Ecole Des Beaux Arts, Paris

“Jeroboam Sacrificing to His Idols,” by Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806). Astonished elders retreat from Jeroboam as he prays before a golden bull.

When the northern kingdom (Israel) broke away from David’s southern kingdom (Judah), Jeroboam set up sanctuaries with golden bulls in Dan and Bethel to compete with the Jerusalem Temple in the south. The Jerusalem Temple contained Canaanite cherubim, symbolizing the pedestal for Yahweh, but Jeroboam, as self-proclaimed preserver of the original faith, used instead the more ancient symbol of the divine pedestal, the bull. Was the bull merely a pedestal or was the bull itself worshipped?

Archaeological evidence from other sites in Israel tells us that the altars at Dan and Bethel were probably simple stone structures. Fragonard’s classic Greek architecture and grand building scale, his turbans, helmets and gold-fringed garments stray far from a convincing biblical setting. But his painting shows the high spirit of the 20-year-old artist, whose work was awarded the Prix de Rome.