Scala/Art Resource, NY

“The Lord will descend in the sight of the entire people onto Mt. Sinai” (Exodus 19:11) begins one of two biblical accounts of the theophany, God’s revelation of himself to his people. Surrounded by angels and a thick cloud in this 15th-century Sistine Chapel painting by Cosimo Rosselli, God gives Moses the Tablets of the Law.

The theophany is also recorded in Deuteronomy, but in that version God does not come down to the mountain (which is called Horeb, not Sinai); rather, he speaks to Moses from heaven. The two books recount in different ways how God revealed himself because, according to Victor Hurowitz, they contain contrary perspectives on God: Exodus portrays God as intimate and immediate; Deuteronomy, as transcendent and abstract.

Several scenes from Exodus appear in the painting: At far left are the tents of the Israelite camp. At bottom left, the people turn away from Moses’ radiant face, which reflects God’s glory, as he returns with the tablets. In the center, Aaron (in a blue cloak) watches as his brother raises his arm to smash a tablet at the sight of the people worshiping the golden calf. The idol-worshipers are put to death at far right.