Moses by Michelangelo
Moses, 1513-1515
Marble, height 235 cm
Rome, San Pietro in Vincoli

Originally intended for the tomb of Julius II in St. Peter's Basilica, "Moses" and the tomb were instead placed in the minor church of San Pietro in Vincoli on the Esquiline in Rome after the pope's death. This church was patronised by the della Rovere family from which Julius came, and he had been titular cardinal there.

The statue depicts Moses with horns on his head. This is believed to be because of the mistranslation of Exodus 34:29-35 by St Jerome. Moses is actually described as having "rays of the skin of his face", which Jerome in the Vulgate had translated as "horns." The mistake in translation is possible because the word "keren" in the Hebrew language can mean either "radiated (light)" or "grew horns".

The tomb of Julius II, a colossal structure that would have given Michelangelo the room he needed for his superhuman, tragic beings, became one of the great disappointments of Michelangelo's life when the pope, for unexplained reasons, interrupted the commission, possibly because funds had to be diverted for Bramante's rebuilding of St. Peter's. The original project called for a freestanding, three-level structure with some 40 statues. After the pope's death in 1513, the scale of the project was reduced step-by-step until, in 1542, a final contract specified a simple wall tomb with fewer than one-third of the originally planned figures.

The spirit of the tomb may be summed up in the figure of "Moses", which was completed during one of the sporadic resumptions of the work in 1513. Meant to be seen from below, and balanced with seven other massive forms related in spirit to it, the "Moses" now, in its comparatively paltry setting, can hardly have its full impact.

In his essay entitled The Moses of Michelangelo Sigmund Freud, along with several well-respected experts, associates this work with the first set of Tables described in Exodus 32: (19) "And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount."

A more recent view, put forward by Malcolm MacMillan and Peter Swales in their essay entitled Observations from the Refuse-Heap: Freud, Michelangelo's Moses, and Psychoanalysis, relates the sculpture to a second set of Tables and the event mentioned in Exodus 33: (22) "And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:" and (23) And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen."

This event is described further in Exodus 34: (4) "And he hewed two tables of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tables of stone. (5) And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. (6) And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, (7) Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. (8) And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped."

It would seem as though Freud's atheistic views prevented him from seeing the spiritual content Michelangelo incorporated into this work of art. Nevertheless, he notes the following: "As our eyes travel down it the figure exhibits three distinct emotional strata. The lines of the face reflect the feelings which have won ascendancy; the middle of the figure shows the traces of suppressed movement; and the foot still retains the attitude of the projected action. It is as though the controlling influence had proceeded downwards from above."

Michelangelo felt that this was his most life-like creation. Legend has it that upon its completion he struck the right knee commanding, "now speak!" as he felt that life was the only thing left inside the marble. There is a scar on the knee thought to be the mark of Michelangelo's hammer.




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Art images are public domain and displayed under conditions of U.S. District Court ruling Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp., 36F. Supp. 2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1999).