..” via “..the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees..” before he came up with the idea of using Thomas’ fragments and even the colours harmonised with what he had already painted.


Donald has realised that a personal visual language is emerging in the work for Pentateuch.  Even though he might start out trying to be completely original, certain recurring ideas surface in different pieces:  the use of folded traditional middle-eastern textiles to create intricacy, form and credibility; the use of free brushwork to convey lightly suggested aerial perspective and landscape combined with gold lettered texts as part of a background of irregular strong shapes.

All of these combine to create a series of familiar environments against which the text can be pondered and he has realised that this has a value.


For the portrayal of Moses, Donald has chosen as a starting point William Blake’s well-known and enormously powerful iconographic treatment of Abraham, to give an impression of how he would like to treat the face of Moses.  Probably, but not necessarily, using the skills of Aidan Hart to paint the face in a iconographic manner as mentioned above.  In any case, partly facing the viewer but looking upwards as if listening to the words of the Lord.

CIT response-

This appears to be in a rough sketch state.  The movement between the two styles of abstract and iconography could be stunning.  The landscape could be more intangible.  The general impression is that this depiction is eclectic at this phase.  Many different ideas are surfacing but a way to unify them all is needed.  What is the floral image in the desert foreground?   Is the blue in the upper left hand corner representing the sky or the Jordon River?  If it is a river perhaps it could be more flowing movement.  Don’t forget that the years of wandering in the desert were years of struggle and chaos.  Would it be possible to emphasize those years in the depiction?  The chaos could stand in contrast to the view of the land of milk and honey-- which is God’s promise fulfilled.

The group is looking forward to seeing more of this illumination as Donald moves forward with it.

Wales response-

There will  not be any problem with incorporating the committee's suggestions regarding the treatment of the "cliff face" to the left of Moses, or in unifying the different elements of the illumination satisfactorily.  The comments on the use of  the "blue" in the upper left hand corner highlight the shortcomings of the process whereby the committee has to work with electronic images taken from an original idea 4000 miles away.  As a matter of fact, the "blue" is much more of a turquoise suffused with light from an under layer of white meant to suggest the ethereal presence of God accompanying his chosen people throughout the wilderness and from whom the command to Moses emanates.  However, creating contrast between chaos and deprivation on the one hand and the land of milk and honey on the other, will be helped by your suggestion.  Indeed it can be combined with Donald's interpretation by using "electric" linear elements of gold carried through to the foot of the illumination where, as a matter of fact, Donald had already extended a background of black and unifying shades of black.  This is further knitted in by the closing statement about Moses' death in the land of Moab.  For your information, I have enclosed an impression of how this worked out.  By the way, the flowers are based on poppies which sprout from the rocky desert in the Holy Land and represent hope.

Final Illumination-