Cheryl Spinner

1. The Veiled Moses

Brian Britt’s “Concealment, Revelation, and Gender: The Veil of Moses in the Bible and in Christian Art” (2003) recovers the veiled Moses figure, a model of revelation that is not only neglected, but even avoided in Judeo-Christian tradition. Britt traces Christian and Jewish commentaries on the episode of the veiled Moses, beginning with, most importantly, Paul’s commentary on the relationship between Christ and the veil of Moses. According to the Pauline reading, Moses veils himself before the people of Israel to keep them from gazing at God’s glory; Jesus lifts the veil. In this understanding of revelation and divine communication, the figure of the Veiled Moses represents the Jews, who have yet accept Jesus. Theologically, then, the veil assumes a pivotal place in solidifying the difference between Christian and Judaic identities; yet, curiously, the veiled Moses is seldom depicted in Christian art. In his survey, Britt is only able to find eight images that depict Moses in the veil: the Vivian Bible, an eleventh-century liturgical manuscript, the Farfa Bible, St.-Denis Window, Queen Mary Psalter, Berlin History Bible, Botticelli’s Fresco, and a contemporary children’s book illustration. These images, which vary from depictions of Moses with a veil completely obscuring his face, to images that depict him half-veiled or not veiled at all, illustrate the myriad of ways in which this episode has been treated in Christian art.

The St.-Denis Window and the eleventh-century liturgical manuscript have been excerpted here, respectively, to the demonstrate just how varied these images are in their treatment of the Veiled Moses. Images like the St.-Denis Window, which cover Moses’s face entirely, are rare. Of the few that actually represent Moses with a veil, his face is often partially veiled or even fully revealed, with a veil nearby. In his survey, Britt wonders why Christian art seldom represents the Veiled Moses, and when it does, most are half-veiled. Still working within the tradition of the Old Testament, Britt argues, Christians would find the feminized depictions of this important Biblical figure particularly unsettling. Moses, after all, is the giver of the Torah/Bible, and despite his limitations for a Christian theology, he is still important and must be respected. Synagoga, the feminine personification of the Jewish people, usefully comes in as a surrogate for the veiled Moses. Complete with broken tablets and a blindfold, Synagoga can easily represent the Jewish people and their blindness without having to situate this within Moses’s male body. Moses, in turn, is represented with horns—itself a mistranslation of Hebraic word, “keren,” which is used to describe the rays of light that emit from Moses’ face once he descends from the mountain. With Synagoga the surrogate of Moses, the binary of “female as evil and male as good” is kept tidy: the fallen, veiled woman represents Judaism; the unveiled, albeit deformed, masculine figure can accept the Torah. It is thus simpler for a Judeo-Christian tradition to avoid the to troubling Veiled Moses figure altogether than to deal with the anxieties that are created by having to come to terms with Moses in female garb.

The Repressed Veil in Judeo-Christian Tradition

 Few interpreters in Jewish or Christian tradition have explored the religious richness of Moses’s veil, a biblical episode that alternates between presence and absence, concealment and revelation.To “read” the veil in writing and images is thus to “read” texts about revelation. Worn after his conferences with God and the people of Israel, the veil signifies Moses’s work as a prophet. But if the face is essential to personal identity, then the veil dissociates Moses from his prophetic office. For post-biblical tradition, this separation was too high a price to pay for fidelity to biblical tradition. The veil was either ignored, removed, or marked as punishment. Through a survey of these traditions of the veil, I will suggest that the repression of the veil entails a repression of text and textuality, and that the repressed veil and the text nevertheless resurface in transformed ways, especially in veiled female figures (227-228).

Moses and Veil


veiled moses 2

Anxiety and the Veil

Of the few documentary and artistic renderings of Moses’s veil, most of them, following Paul, take the veil off, so to speak. Why is there such reluctance to show Moses with a veil on his face? If I am correct that the central concern of the Exodus episode is Moses’s role as prophet, then the veil introduces an element of silence and disempowerment at the very moment when Moses is supposed to be reinstating the covenant and his own authority as a prophet. Whatever the veil means, my assumption is that its role in Exodus and subsequent tradition reflects significantly on ideas of revelation. I will suggest that the avoidance of the veil by interpreters and artists bespeaks anxiety before the veil. In Christian art, this anxiety takes a number of forms, especially the preference to show the veil only partly covering Moses’ face, as well as an apparent preference to depict the Pauline veil on the female allegorical figure of Synagogue (228, 229).

As a metaphor for a negative moment in the process of revelation, the veil of Moses has analogues in religious traditions of silence, mysticism, the via negativa, and negative theology. But these traditions developed in the post-biblical tradition and make few references to such biblical motifs as the veil of Moses. The silence about the veil is not simply inadvertent but also a kind of anxiety. Anxiety, according to Kierkegaard, is a “dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself.” This freedom is the freedom to encounter the veil of Moses or to reject it. The anxiety before the veil corresponds to an anxiety before the text, for as the tradition of rereading Moses’s veil shows, how Moses is read can determine nothing less than how the Bible is read, and the status of Moses is tied directly to the status of the Torah. To accept a version of Moses who is disempowered and hence feminized, by a veil, was almost always too costly a bargain for Jewish and Christian interpreters. But to encounter the veil episode of Exodus is to accept ambiguity, silence, and an endlessly paradoxical idea of revelation (264).

Synagogue as Feminine Surrogate

It was more common to imagine Jewish blindness as Synagogue than as Moses, in part because of her sex. For a culture in which men define women, there is something tidy and familiar about the binary choice between Church and Synagogue, good and evil. It was culturally easy to project the simple opposition in female form: Roman art often personified abstractions in idealized female figures, in portraits of goddesses, caryatides, and personifications, and women were seen typically in two-dimensional terms as either venerable or villainous. And while veils and blindfolds are not necessarily feminine in medieval art, covering the eyes and face is certainly disempowering. Moses may be inferior to Christ, but he’s a guy, and a powerful one at that. The frequency of the female Synagogue and the scarcity of the veiled Moses reflect the Christian feminization (and denigration) of Judaism. It was much easier to represent the spiritual failings of the Jewish people in female form, a stereotype that persisted for centuries (Britt 260).