Legend has it that Michelangelo felt "Moses" to be his most life-like work, to the extent that, upon completion of the statue, Michelangelo is supposed to have struck its knee exclaiming "Now, speak!"
Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in 1475 in Tuscany. He completed his artistic education in Florence and created wonderful art in Rome. Although the extraordinary Sistine Chapel ceiling speaks worlds about Michelangelo the heavenly painter, he was primarily a sculptor. In this splendid statue of Moses, we can appreciate Michelangelo’s phenomenal sculpting skills. Moses wears a robe with deep folds, and the fabric clings to his legs as if it were linen rather than marble. On his arms and hands the tendons and veins are visibly tense, the strength of his muscular body is evident, and the weight of the stone tablets is hinted at.
Michelangelo created his most famous artworks for Pope Julius II, who was known as the "Warrior Pope" due to his active military policy; he even lead troops into battle. This "fearsome" Pope, however, also appreciated fine arts and, in 1505, gave Michelangelo the task of sculpting his tomb, in which Moses is the central figure. In the same year, he also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Although Michelangelo had already spent months in Carrara selecting the marble for the tomb, the latter project took precedence, pushing back the work on the tomb, and giving rise to many rows and disagreements between Pope and artist. The legendary Julius/Michelangelo arguments accompanied much of the Sistine Chapel project.
The Papal tomb was important for Michelangelo, it allowed him to create a monumental artwork that combined sculpture with architecture. His original design was grandiose: an enormous three-level art-group with over forty statues, in the imposing style of the grand Pope that it was to commemorate. For Michelangelo, this commission marked an important creative moment in his career, although work did not get underway until four years later, after he had completed the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II died in 1513 and the project was re-dimensioned several times; the final version, commissioned in 1532, featured a drastic reduction in size, and with fewer statues around the central figure of Moses. The tomb was finally completed in 1545.
The subject: Moses
Moses led the enslaved Jewish people out of Egypt in a spectacular fashion, and no less formidable was his later feat of giving his people the Ten Commandments, direct from the hand of God. Moses took delivery of the commandments on top of Mount Sinai, but the joy of the moment was transformed into wrathful anger when he descended the mount and saw that his people were worshipping false idols. Michelangelo captures all this terrible anger in marble: Moses's face, although partly covered by his beard, shows the strong emotion of the moment. The commandments had been sculpted onto stone tablets; no doubt Michelangelo felt a certain affinity of craftsmanship, and approved the chosen medium for delivering God's laws to his people.
The statue of Moses is at the centre of the Papal monument, and its terrible force draws all the attention. Moses is seated in an ornamental niche, one foot forward as in much of Michelangelo's artwork, and is holding the commandments under his arm. You can see his strong, muscular body under his draped robes, and you can sense the tension and anger in him by observing the veins standing out, the erectness of his posture and the intensity of his gaze under furled eyebrows. His abundant beard is very long and his hair is curly and thick.
The horns on the head of Moses have provoked much discussion and perplexity, and many researchers and scholars have devoted a lot of time and study attempting to determine the reasons for the horns. In medieval Christian art, Moses is often depicted as having horns on his head; it was considered a kind of "glorification". At the time horns did not have any negative connotations. According to many historians, this curious "horned glorification" idea stems from a mistranslation of the Hebrew word "karan" which means either "shining" or "emitting rays" or "horn", in Exodus, Chapter 34. It was translated, with difficulty, into the Latin Vulgate as "horn" ("cornuta"). In turn, the antique Douay-Rheims Bible translated the pertinent passage from the Latin Vulgate as: "And when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord."
The church of San Pietro in Vincoli, which means Saint Peter in Chains, so called because it was re-built over Roman remains in 430 to house the relic of the chains that had held Saint Peter prisoner, is home to the tomb of Pope Julius II. This glorious tomb, with its famous sculpture of a wrathful Moses at its centre, is an attraction for scholars, art-lovers and tourists from all over the world. It is a powerful statue. In 1913, Sigmund Freud dedicated over three weeks to close observation of this intriguing artwork, trying to understand the tremendous emotional power of the statue. People have been visiting the church since the sixteenth century with this same idea in mind. Whosoever wishes to experience the spell of the original Michelangelo "Moses", just needs to visit this historic church on the Oppian Hill in Rome, not far from the Colosseum.
It was relatively rare for the artist to produce a full-length sculpture, with the commission coming from Pope Julius II who desired an elaborate tomb.
The photograph to the right illustrates the detail involved in this piece and centers in on just the upper half of the large sculpture. In total, it stands at 235cm tall.
Moses is depicted here with two horns and most of the controversy and discussion that has surrounded this sculpture has been directly related to the horns and the reason for their inclusion.
The sculpture is now on display at the San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. The original purpose was for it to be kept privately in the tomb of Julius II but it's current location makes this important historic sculpture far more accessible to fans of the Renaissance and art in general.
Hi, I'm Tom!
I'm the writer and founder of Michelangelo.net. I have studied different art movements for over 15 years, and am also an amateur artist myself! Read my bio here.