The Israelites drinking the miraculous Water1566 - 1568. Oil on canvas, 146 x 230 cm.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Jacopo Bassano and his sons were renowned throughout Europe, but most of all in Spain, after Philip II began acquiring their works in the 1570s. Jacopo was then appreciated as an eminently naturalist painter who specialised in depictions of animals and genre scenes. As the Spanish ambassador to Venice put it in 1574: He is very esteemed for his paintings of natural animals and other things. The Israelites drinking the Miraculous Water, c.1566-68, is a marvellous example of Jacopo`s skills as a naturalist. We cannot rule out the idea that the painter had other reasons for making it, however, as its appearance calls to mind Leon Battista Alberti`s words in De Pictura (1435), regarding varietas as a source of pleasure in painting, and considering the significance of depicting old men, men, adolescents, children, matrons, young women, newborn babies, pets, puppies, birds, horses in the same scene.
This painting illustrates two separate episodes from Exodus. In the middle ground, at the centre of the composition, Moses and Aaron lead the Israelites towards the Promised Land, following the brilliant sunlight that Jacopo uses to symbolise the column of fire that guided the Jews (Exodus 13:21-22). In the foreground, unrelated to that journey, men, women and animals slake their thirst at the spring that Moses had previously caused to flow from the rock of Horeb (Exodus 17:1-7). Bernard Aikema sought to explain this juxtaposition of scenes on the basis of Venetian religiosity in Jacopo`s time, which was characterised by a growing orthodoxy and evergreater control of the figurative arts. This is perceptible in the strength of the Inquisition at that time, and in the inclusion of secular elements in religious paintings.
That atmosphere would explain the difference between this painting and earlier ones by the same artist with similar characteristics. Jacopo`s intention would have been to bring a moral content to genre painting in order to dispel any hint of heterodoxy. Thus, this apparently innocuous image of humans and animals drinking in the foreground would actually constitute a grave warning as to the weakness of homo carnalis, and his willingness to succumb to immediate pleasures. So, too, the presence of Moses and Aaron at the head of their flock would reflect the Counter-Reformation`s emphasis on social hierarchy. There are no indications, however, that the Venetian or Spanish public could recognise such sophisticated intentions, and paintings by Jacopo Bassano and his sons were mainly appreciated for their formal aspects.
Alessandro Ballarin dates this work from between 1566 and 1568, and believes it is entirely by Jacopo, but W. R. Rearick considers it a later work -from the 1570s- and sees the hand of the artist`s son, Giambattista, in the horse and the figure to its right. Accepting Ballarin`s theory as to its chronology, we cannot exclude the idea that one of Jacopo`s assistants may have contributed to the areas just mentioned, although this canvas is in less-than-perfect condition -in 1636 it was already described as somewhat mistreated- and that could also explain the differences of quality.
We do not know when this work entered the Spanish Royal Collection, but it is mentioned for the first time in 1636, at the Alcázar Palace in Madrid. It entered the Museo del Prado in 1819 (Falomir, M.: Italian Masterpieces. From Spain`s Royal Court, Museo del Prado, 2014, p. 88).