Moses and the Brazen Serpent

UCL Museums self-guided tours: Art Museum

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Moses and the brazen serpent

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (detail), 1898, Augustus John (1878 – 1961), Oil on canvas

Location: Framed on the west wall of the Housman Room in the North Cloisters of the Wilkins Building.

This dramatic, large-scale composition by one of Britain's leading artists won the Summer Composition Prize, the final accomplishment at the end of the Slade student's training.

John won numerous prizes at the Slade including first prize for figure composition in 1898 for this painting. Also known as the Summer Composition Competition, the prize required students to produce a large-scale imaginative composition in response to a title set by the Slade Professor. Students worked over the summer vacation and the results were judged in a verbal criticism by the Slade Professor at the beginning of the autumn term.
John has depicted Moses in the centre of the painting, standing on hillock and pointing to the brazen serpent. The nude figures intertwined with serpents who convey the suffering of the Israelites are contrasted with the figures surrounding Moses who express astonishment and awe at their deliverance.

Slade students were encouraged to study old master works in the National Gallery and the British Museum. The figures in John’s painting are drawn from a wide range of sources including the works of Rubens, Tintoretto and El Greco. The most direct quotations come from 19th-century sculpture. The figure on the right wrestling with a snake is drawn from Frederic Leighton’s (1830) Athlete Wrestling a Python  and Flaxman’s St. Michael Overcoming Satan (see No. 1 in this list) inspired the placing of the figure of Moses above the nude figure in the foreground.

The painting was notorious for including many portraits of fellow Slade students, most of whom are now impossible to identify. The one exception is William Orpen  whose dark bearded figure has been placed to the left of the picture next to the tree.

The Brazen Serpent

Moses and the Brazen Serpent depicts the episode in the Bible when the Israelites, who had grown tired after years in the wilderness, spoke out against God and Moses. To punish them, God sent a plague of serpents with fiery stings. The Israelites begged Moses to intercede on their behalf. On praying to God, Moses received instructions to make a snake out of brass and set it on a pole. All those hurt by the fiery snakes were healed as they gazed upon the brazen serpent.

Symbolic interpretations of the brazen serpent raised on its pole focus on healing and range from a foretelling of Christ’s healing of humanity when he was raised on the cross to images of snakes wrapped as symbols of the medical profession.

Augustus John (1878 – 1961)

Augustus John lived and worked at the forefront of British art and culture for first half of the 20th Century.

Born in Pembrokeshire in 1878, John attended the Slade (where he was later joined by his elder sister Gwen) from 1894 to 1899 and showed himself to be an outstanding painter and draughtsman. On leaving the Slade he visited Paris and, on his return, joined the New English Art Club  – a group of young British painters with a great appreciation for the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles of art. The diversity of his skill and talent led to comparisons throughout his career to a wide range of artists from Michelangelo to Matisse and Gaugin. He found early fame and built his reputation as a portraitist, painting such notable figures as Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Lloyd-George and Winston Churchill.

John was a colourful figure. Having gained the position of Official War Artist with the Canadian Army, he was forced to beat a hasty retreat from a military career following a fist-fight with a fellow officer. He was one of the leading proponents of the Bohemian lifestyle, having met and lived with Romany travelers as a young art student during his holidays back home in Wales. His affection for the travelers and their way of life extended well beyond his iconic costume of a wide-brimmed hat, neckerchief, full beard and gold jewelry. In 1911 he set up his family at Alderney Manor in Dorset which he also established as a Bohemian commune where guests would live in caravans on the grounds. His lifestyle, romantic character and numerous love affairs cemented his reputation as the 'King of Bohemia'.

John was also an active political figure, associated with the Abolition of Capital Punishment campaign and giving a voice to the issues of travelers' rights. In the 1930s, he established the Artists International Association – an 'army of artists' including Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson – to stand and fight against the growth of fascism.

Moses and the brazen serpent