Michelangelo’s Moses has a complicated and difficult history. Like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to design and construct his tomb in 1505. Typical of renaissance era popes, this tomb was supposed to be an enormous structure mirroring Pope Julius’ larger than life personality and reputation.
Originally, the structure was going to be a three-tiered structure that jutted out from a wall in St. Peters Basilica. Adorning the tomb, Michelangelo planned to have 47 statues showing various figures creating a dynamic space and a true statement on the importance of Julius.
The project, however, was interrupted many times. For four years, starting in 1508, Michelangelo was occupied with the daunting task of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After the death of the Pope, the scale of the tomb was greatly reduced. It would become a smaller, two-tiered monument with a few smaller statues, columns, centered around a figure of Moses in the church of St. Pietro in Vincoli.
For Michelangelo, this marked an important creation in his career; this tomb would be his first architectural project. Combining architecture and sculpture
it would also take cues from his painting. After he completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo got back to work on the tomb in 1513.
At the center of the monument was a seated figure of Moses. He is shown sitting, holding stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments from God. The figure of Moses may look familiar after seeing Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. Many of the figures Michelangelo painted: prophets, sibyls, and various biblical figures, are shown seated in relaxed poses with one leg bent straight down and the other bent with the foot further back. This common pose creates a continuity of Michelangelo’s prophetic figures. A viewer can see this pose and know that the figure is special and chosen by God to teach his people. Just as the prophets on the ceiling hold their books, Moses holds his stone tablets.
Beyond his pose, Moses looks similar to another figure Michelangelo painted. Moses is shown as a strong, older man with a beard and look of concentration. He is clothed in a robe, but still showing is muscular frame. All of this can also be said in describing Michelangelo’s depictions of God.
Michelangelo himself thought this statue of Moses was among his best works – and many viewers agree. Vasari, the contemporary artist and biographer of Michelangelo said of this statue of Moses; “…Moses may now be called the friend of God more than ever, since God has permitted his body to be prepared for the resurrection before the others by the hand of Michelangelo.” Indeed, Michelangelo’s skill as a sculptor can be seen throughout the work. The fabric in Moses’ clothes is full of deep folds and at stress points clinging to the man’s legs. On his arms you can see the veins and tendons of the hands as he holds the heavy stone tablets, cut square as was custom at the time, before the now common image of the tablets with arched tops. His beard is made up of long flowing hairs full of curls and carved with such detail that individual strains are almost seen.
Moses’ face is especially full of detail and emotion. Even though much of the face is covered by the beard, the structure of the face is still defined by heavy cheekbones visible through the tight skin. Having been talked to by God and given the responsibility to present His commandments, Moses is full of thought. His brows furled and eyes looking far beyond. A result of the ever changing nature of this project, some of Moses’ features appear distorted. Originally, he was meant to be much higher and viewed from below. In order to compensate for the viewing angle, his torso and head are made larger.
Perhaps what appears most shocking to viewers is relatively easily explained. Most of what is shown is what we typically think of Moses: old man, robe, beard, tablets. But then, atop his head, there are two horns protruding out. For modern viewers this can be a very odd and disconcerting sight – horns are usually associated with more negative connotations, not prophets of god. However, for medieval and early renaissance artists, horns were a common sight on Moses. It is believed to go back to a translation of the bible where instead of Moses’ skin shining with light, it was horned. Translating from one language can be a tricky task that is dependent on inflection, verb tenses, and many other complications. It was an interpretation common to many other artists. It didn’t hurt that horns are a lot easier to carve out of stone than rays of light.
Learn about other Michelangelo sculptures including Michelangelo's David