I have been fascinated by tales of the Ark of the Covenant from the first time Indiana Jones strapped on his bullwhip and picked up his fedora for Raiders of the Lost Ark (never go on an adventure without your hat!), so I was thrilled to discover an 18th century depiction of the Ark in a book I was cataloguing from the Cardiff Rare Books Collection. Intrigued to see how other engravers depicted this fabled lost artefact, I set out on a quest to unearth some more illustrations from the early printed books in our extensive collections.
According to the biblical account from the Book of Exodus, the Ark of the Covenant was built at the command of God as a coffer for storing the original stone tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Exodus provides detailed instructions on how the Ark was to be constructed: it was to be made of shittim (acacia) wood, 2.5 cubits long, 1.5 wide and 1.5 high, and plated entirely in gold with a ring attached to each foot so that it could be carried aloft on wooden poles. A cover of solid gold adorned with two golden cherubim with their wings outstretched was to be placed over the top.
The Ark was carried by the Israelites during their 40 years in the desert and many of their victories are attributed to its supernatural power, from parting the waters of the Jordan to bringing down the walls of Jericho. Priests carried the Ark, usually veiled in cloth and animal skins, in the vanguard of the army and when the host was encamped it had its own sacred tent, known as the Tabernacle. During the construction of King Solomon’s massive temple complex in Jerusalem, a special inner courtroom, called the Holy of Holies, was designed to house the Ark, where it stood as a throne for God’s rule on Earth.
The Ark is believed to have disappeared from Jerusalem after the Babylonians invaded and sacked the city in the sixth century A.D., but since then it has continued to capture the imaginations of engravers, writers, film-makers, and even the occasional whip-wielding archaeologist!