The ‘Genesis’ of Ancient Egyptian Motifs in Biblical Art

Anna L. Pearman

Independent Scholar, American Research Centre in Egypt/Washington, DC Chapter, USA

Even though the roots of Old Testament art hearken back to Alexandria, Egypt, its form and decoration were, in fact, Hellenistic. Before the Christian era, illustrated copies of the official translation -- books of the Alexandrian Greek Old Testament, or Septuagint -- formed a basis for Biblical art. Those images persisted into 11th, 12th, and 13th century Byzantine art, then made their way into the landscapes of Italian painting.

Early New Testament art -- though developing contemporaneously from the first century onward -- was influenced largely by local variations, i.e., Alexandrian, Syrian, Ephesian, African, Italian and Gallic. Despite this "freedom of expression" and break from Hellenistic strictures, Egyptian motifs were largely absent from Biblical art, even in Coptic Christian art produced in Egypt.

Is it possible to trace the ‘genesis’ of Ancient Egyptian motifs in Biblical art?

A retrospective examination of 11th through 18th century art might provide some answers when considered against the Crusades, the Universal Inquisition and Index Expurgatorius; the Renaissance in Italy and Northern Europe; the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation (aka Catholic Reformation or Catholic Restoration); Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign; and finally the French Revolution. Each of these historical events directly affected in some unique way either the content or context of Biblical art, as did social attitudes, and innovations in artistic techniques and materials.


Art of the 11th and 12th centuries, labeled "Romanesque," was characterized by a variety of styles that replaced regional differences: Classical Roman, Byzantine, Carolingian, and Islamic. In church decoration there was a profusion of painting, stained glass, and stone sculpture inspired by 250 years of Crusades and religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

At Autun Cathedral the architect Giselbertus integrated into its exterior decoration one of the earliest known representations of the Flight into Egypt. This carved stone image lacks any identification with Egypt, as does a later stained-glass window from the Benedictine Abbey Church of St.-Denis located outside of Paris. The image depicts Moses’s rescue from the Nile, yet there is no visual reference to Ancient Egypt. Why is this so?

A look at the Universal Inquisition might provide an explanation. Doctrinal differences were not new to the Roman Catholic Church and cultural diffusion of religious ideas was widespread during the Crusades. Anticipating the worst, the Church established the Universal Inquisition as a permanent institution charged with eradicating heresies. In areas that came under the purview of the Pope, all preliminary plans for artistic works had to have the local bishop’s approval and secular rulers were required to prosecute heretics.

The Church’s case against the Order of the Knights Templar illustrates how the Inquisition operated.


Canon Law 2335 expressly prohibited secret societies and thus their attendant rituals and iconography. A typical charge against members of such societies might read like the following allegation of heresy, idolatry, and sorcery against the Knights Templar, an organization founded in 1118 AD to guard pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. At a Paris Inquisition on Friday, October 13, 1307 – the original unlucky "Friday-the-thirteenth – it was alleged:

"…[That the Knights]… worshipped an idol [Baphomet] covered with an old skin, which had been embalmed, and that the eyes of this idol were two carbuncles having the brightness of heaven… that the Templars’ whole hope of a future was centered on this idol… that to conceal their wicked lives they constantly attended church, and made almsgiving; that they comforted themselves with edification, and frequently partook of the holy sacrament [the Eucharist]…"

Imprisonment, public humiliation, burning at the stake, torture, loss of limbs and permanent maiming were only some of the punishments inflicted upon the offenders following their renown trial. Pope Clement V officially abolished the organization in 1312 dividing their property between his cunning ally, King Philip IV of France, and the Order of the Knights Hospitalers.


More a revolution of thought and art than a "rebirth," the Italian Renaissance was connected with the re-discovery of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, literature and science, and was characterized by a new resolve to learn directly by observing and studying the natural world.

The Renaissance artist emerged as a creator, sought after and respected for his erudition and imagination. Primarily a vehicle for religious and social didacticism, his work became a mode of personal aesthetic expression.

Some scholars date the beginning of the Italian Renaissance from the appearance of Giotto di Bondone in the early 14th century.


Giotto, the "Father of Italian Painting," re-introduced the idea of a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface, a concept known in classical times (witness the Pompeii and Herculaneum murals), but lost during the Dark Ages. The decoration of the Arena Chapel in Padua – which incidentally was built as a penance to atone for the crime of usury by a local merchant called Scrovegni – has been universally recognized as the most significant and most paradigmatic creation of Giotto. In the early 1300s his Flight into Egypt was among the first Western European murals to fully delineate both figures and a landscape in three dimensions.


Fra Angelico was an accomplished early Renaissance artist and a devout Dominican friar. He began his career illuminating manuscripts, and then graduated to painting altarpieces and other panels.

Fra Angelico’s Flight into Egypt features pious facial expressions and emotions highlighted with color, two areas in which he was particularly effective. His skill in creating monumental figures, representing motion, and suggesting deep space through the use of linear perspective, marks him as one of the foremost painters of the Renaissance.


A trained goldsmith, Lorenzo Ghiberti applied his expertise to two gilded bronze doors called The Gates of Paradise for the Baptistry in Florence. The doors’ ten panels depict Old Testament stories such as Joseph in Egypt. In the top right, his brothers sell Joseph into slavery; in the left center, Joseph – now the Pharaoh’s vizier – reveals his identity to them. The architecture and antique-draped figures were borrowed from sarcophagi that Ghiberti made studies of. Though he had the best intentions of historical accuracy, he clearly did not go back far enough.


Whether the concept of renaissance may be properly applied to the art of northern Europe, i.e., North of the Alps, is a debate more apropos of another conference.

Fifteenth-century northern artists did not intensively cultivate classical sources, nor did they subscribe to the scientific methodology evident in contemporary Italian art. However, during the 15th and 16th centuries they invented oil-based pigments and portable canvases that resulted in the proliferation of artistic works and a rapid cultural diffusion, somewhat comparable to the invention of pigments and papyrus during Ancient Egyptian times.


Melchior Broderlam of the Netherlands was court painter to Philip the Bold, Duc du Bourgoine, beginning in 1387. Few of his works survive, but his Rest on the Flight into Egypt, an altarpiece for a private chapel, remains one of the first and finest examples of International Gothic, the fusion of Italian and Northern European art.


The International Gothic style is most evident in manuscript illumination. It reached new heights in the artistry of the three Limbourg brothers (Pol, Jean and Herman) who perished suddenly in France during 1416, probably of the plague.

A wealthy manuscript collector, Jean Duc de Berry, brother of the afore-mentioned Duc, commissioned the Limbourgs’ Les Très Belles Heures, a 15th-century illustrated "book of hours." With its mixture of courtly refinement, everyday reality and Biblical drama like The Flight Into Egypt, a treasure such as this typically remained in a private collection and outside of the scrutiny of the Universal Inquisition. The Limbourg brothers' exquisite attention to detail, interest in landscape, and rendering of depth were innovations that set the stage for later Flemish landscape and genre schools.

GERARD DAVID (circa 1460-1523)

Gerard David, a Netherlandish painter produced paintings for export. Rest on the Flight Into Egypt was among his favorite and most popular subjects as he painted and sold several versions of it over a ten-year period.

ADAM ELSHEIMER (1578-1610)

Adam Elsheimer’s somewhat later Northern Renaissance painting of Rest on the Flight Into Egypt was a study of light from many sources, not an attempt at historical accuracy.


With the sacking of Rome in 1527 Italian Renaissance art reached a critical turning point: The city’s role as a source of patronage temporarily ended forcing artists to travel to other centers in Italy, France and Spain. Classicism was replaced by Mannerism, a new movement marked by artistic individuality that became the important criterion of artistic achievement. The self-conscious Mannerist artists and their efforts to match or surpass their "great master" predecessors were symptomatic of a style characterized by excesses.


Elongated forms, heightened emotion, and tension between figures and space marked Jacopo (Carucci) da Pontormo’s style. Among his Mannerist works is Joseph in Egypt. The vivid colors carried through in his later works.


Jacopo (Robusti) Tintoretto’s work in the Scoula di San Rocco – two stories covered from floor to ceiling with huge canvases – is designated "Tintoretto" yet analysis has revealed that only fragments such as the luggage in the foreground of The Flight Into Egypt were executed by his own hand. Often criticized for his expedient methods, the artist’s subject matter and treatment of Biblical themes were beyond the reproach of the Universal Inquisition, unlike his rival Paolo Veronese.


Born Paolo Caliari in Verona, Veronese fully immersed himself in the opulent, Venetian patrician lifestyle of his patrons. In mid-career he produced a series of Biblical paintings, among them Moses Rescued from the Nile, which captured the nobility of civilized life in Venice. Pharaoh’s daughter is patently a 16th century principessa for whom "life is beautiful."

Veronese’s Last Supper painting came under the scrutiny of the Universal Inquisition because 50 figures – not the usual 13 – were present along with animals and German soldiers construed to symbolize the Protestant Reformation. On successfully passing the intense drilling of the awesome and fearsome inquisitors, Veronese immediately renamed the work Marriage in the House of Levi.


In the first half of the 16th century, Western Europe experienced a wide range of social, artistic and geo-political changes resulting from a conflict within the Catholic Church called the Protestant Reformation. It erupted on a number of fronts. The Catholic response to it was aptly named the Counter-Reformation.

Martin Luther, a disgruntled converted Catholic and Augustinian monk led one movement of the Protestant Reformation (1517) calling for

Due to the invention of the printing press, Luther’s reforms rapidly spread throughout Europe. Access to the literature was suppressed through the Catholic Church’s Index Expurgatorius.

Protestant reformers rejected the use of visual arts in churches. A wave of iconoclasm swept through the north leaving in its wake shattered stained glass windows, defaced saintly images, and smashed and splintered church organs.

The Catholic Church responded to the various Protestant movements and iconoclasm with a proliferation of art, thereby reasserting the mystical world view, i.e., making miracles and transcendental ideas seem real to the senses through aesthetic imagery.

Tidy, heavily rationalized Renaissance compositions gave way to the free-flowing ethereal spaces of Baroque canvases.


Michelangelo (Merisi) da Caravaggio was an Italian Baroque painter whose work bridged the 16th and 17th centuries. His use of models from the lower social classes in his early secular works and later religious compositions like Rest on the Flight Into Egypt appealed to the Counter-Reformation tastes of realism, simplicity and piety in art.

Caravaggio’s impact on the art of his century was considerable: He and the Carracci family (below) restored Italian art to the high standards of the Renaissance, and the Catholic Church.


In the early 1580s the Carracci (two brothers and their cousin) opened the private Academy of the Progressives in Bologna that offered classical training in the arts.

Annibale, the youngest of the trio, moved to Rome and produced works there that had great significance in the history of painting. He is regarded as the "Father of Ideal Landscape." Drawing its inspiration from classical antiquity, this school of painting presented nature as harmonious, serene and often majestic. Subject matter was taken from Greek, Roman or Biblical sources and human figures in the landscape were often in pastoral or antique dress. The Flight Into Egypt is Annibale’s masterpiece in this genre.


Orazio Gentileschi became one of the closest and most gifted of Caravaggio’s followers. His Finding of Moses painted when he was 63 year of age shows a formal elegance, which was his primary concern as a painter.


Claude de Lorrain was a French painter who worked in Italy securing commissions from wealthy aristocrats in both countries. His particular contribution to the ideal landscape was his masterly treatment of light. He did, after all, paint during the reign of "The Sun King" Louis XIV, a time when artistic Baroque works featured brilliant sunlight, a metaphor to the reigning refulgent monarch.

Claude’s mature period features more tranquil paintings, bathed in warm even light. Their subject matter was drawn from classical or Biblical sources and evoked pastoral beauty, as in The Finding of Moses.


Francois Boucher created idyllic, mythological and Biblical scenes like Rest on the Flight into Egypt. His work is part of a genre called Rococo, an outgrowth of the Baroque, characterized primarily by elaborate and profuse ornamentation, emphasizing frivolity and sensuousness. Considered the most fashionable artist of his day, Boucher and his cohorts carried the visual arts into the 19th century.


Napoleon’s military and scientific expedition to Egypt opened 19th century eyes to a world both exotic and wonderful. Painstaking documentation by Bonaparte’s artists and others who ventured forth independently fostered a "genesis" of Ancient Egyptian motifs in Biblical art as artists gained inspiration from artifacts displayed in public parks, museums and private collections, as well as from illustrated volumes such as Champollion’s Monuments de l’Egypte, Denon’s Description de l’Egypte, and Rosellini’s I Monumenti dell’Egitto e della Nubia.


Despite the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century, the cultural infusion of Ancient Egypt into the arts was further delayed because of French intellectual orientation toward both Ancient Rome and Greece, i.e., neo-classicism, that persisted well into the next century. La Revolution Française brought profound and far-reaching consequences to the arts: escape from a world that had become increasingly industrialized and mechanized to exotic and natural settings like Ancient Egypt provided the impetus for the Romantic period. At long last, in the second half of the 19th century through the works of the Orientalists, Egypt took her place in art among the great ancient cultures. Old and New Testament scenes were highly embellished and rendered with historical accuracy.


This research has drawn some compelling parallels between intellectual, religious and political climates of different historical periods in the second millennium to explore and possibly explain the absence of Ancient Egyptian motifs in Biblical art that depicted Old and New Testament events occurring in Egypt (the finding of Moses, scenes from the life of Joseph, the flight into Egypt, and repose on the flight into Egypt, to name a few).

An area of further study would logically be an examination of Biblical art of the first millennium for references, both direct and indirect, to Ancient Egypt. Such research could serve to bridge the span between the plethora of images in ancient times to the dearth of motifs substantiated in this work.

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