Benjamin West PRA, Moses Striking the Rock

Moses Striking the Rock, 1783-1803

Benjamin West PRA (1738 - 1820)

RA Collection: Art

This dramatic composition illustrates one of the many miraculous events related in the Book of Exodus (Chapter 17). Moses, having led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, found no water in the Sinai desert and appealed to God for help:

3 And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?

4 And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, What shall I do unto this people? …

5 And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go.

6 Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.

In Christian art, the rock is traditionally said to symbolise Christ while the water represents everlasting life. However, there is also a more negative connotation to this story as a very similar incident is related in Numbers (Chapter 20) in which Moses is instructed to speak to the rock but strikes it instead. As punishment, God forbids him from entering the Promised Land.

West’s composition is dependent on his knowledge of the Old Masters. The grand style and emotive tone of the image correspond with other scenes that West planned to paint for the King’s new chapel at Windsor in which he intended to illustrate the theme of ‘Revealed Religion’. This drawing was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784 as a design for the chapel, alongside 'Death on the Pale Horse' and 'The Last Supper', but it was dropped from the programme shortly afterwards, West substituting different scenes from the life of Moses in its place.

West retouched this composition and that of 'Death on the Pale Horse' in 1803. The diarist and artist Joseph Farington recorded: 'West shewed me several drawings begun at different periods, – now retouching them. – said He knew as much of Composition when he was 26 years old as now, but his judgement in heightening, & of effect is better.'

Object details

Moses Striking the Rock
Benjamin West PRA (1738 - 1820)
Object type
Pencil, pen and brown ink with wash and white gouache highlights on laid paper

725 mm x 1265 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Purchased from Unknown in 17 May 1845
return to start

Start exploring the RA Collection

read more
  • Explore art works, paint-smeared palettes, scribbled letters and more...
  • Artists and architects have run the RA for 250 years.
    Our Collection is a record of them.
Start exploring