Moses receives the Law (Exodus 19:1–20:21)

Moses receives the Law (Exodus 19:1–20:21)

Three months after they left Egypt, the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai. This was because God had previously told Moses to return to this holy mountain, accompanied by the people (Exodus 3:1-12). There they set up camp and prepared to meet God. After three days, Moses got them all to gather around the mountain.

A dark cloud covered the top of the mountain, lightning flashed, thunder rolled and a trumpet sounded. All at once, the people heard the voice of God, revealing the Ten Commandments to them. Afterwards, Moses went up Mount Sinai into the dark cloud to spend time with God. He stayed there for forty days and forty nights. (cf Deuteronomy 5:1-33)

On the mountain, God gave him a physical version of the Ten Commandments, carved on two tablets of stone. He also explained the details of the Jewish law and religion. This included how sacrifices were to be offered, who were to be priests, as well as how to make the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.

The Law that God revealed to Moses on the mountain became known as “the Law of Moses” (1 Kings 2:3; Ezra 7:6; Luke 2:22). It was the basis for the covenant, or agreement, that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai. The ‘do’s and don’ts’ of the Ten Commandments were at the heart of this covenant.

As Pope Benedict XVI explained: “The Decalogue – the “Ten Words” or Ten Commandments (cf. Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:1-21) which comes from the Torah [Law] of Moses, is a shining light for ethical principles, hope and dialogue, a guiding star of faith and morals for the people of God, and it also enlightens and guides the path of Christians. It constitutes a beacon and a norm of life in justice and love, a “great ethical code” for all humanity.”

He went on: “The “Ten Commandments” shed light on good and evil, on truth and falsehood, on justice and injustice, and they match the criteria of every human person’s right conscience. Jesus himself recalled this frequently, underlining the need for active commitment in living the way of the Commandments: “If you wish to enter into life, observe the Commandments” (Matthew 19:17).”

This image of Moses holding the tablets of stone that God gave him is found within the sanctuary of St Agatha’s church in Portsmouth. It forms part of a sgraffito, or scratched mural, that covers the wall and ceiling. The mural includes God the Father in majesty, the Prophet Isaiah, Abraham, the Four Evangelists and many other Christian symbols.

Curiously, the stone tablets are neatly divided into the ‘shalts’ and ‘shalt nots’ of the Ten Commandments. Above Moses in a roundel is a symbol of the burning bush, which represents his first vision of God. A stylised grapevine surrounds each figure within the sgraffito, perhaps reflecting Christ’s own use of that imagery (John 15:1-17).

The overall sgraffito dates to around 1901 (renovated 1991) and is the work of the artist Heywood Sumner. Sumner was a leading light of the Arts and Crafts movement and was a friend of its poster boy, William Morris. The sgraffito technique was invented by the Romans, revived in the Renaissance art of the 16th century and then championed by Sumner.

St Agatha’s church, where the mural belongs, was formerly Anglican but is now part of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. This means that while the church keeps its Anglican traditions and customs, the community now belongs to the Catholic Church. The photos included here are by kind permission of St Agatha’s Trust.

See the full image:

Moses4a-minHeywood Sumner / Moses with the Ten Commandments / Sgraffito / 1901

And the sanctuary in the round:


Where to find this work of art
St Agatha’s, Portsmouth

Read the relevant passage
Exodus 19:1-20:21

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