Michelangelo: Moses (1513-1516); San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

When confronted with this impressive statue of Moses in Rome’s Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, one cannot help but be awestruck. It was created between 1513 and 1516 by Michelangelo Buonarotti as part of a gigantic freestanding tomb for Pope Julius II and destined for the famous St Peter’s Basilica, where the Pope was to be buried. After Julius’ death in 1513 though, plans for the tomb were first postponed and subsequently the subject of endless quarrels. The resulting monument was a source of tremendous grief and frustration to Michelangelo: it was only a fraction of the intended size, and finished 32 years after the Pope’s demise. Moreover, it wasn’t and would never be a tomb, but rather just a cenotaph, as Julius’s body was buried in St Peter’s Basilica.
The statue of Moses was one of the few remaining elements that were executed according to the original design. Michelangelo (1475-1564) regarded it as one of his most lifelike creations. The fierce eyes of the Old Testament prophet, his swollen muscles and bulging veins, are indeed very realistic, almost scarily so.
Something else catches our attention: why on earth would Michelangelo choose to endow Moses with two horns? The explanation for this can be found in a translation error. In those days, the most commonly used translation of the Bible was the Latin Vulgate. Today, Exodus 34:29 reads: ‘When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD.’ The Hebrew word ‘qeren’ in the original text has two meanings, ‘radiant’ or ‘with horns.’ In the Vulgate, this part of the passage was translated as ‘cornuta esset facies sua’ (‘that his face was horned’). For centuries, Moses was depicted with horns on his head as a result of this mistake. While Michelangelo’s statue isn’t the only example of this phenomenon, it certainly is the most famous one.
(text: Maarten Levendig)


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