Keywords: golden calf, Ship of Fools, heresy, de Bry, Albrecht Dürer
In Exodus 22, the Israelites feared Moses had abandoned them and would not return to lead them when he received the Torah on top of Mount Sinai. They asked the brother of Moses, Aaron, to ‘come, make us gods who will go before us’ in which he asked for their jewellery and made a golden statue of a calf. Aaron proclaimed ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt’ (32.4). Aaron created an altar for the idol and held a festival the next day in honour of their new god. Moses returned to find the Israelites dancing, burning offerings and indulging in drunken revelry for their new ‘god.’ This led to Moses breaking the tablets that held the covenant law by God. Moses burnt the calf in the fire and the Lord struck the people worshipping the golden calf with the plague. Christian writers have often used this story in the Bible to challenge the competing faith by illustrating that Jews did not have a true covenant with God and showed the ingrained depravity of the Jewish people (Alexander, 2005, p. 170).
The Exodus story of the golden calf was reproduced in multiple German prints, and the story was widely shared through oral tradition. The story of the golden calf, for example, was satirised in a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer in Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff (‘Ship of Fools’), originally published in 1494. In chapter 61 ‘On Dancing,’ a woodcut shows Israelites dancing around a golden calf upon a pedestal as evidence of their debauchery as a result of their idolatry. To underscore their folly, they were depicted dressed in robes with a monastic habit possessing ass ears with bells at the end (Guerber, 2007, p. 57). This print symbolised their sin of worshipping false idols. As Brant explained: ‘The dance by Satan was invented, when he devised the golden calf, and taught some men at God to laugh.’ (Sebastian Brant, 1944, p. 205) In this way, the worship of a golden calf or ox was associated with Devil worship, a lack of Christian faith and thus diminished morality.
While the ox or sacred cow appears to have reverence across cultures throughout history, in sixteenth-century Europe, the worship of bovine was associated with idolatrous worship by the foreign Other. The little-known printmaker of Warburg, Anton Eisenhoit (1553-1603), for example, created the personification of heresy with a depiction of a hybrid woman with three heads: one of a woman, one of a dragon, and the other of an ox or horned cow. The ox or cow was used to illustrate heresy and to link the idolatrous worship of eastern peoples to demon worship.
An explicit example of the association between cows and demon worship appears in an engraving published in India Orientalis vol. XI (1618-19) by the workshop of the de Bry family. The print was based on the account of Robert Covert’s True and Almost Incredible Report (1612), which had not been originally illustrated. This print illustrated scantily clad Indians, modelled on feather-wearing Native Americans, worshipping and kissing at the hooves of an elaborately decorated horned cow. The demonic connotations are insinuated by including people resembling demons with decorative feathers arranged on their hairless heads like horns, while some in the background worship a devilish figure on a domed structure. The demonic associations with competing faiths was underscored by de Bry interpreting the Indian people as ‘the true Magog, who will shortly wage war on the army camp of the Lord, that is the Christian Church.’ As stated in Revelation: ‘Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of earth – Gog and Magog – and to gather them for battle’ (20.7-8).
Alexander, Philip, ‘Golden Calf’, in Edward Kessler, Neil Wenborn (eds.), A Dictionary of Jewish Christian Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Bloch, Marc, The Golden Age of German Printmaking, exh. cat., Los Angeles: Grunwald Centre for the Graphic Arts, 1984.
Brant, Sebastian, The Ship of Fools, trans. Edwin Hermann Zeydel, Toronto: General Publishing Company, 1944.
Coverte, Robert, A True and Almost Incredible Report, London, 1612.
de Bry, Johan Theodore, India Orientalis vol. XI, Oppenheim, 1618-1619.
Freedberg, David, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Groesen, Michiel van, ‘Americans in Agra? Robert Coverte and the European Iconography of Mughal India,’ Reading East: Irish Sources and Resources, http://www.ucd.ie/readingeast/essay5.html