This is one of the twenty-seven topographical watercolours executed by Turner to be engraved as illustrations, Landscape Illustrations of the Bible; commissioned by William and Edward Francis Finden and published between 1834 and 1836 by John Murray (for the series including the unpublished Cedars of Lebanon, see Wilton, op. cit., pp. 447-50, nos. 1236-1263). Other artists involved in the publication included Sir Augustus Wall Calcott, David Roberts, R.A. and Clarkson Stanfield, who worked from drawings made on the spot by architects such as Charles Barry, C.R. Cockerell and artist-travellers such as Sir Robert Kerr-Porter; several of the original drawings by Barry are now at the Royal Institute of British Architects (examples are illustrated in Omer, op. cit., 1981, pp. 8, 26) though those by the other artists are untraced. The present watercolour by Turner was executed after a drawing by H. Gally Knight (who also supplied the sketch for the View of the Temple of Jupiter Panhellenius exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1816 (Duke of Northumberland). (The history of the project as a whole is set out by Omer, op. cit., 1981 and by Luke Herrmann, Turner Prints: The Engraved Works of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford, 1990, pp. 209-12).
The raison d'être for such a publication was set out in the introduction. 'While other works of comparatively small value have employed the pencils of the finest artists, and have received every sort of embellishment, little, comparatively has been done towards illustrating the most important of all books - the Holy Scriptures. To supply this deficiency is the design of the present collection of Landscape Illustrations, in which are exhibited nearly one hundred of the most remarkable places mentioned in the Bible, as they actually exist, and very few of which have hitherto been delineated.' The illustrations were accompanied by descriptive texts by the Reverend T.H. Horne of St. John's College, Cambridge.
As stipulated in the introduction, Turner's watercolour presumably illustrates the scene as it existed in his own day with a party of Arabs rather than the encamped Israelites. Sinai (a triangular area surrounded on two sides by water) was the home of the Tribes of Israel after they had escaped from Egypt under the guidance of Moses following the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea: 'In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount' (Exodus, chpt. XIX, vv. 1-2).
Among the works executed for the same publication Turner included a watercolour of The Desert of Sinai after a drawing by the army officer Major Felix and engraved in 1834 by Edward T. Finden (Wilton, op.cit., no. 1239, illustrated; Omer, op.cit., 1979, pp. 21-2 under no. 4; ibid., op. cit., 1981, p. 30 under no. 4). The present watercolour is in fact a close-up view of Mount Sinai where God gave the Tablets of the Law to Moses (Exodus, chpts. XIX, XX); in the foreground is the large isolated Stone of Moses struck by him to provide water for the people (Exodus, chpt. XVII, vv. 1-7, and Numbers, chpt. XX, vv. 7-11).
The Bible inspired Turner throughout his career from 1800 when he executed the large oil painting of The Fifth Plaque of Egypt with a quotation from Exodus. In 1801 came The Army of the Medes destroyed in the desert by a whirlwind - as foretold by Jeremiah, in 1802 The Tenth Plague of Egypt, another subject from Exodus. Turner returned to Biblical themes in the 1830's with, amongst other paintings, Pilate washing his hands (1830), Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo in the Burning Fiery Furnace (1832) and Christ driving the Traders from the Temple. He continued exhibiting Biblical subjects into the 1840s with Dawn of Christianity - Flight into Egypt (1841) and The Angel standing in the Sun (1846).
Despite the Finden brothers' insistence that the Biblical sites were to be depicted 'as they actually exist', in the early 1830s, our watercolour soon became seen as a depiction of Biblical events, being sold in 1860 as 'The Children of Israel in the Valley of Horeb', Horeb being an alternative name for Sinai (Exodus, chpt. XVII, v. 6). An abbreviated form of this title was used in the various exhibitions and sale catalogues throughout the rest of the 19th century.
At the same time John Ruskin, in volume V of Modern Painters, 1860, had quoted what seems to be our watercolour, though without associating it with any actual Biblical event, as an example of Turner's use of symbolism to express spiritual truths, contrasting its 'lightning symbol' with the 'rain of blessing' of the companion watercolour and engraving of Mount Lebanon and the Convent of St. Antonio (Wilton, op. cit., p. 449, no. 1248; Rawlinson, op. cit., p. 309, no. 584, see fig. 1). Ruskin wrote that this Turner 'took to show the opposite influences of the law [of the Old Testament] and the Gospel. The rock of Moses is shown in the burning of the desert, among fallen stones, forked lightning clearing the blue mist which veils the summit of Sinai. Armed Arabs pause at the foot of the rock. No human habitation is seen, nor any herb or tree, nor any brook, and the lightning strikes without rain [Hosea, chpt. XIII,vv. 5, 15]. Over Mount Lebanon an intensely soft gray-blue sky is melting into dewy rain...and a little brook runs under the shadow of the nearer trees, beside which two monks are reading, (Cook and Wedderburn, loc. cit., pp. 191-2; if indeed this is our watercolour the 'forked lightning clearing the blue mist' has disappeared, nor can it be seen in the other Sinai watercolour painted for Finden's Bible).
Other watercolours by Turner in this series are in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, The Museum and Art Gallery, Blackburn, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. A further example, showing a view of Corinth, Greece, was sold in these Rooms, 8 December 2009, lot 25, for £85,250.
We are grateful to Martin Butlin for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.