The Fifth Plague of Egypt

Who is the fallen woman and why is she dead?

Lawrence Russell

§ Here again Turner is playing the iconoclast. Compared to the staged propaganda of Hogarth's 1774 oil, Moses Brought Before the Pharaoh's Daughter, Turner's interpretation of this period of Biblical history is heresy disguised in apocalyptic dramatics. He conflates the 5th (pestilence) and 7th (thunder and lightning) and 9th Plagues (darkness) by showing Moses with his hands raised bringing down darkness and hellfire on the land of Egypt for its enslavement of his people, the Israelites, circa 1,250 BC, when Ramses II was the Pharaoh, and, if you believe the legend, was the grandfather of Moses.

This was Turner's first publicly displayed oil painting at the Royal Academy in 1800, at a time when the ruling classes took their religion very seriously. The cultural assimilation of Jewish history via the cult of Christ was not only a code of conduct but was also a guiding principle of British imperialism.

Turner: 5th Plague, 1800

Turner, The Fifth Plague of Egypt, 1800, oil on canvas

Depending on what version of the 5th Plague you look at, there can be one horse, one naked human corpse, or possibly two horses and three corpses, which muddies the intent while multiplying the possibilities. The imagery is ambiguous... a brown cloak could be a brown horse and what looks like a body in the roadway could be a rock.

However, in other versions of the Fifth Plague, this object is clearly a cloak or robe.

The bodies might be naked because they've been stripped by thieves in the time of chaos and Moses has just happened on this location later while travelling the road. Yet his upraised hands suggest he is the author of this chaos, and certainly the Biblical version of the Ten Plagues has Moses acting as Yahweh's agent.

The 1808 Charles Turner (no relation) engraving of another Turner version is more controlled and simplified in terms of its imagery and effective mysticism. Here the blending of the 5th, 7th and 9th Plagues is entirely natural, a deliberate choice rather than, say, a sequence of mistakes made by a young painter eager to make a swift impression. The sepia tone fits the elegant atmosphere of doom where the geometrics of Man blend with those of Nature. The intermediate ground is masked in shadow, acts as a bunker between the two areas of drama, foreground and background.

One woman, one horse, and the pyramids illuminated by lightning.

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt." So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days.

[Exodus 10:21–23]

Turner: 5th Plague, 1808 version

Turner, The Fifth Plague of Egypt,1808, engraving by Charles Turner

As a leader of the Jews and the one who gave them their religion, Moses has long been a figure of fascination. Even Robert Louis Stevenson's first attempt at a story at the age of six was A History of Moses. The Biblical version tells of his parents' attempt to save the infant Moses from the Pharaoh's cull of Hebrew male children by launching him on the Nile in a wicker basket which just happens to beach itself where the Pharaoh's daughter is bathing. By a fortunate coincidence she rescues the infant and recruits his mother as a nurse. Moses then grows up as royalty, excels in military service, then kills an Egyptian overseer for mistreating a work-gang of Jewish slaves. For some reason his noble status doesn't guarantee immunity for such acts, and he's forced into exile in the Sinai. Here the famous "burning bush" mystical event occurs when God speaks to him directly, instructs him to return to Egypt, lead his brother Hebrew slaves to freedom.

The unidentified Pharaoh isn't interested in releasing his Hebrews, so Moses is instructed by Yahweh (God) to unleash a series of plagues on the Egyptians to make the Pharaoh see reason and to prove that he, Yahweh, is the true God and that the Egyptian gods are nothing but empty idols. It takes ten plagues to bring Egypt to its knees, and even when Moses leads the "Exodus" of the Hebrews, the Pharaoh reneges on his promise, pursues them with his army but gets swallowed up by the Red Sea. Moses, as a prophet of Yahweh, has the superior tactics and the superior magic.

There can be little doubt that the standing figure with his arms raised in Turner's picture is Moses. But is he is evoking the wrath of Yahweh upon the Egyptian oppressors as per the 10 Plagues, or is he attempting to resurrect the fallen figure who lies naked beside the white horse?

In 1939 Sigmund Freud published a long essay called Moses and Monotheism. Here he goes against the orthodox view that Moses was a Hebrew, and instead suggests that he must have been an Egyptian, and furthermore a priest of the sun god Aton, a monotheist entity from which the Jews took their invisible, single God. It's a powerful argument, as is Freud's profile of an aggressive and politically motivated Moses.

"Moses" is the Egyptian word "Mose", which means 'child'. In fact, the Pharaoh Ramses' name is actually "Ra-mose", which means 'sun-child' or son of God. Therefore, says Freud, Moses was an Egyptian, not a Hebrew.

Freud asks, "What good is a legend to a people that makes their hero into an alien?"

To further his theory, Freud redials the Moses story from the dynamic Ramses II era to the Eighteenth Dynasty and the short 17 year reign of Amenhotep IV (he died in 1358 BC) who broke with Egypt's pantheon of totemic animal gods and made Aton the supreme and only god, a Divine Being whose energy is manifested in his rays. No idols of Aton were permitted, no graven images. Amenhotep changed his name to Ikhn-aton, left Thebes, built a new capital in the delta called Akhet-aton (meaning "Horizon of Aton") which was logistically more central within the Egyptian empire, which included Palestine, Syria, much of Mesopotamia... the Sinai and some of Arabia, and in the south included Ethiopia and Somalia. As the Pharaoh's grandson, not only was Moses a captain or even a higher ranking officer in the military, he was also a priest at the Sun Temple in Heliopolis, which later equipped him to form a new religion, Mosaic.

What a great protagonist for Turner! A killer priest, a revolutionary warlord who adopts a cadre of Hebrews and leads them in a revolt against the new Pharaoh and the restoration of the old pantheon. Not that Turner would've known the details of the monotheism of Moses, yet there's a clairvoyance about this that fits Turner's later career as a devotee of the sun.

Perhaps the best known statement made by Turner is his deathbed assertion that "the Sun is God," although many scholars feel this is a poeticism invented by his acolyte and biographer, John Ruskin. Yet the truth of it can be seen in countless paintings and drawings by Turner which include the sun directly or indirectly. Everything he did was a reduction of light to its atomic essentials.

You don't see the sun in the Fifth Plague of Egypt, although you do see its manifestation in the weather. If Moses as an agent of Aton had the sorcerer's ability to call forth the elements and blot out the sun with storm clouds and deliver Egypt into darkness, it does make you wonder if the Pharaoh considered this as merely the work of Osiris, the god of the underworld and death, and a signal that Aton (or Yahweh) was not invincible. He certainly didn't yield to Moses until after the tenth plague when the Egyptian first-born were killed by a fly-by of the Angel of Death... and even when he agreed to the Exodus, he quickly reneged, went in pursuit of the migrating tribes.

In Turner's painting, did Moses kill the woman and the white horse? Was she personally sought out by him or is she just a symbol of the death and destruction wreaked by Yahweh in his war with the old pantheon of spirit gods?

As many will notice, the victim is androgynous, so it's not a certainty that the fallen figure is a woman. It could be a young man or a youth, which would fit if Turner's intention was to include the murder of the Egyptian overseer in his study. And why not? He took liberties with Time and Space by including aspects of three different plagues while sticking with "The Fifth Plague of Egypt" as his title, even though his peers were aware of the discrepancies. Time is a mental construct here. The mind is never linear, and memory will arrange events as it sees fit. Painting is a two-dimensional format in which the third and fourth dimensions can only exist by means of symbolism.

Does this mean that the crouching figure to the prophet's right is the Jew that he saved from the overseer's brutality? He could be, although he was an ungrateful benefactor as he used the homicide for further insubordination, so Moses was forced to flee into the desert when the Pharaoh found out about the killing.

The horse was a sacred animal in ancient Egypt and only the nobility used them, so the slain overseer had to be a noble, someone very important to the Pharaoh for him to turn against his grandson Moses. Who? Turner sets up a symbolism with the white horse, yet its harmonic never resolves. But there are clues. The legend of Moses has similarities to the legend of Oedipus, another Freudian trap from the Egyptian Empire.

In the Oedipus legend, King Laius of Thebes hears a prophecy that he will be killed by his own son, so to forestall this he has the babe Oedipus cast onto a mountainside to be eaten by the wolves. Oedipus is rescued by a shepherd, is given to another royal family and grows up to act out the prophecy. He and King Laius encounter one another at a crossroads as strangers, and in a dispute over the right of way, Oedipus kills Laius, then proceeds to Thebes, which is under the tyranny of the Sphinx. Oedipus answers the riddle, gets rid of the Sphinx, receives his mother Jocasta and the monarchy as a reward. Still ignorant about the true situation, they have children and prosper until a plague of infertility paralyzes Thebes. The shepherd returns, reveals the ugly truth. Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus blinds himself, entering the land of darkness.

You see the similarities: a child left for dead, adopted by royalty... a murder, a plague... darkness and exile.

Moses doesn't kill his father, but perhaps he unwittingly kills his uncle.

Was the overseer the Pharaoh's son? This would certainly be a reason for Moses to flee, and certainly explain his estrangement from the Pharaoh. Turner's painting functions on dream-logic, where reality can only be explained in terms of symbols. On the one hand it's a primitive exposition of a Biblical event, yet on another the imagery only makes sense by engaging the mystical. The dead naked person could be anybody, just a random victim of the plague... yet the prophet isn't just anyone. The detail is there, the identity vague, the politics occult.

If the victim is a woman, Turner's "circle of myth" seems to include the Lady Godiva legend, emerging from the more recent mists of history. It's as if Turner has toppled an equestrian statue and its naked rider in a provocative strike against a certain kind of art; in all likelihood, the figure is based on a sketch he made at the Royal Academy's Still Life Studio, and the horse something he had practised many times in his sketchbooks while travelling the countryside. There are two landscapes here: the foreground, close to Turner's present, and the background, back more than 3,000 years.

The totemic nature of the nude could be a personal neurosis guiding Turner's Freudian hand. His younger sister, Helen, became ill and died in 1796, and it's said that this affected their mother's mind, and she ended up in Bedlam, the madhouse, where she died in 1806. Mary Turner came from a family with a history of madness, and it's something that left the painter uneasy. He certainly used family figures in his work, i.e. Frosty Morning (1812), and the Fifth Plague could be a personal exorcism. Would this make Moses an avatar for Turner himself? The possibility is there because -- all protestations to the contrary -- when the artist enters fiction, he enters autobiography,

Turner: Pyramids at Gizeh 1832

Turner, The Pyramids at Gizeh, 1832

While Turner probably had no idea what the pyramids were beyond being tombs for the Egyptian pharaohs and their families, he was probably aware of the Osiris myth, the oldest and most influential of the religious myths in western culture. Osiris was murdered by his own brother Set, a deity who was a hitman for the supreme god, Ra. He is seen as a god of the desert, of violence, of evil and dark deeds. Set was worshipped, had temples, was a cult. Sometimes he's personified as an animal, like a fox or a donkey... or possibly a horse.

Most of what we know about this comes from the Pyramid Texts, discovered by Gaston Maspero in 1881. These stories and spells -- written as hieroglyphs on the walls of a burial chamber at Saqqara -- were intended to reanimate the dead pharaoh. While Turner could not have known about the Pyramid Texts, he might have had some sideways knowledge from the occult and its influence on poetry, of which he was a reader.

Again, this raises the notion that The Fifth Plague of Egypt shows not only a murder but also an attempted resurrection. The prophet with his hands raised to the heavens could be invoking the electrical energy of Aton by the utterance of spells and sacred texts, hoping to reanimate the fallen symbol of beauty and innocence -- white corpse, white horse -- rather than calling down mass death and destruction from the heavens.

In the end, the picture remains a riddle, a masterpiece of the Sublime. Yet it's a measure of Turner's native power as a cipher between the ancient world and his time, that his work so clearly represents that which isn't clear at all.

Religion: the obsessions and neuroses that originate in the primeval memory of Man. Freud says Moses saved the Aton religion by passing it on to the Jews, but we can say Turner saved the Aton religion by rediscovering it through painting.

Ergo, Art is the eternal harmonic of memory.