From the beginnings of early Christian iconography artists have strived to depict the Ark of the Covenant. Countless attempts have been made to capture its likeness but can we really know what the Ark of the Covenant looked like?
Design of the Ark
One idea that's been expressed by at least two artists that I came across, 1.2. is that both the design of, and embellishments on, the ark would have been egyptian in style. The reason given for this is that as all the craftsmen had lived (and been trained) in Egypt prior to the Exodus, their only influences up to that point were all from Egyptian culture. Others point to ancient Egyptian artifacts that were similar in design to the ark such as Tutankhamun's Anubis Chest to strengthen their case. I would agree that this reasoning could be applied to the design of the golden calf - but not to the Ark of the Covenant. My reason is that in Exodus 25:40 God commanded Moses "See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain". Not only did God design the ark but Exodus 31:2-5 tells us that He equipped Bezalel, filling him with God's Spirit, wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft
in order to complete the job. I would suggest that Gods influence on design (as THE Great Designer of all) would take priority over Egypt's! Also, let's not forget that the Israelites were prohibited from being assimilated into the pagan nations around them - they were to be different in every way!
One other point on the embellishments - both Dr Leen Ritmeyer and Nahum HaLevi pointed out to me that "no decorations are mentioned" in scripture adorning the ark itself which is interesting as this would also be contrary to Egyptian art which almost always adorns every surface! Leen added "The Ark was not meant to be seen, so decorating it was not essential and with the cherubim it looked impressive enough." Having said that, it could also be argued that the pattern shown to Moses on the mount may have included some ornamentation the details of which were only revealed to Moses - we simply don't know! I did decide in the end to show some decoration, although not Egyptian. (See above picture).
The positioning of the poles that were used to carry the ark is a hotly debated subject! Before I began the illustrations I fully intended having the poles running parallel to the long side of the ark as is more commonly seen. (see also Raiders of the Lost Ark) I became uncertain about this as I thought about the orientation of the ark within the Holy of Holies. Let's look at what the Bible says about this. We know from 1 Kings 8:8 that the ends of the poles could be seen from the Holy place protruding under the veil so from this we can conclude that the poles were running East to West. We also know from Lev 16:14 which way the high priest was facing as he officiated.
And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side," which means that the high priest must have been facing West. Incidentally, as the high priest faced west with his back to the veil, all he would see, including his peripheral vision, was gold!
This still doesn't give us any clues as to the orientation of the ark in relation to the poles. We need to go back now to the description of the ark given in Exodus 25:18-19. Here, Moses is told "make two cherubim of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat.19 And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof." It seems clear from this that the cherubim were to be positioned at each 'end' of the mercy seat. Now, unless the Hebrew word for 'end' refers to anything other than the short ends of an oblong, (which looking from above is the basic shape of the ark), it seems very likely that each cherub was positioned at the narrow ends of the ark. It sounds like I'm over stating the obvious here, but there are some scholars who believe that the cherubim were positioned in the centre of the mercy seat as opposed to at each end. The second point I want to make is that if the cherubs were at each end of the ark, it seems likely that the high priest would stand, (to sprinkle the blood in between the cherubim), at one of the long sides of the ark. If he stood at one of the narrow ends, he would be looking at the back of one of the cherubim. I concluded from this reasoning that as the poles in the holy of holies ran east to west, and as the high priest faced west, and as the high priest officiated at one of the longer sides of the ark, then the poles must run parallel to the narrow sides of the ark! I have been wrong in the past though so let me know your thoughts-!!
The Argument against
One of the objections to the view above, raised by those who believe that the poles ran parallel to the long sides of the ark, is presented by the question "If the poles run parallel with the narrow sides of the ark, how was it possible to get the Ark into the Holy of Holies? At it's widest point the ark would not fit in between the 5 pillars!" (I've raised this same point myself in the past). The answer that I was given to this question was " The Tabernacle was built around the ark - the ark was not carried into the Tabernacle". I haven't found a Bible verse that states otherwise and I've asked a number of experts/Rabbis too. If it could be shown from scripture that the ark was carried into the Tabernacle, then that would throw a fairly big spanner into the works! The picture (above left) shows the Tabernacle being constructed around the Ark. You can see the shadow of the first covering being drawn over the Holy of Holies. In actual fact the Ark would most likely have still been under cover at this point, protected from prying eyes!
One final point about the position of the poles - they were low down! Not as we see in the 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' film. Exodus 25:12 says "Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet," Also the poles had to be low to be seen under the veil. (1 Kings 8:8). I've pointed out in the past that as the Ark of the Covenant seems to be the only item of Tabernacle furniture that has the rings at ground level, it was the only item that demanded the Levites 'Bow down' to pick it up!
As the high priest officiated, he was bordered by the ark on the west, the two poles on either side of him running north to south, and the veil behind him on the East. After I had illustrated this set, I came across a picture painted by Temple Institute artist Zely Smekhov depicting this scene in the same way, except his poles are higher. (See right).
Once again I've avoided drawing the cherubim in detail. It's still not clear to me how they should look. We know that the wings overshadowed the mercy seat and that the wing tips touched. I've used this to obscure the view of the cherubim. The much larger cherubim in Solomon's Temple will not be as easy to obscure! One artists interpretation of the cherubim in Solomon's Temple can be seen below. I've noticed that when artists are guided by archaeologists, the cherubim usually resemble Lamassu which were Canaanite protective deities. They had the body of a bull or lion, the wings of an eagle and a human head. Although I've seen cherubim depicted this way in pictures of Solomon's Temple, for some reason they are not usually depicted this way on the Ark of the Covenant. Some archaeologists like Israel Finkelstein have suggested that "as the Israelites arose as a subculture in Canaanite society, it was only natural for the Israelites to continue using (and adopt the) Canaanite protective deities". This argument is not unlike the one above which favoured Egyptian influences over God's - except here it's Canaanite influences. (This argument sounds like its coming from a biblical minimalists perspective!) I would argue that the design of the cherubim, like the rest of the ark, was most definitely of God. Anyway, as I understand it, God's inspiration for the cherubs design was given while the Israelites were still in the Sinai Peninsula even before they entered Canaan?
We have looked in the past at the possibility that a visual description of the cherubim could have been passed down through oral tradition maybe from as far back as the Garden of Eden! In this case it's possible that the Lamassu depicted in ancient Assyrian and Mesopotamian Art might actually resemble cherubim! This wouldn't then be a case of the various cultures influencing Israelite artisans - it would be God's design influencing the artists of all other cultures!
The main problem that I see with the 'Lamassu theory' is that the description given in the Bible doesn't really resemble lamassu. For example the body of a cherub is like unto a man, not a lion. (Ezekiel 4:4-14). The cherubim also have hands, four wings and four faces. It's obvious that the Old Testament artisans clearly knew what cherubim looked like as they had both embroidered and carved their likenesses in both the Tabernacle and Solomon's Temple respectively.
I wonder if the descriptions of cherubim given in scripture are meant to be strange and illusive to discourage us from depicting them! Maybe if we were able to carve or paint an accurate image of a cherub it would itself become an object of worship.
Two final points regarding the Ark: Artists interpretations vary when it comes to deciding how many Levites carried the ark. Pictures show groups of four, eight and even twelve Levites carrying the ark. Dr Elihu A. Schatz has done some research on this subject. He estimated that the ark was approximately 183 pounds (83 kilograms) in weight and concluded that "Each of the four men carrying the Ark would bear a weight of about 21 kilograms (46 pounds), which can easily be tolerated on the shoulders for extensive periods of time. If necessary, the carriers could use shoulder padding to ease the pressure of the poles on the shoulders." One final point - the main container part of the ark was constructed of wood overlaid with gold unlike the lid, (the mercy seat), which was solid gold. I only mention this as some artists have given this container a mirror finish which gilded wood doesn't have. There are some excellent photos on the net of ancient Egyptian artifacts that give us a very good idea of how gilded wood should look.
In closing, If any of you artists prefer to draw from life - for $3,350.00 you can order your own full size replica Ark of the Covenant here!
As always I look forward to your comments!
Pictures © Foundationmatters.org 2011, © Zely Smekhov/Temple institute 2011.
Covering the Ark
Contents of the Ark