On the 17th of Tammuz, which will be observed as a fast day on June 25 this year, Moses smashed the Ten Commandments on the foot of Mount Sinai after hearing the sounds of and seeing the idolatrous celebrations devoted to the Golden Calf. The idea, presumably, was that the bovine abomination was so atrocious that the Israelites didn’t deserve the Tablets of the Law; although if Moses’ prophecy had informed him about eBay, perhaps he would have held onto them.
With the Old Testament jammed with legalistic verses which often don’t lend themselves to artistic exploration, artists have tended to latch onto the narrative episodes that have grand kinetic movement — the animals entering the ark, the plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and those sorts of things. The smashing of the Ten Commandments is another oft-represented scene, not easily reduced to a top 10, so here are 11 of the most noteworthy examples:
Rembrandt van Rijn, Moses Breaking the Tablets (1659, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin)
In this painting by Rembrandt, who lived in the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam and is said to have worked from Jewish models, Moses holds the Tablets above his head, as if about to cast them at the viewer. Rembrandt, who often relied on Menasseh ben Israel for his Hebrew inscriptions, may have appreciated the irony of Moses holding the second tablet over the first; the top Hebrew inscription depicted is the sixth commandment — don’t kill — and Moses is minutes away from descending the mountain and instructing the Levites to essentially wage a civil war and “kill, each man, his brother, his neighbor, and his relative” (Exodus 32:27-29). As I’ve noted elsewhere, Rembrandt’s Hebrew inscriptions are plagued with problems, but the painting is noteworthy for the ambition of its epigraphy.