Balaam Sculpture Sheds Light on Differing Christian and Jewish Views of Prophecy

It's wholly appropriate that Balaam's legacy -- at least to the few Bible enthusiasts who even know who he is -- is likely to evoke the expression "Balaam's ass."

2011-02-25-MBK201011Pers.jpg In fact, the Old Testament narrative about Balaam (Hebrew Bilam), which appears in Numbers 22-24, shows a scoundrel who is essentially a cursing agent for hire. Remember the 2003 film The Cooler, in which William H. Macy's character is supposed jinx the luck of casino-goers? Balaam could have been his mentor.

The Moabite king Balak, concerned about the looming Jewish people en route to Palestine (Hebrew Cana'an) after having broken out of Egypt, hires Balaam to curse the Jews and halt their progress.

In a classic move, God puts a bit (Hebrew davar) into Balaam's mouth and forces him to bless, rather than curse the Jews. There is literary closure in the story, as Balaam, on his way to Moab, had struck his donkey for thrice straying from the path. Little did Balaam know that the donkey was yielding to an invisible angel on the path -- until the donkey was given the power of speech.

Thus, the donkey was able to speak its mind, but Balaam, as much as he wanted to curse the Jewish people, could only compose love poems about them which were later canonized into Jewish prayer.

So why would someone invest in artistic representations of such an abominable character? Who would want to decorate their home or places of work or worship with such a symbol?

In fact, a terracotta Balaam (1575-78) by the Italian sculptor Tommaso Porlezza della Porta (c. 1546-1606), recently acquired by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, served as a model for a larger sculpture that was placed in a major Italian pilgrimage site -- the Santa Casa in Loreto, a shrine around the remains of what was believed to be Mary's birthplace.

"Tradition has it that the house was miraculously brought from Nazareth (in Palestine) to Loreto (central Italy) by angels," according to a Rijksmuseum release (PDF). "Loreto was the major papal construction and sculpture project of the 16th century."

According the release, the Rijksmuseum had been trying to acquire the 22.5 cm sculpture for three years, since Frits Scholten (Dutch bio, Google translation), senior curator of sculpture, saw it at a dealer's shop in London.

"At the time the sculpture was reserved for an American museum. However, the financial crisis meant that the museum was unable to raise the necessary funds to purchase it," according to the release. The Rijksmuseum then learned that the Louvre was interested, and it secured the sculpture at the 11th hour.

In the release, Scholten says the sculpture, which features "excellent artistic quality," is "important" due to its tie to Loreto. "It will add a key element to the international profile of the Rijksmuseum collection," he says. "Though it may be small, it's of monumental significance. Large sculpture is embodied in this small model."

Over e-mail, Scholten addressed the religious significance of the work.

Menachem Wecker: How exactly do we know this depicts Balaam, given the lack of any attributes of his (like a donkey, for example)?

Frits Scholten: The sculpture was made for the Santa Casa in Loreto. The archival sources concerning the building and decoration reveal the details about the sculptures, their makers and the iconographical program.

What is Balaam holding in his hand? Though it looks like a tablet (i.e. prophet recording his prophecy), could it be a reference to the object he used to strike the donkey?

FS: The tablet which Balaam holds is a wide spread attribute of prophets, referring to his prophecies. In the Northern tradition the tablet is often replaced by a banderol (with inscription). The tablet does not refer in any way to the story of Balaam and the donkey.

How common is Balaam as a subject in art? (I know of a few manuscript illuminations and a Rembrandt of Balaam attacking his donkey. Could those have been inspirations at all?)

FS: Balaam is a rare subject; in our sculpture he is depicted in a rather formal way, as one of the prophets who foretold the birth of Christ through Mary. Hence his presence at the Santa Casa shrine, which contains the remains of the house where the Virgin was born. Rembrandt and others were more interested in the story of Balaam and the donkey, in particular in the dramatic turn of events of that story. That interest is specific to the Baroque.

In the Old Testament, Balaam is certainly portrayed as a villain. How has he been interpreted in Christian tradition, particularly during the 17th century?

FS: Although he often was considered a villain, theology also considered him as a prophet who played a role in the history of salvation, by predicting the coming of Christ.

Are there any inscriptions on the sculpture, and if so, what do they reveal?

FS: No, there are no inscriptions, nor signatures or dates.

What, if anything, do we know about the faith of Tommaso Porlezza della Porta? Did he frequently mine biblical subjects?

FS: Della Porta worked predominantly for the papal court in Rome. He designed among other things the large figure of St. Peter on top of Trajan's column in Rome. Furthermore, a very accomplished, multi-figured group of the Descent from the Cross was carved by him from one single block of marble; in this piece he clearly tried to rival Michelangelo. During his later career he turned more to retoring and dealing in Antique sculptures that had been excavated in Rome. At his death he left a large collection of antique sculpture. The most famous among these was a standing woman made of porphyry and now in the Louvre in Paris.

Image: The prophet Balaam, Tommaso Porlezza della Porta, 1576-1578. Courtesy: Rijksmuseum.