Moses (Michelangelo)

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The Moses (c. 1513–1515) is a sculpture by the Italian High Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, housed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. Commissioned in 1505 by Pope Julius II for his tomb, it depicts the Biblical figure Moses with horns on his head, based on a description in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible used at that time.

Commissioning and design history


Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to build his tomb in 1505 and it was finally completed in 1545; Julius II died in 1513<ref name=Panofsky>Erwin Panofsky (1937) The First Two Projects of Michelangelo's Tomb of Julius II The Art Bulletin 19(4):561-579</ref> The initial design by Michelangelo was massive and called for over 40 statues. The statue of Moses would have been placed on a tier about 3.74 meters high, opposite a figure of St. Paul.<ref name=Panofsky />Template:Rp In the final design, the statue of Moses sits in the center of the bottom tier.


Giorgio Vasari in the "Life of Michelangelo" wrote: "Michelangelo finished the Moses in marble, a statue of five braccia, unequalled by any modern or ancient work. Seated in a serious attitude, he rests with one arm on the tables, and with the other holds his long glossy beard, the hairs, so difficult to render in sculpture, being so soft and downy that it seems as if the iron chisel must have become a brush. The beautiful face, like that of a saint and mighty prince, seems as one regards it to need the veil to cover it, so splendid and shining does it appear, and so well has the artist presented in the marble the divinity with which God had endowed that holy countenance. The draperies fall in graceful folds, the muscles of the arms and bones of the hands are of such beauty and perfection, as are the legs and knees, the feet being adorned with excellent shoes, that 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. The Jews still go every Saturday in troops to visit and adore it as a divine, not a human thing."

The English translation of Freud's "The Moses of Michelangelo" also provides a basic description of the sculpture: ""The Moses of Michelangelo is represented as seated; his body faces forward, his head with its mighty beard looks to the left, his right foot rests on the ground and his left leg is raised so that only the toes touch the ground. His right arm links the Tables of the Law with a portion of his beard; his left arm lies in his lap."<ref name=Freud>Sigmund Freud. The Moses of MIchelangelo The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. Volume XIII (1913-1914): Totem And Taboo and other Works. London. The Hogarth Press and The Institute Of Psycho-Analysis. 1st Edition, 1955.</ref>

Jonathan Jones of the English newspaper, The Guardian, provides another description: "Moses's right hand protects the stone tablets bearing the Commandments; his left hand, veins throbbing, muscles tense, appears to be holding back from violent action. When he came down from Mount Sinai, Moses found his people worshipping the Golden Calf - the false idol they had made. His anger defies the prison of stone, the limits of the sculptor's art. Few can resist the impression of a real mind, real emotions, in the figure that glares from his marble seat. Today, he glares at the tourists who mob the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. He outfaces them, just as he outfaced Sigmund Freud, who spent three weeks in 1913 trying to figure out the sculpture's emotional effect. Moses's vitality has made this work popular since the 16th century; according to Vasari, Rome's Jewish population adopted the statue as their own. Its power must have something to do with the rendition of things that should be impossible to depict in stone; most quirkily, the beard - so ropy and smoky, its coils given fantastic, snaking life. But where others might astonish us with technique, Michelangelo goes beyond this, leading us from formal to intellectual surprise, making us wonder why Moses fondles his beard, why Michelangelo has used this river of hair - in combination with the horns that were a conventional attribute of Moses - to give him an inhuman, demonic aspect."<ref name=Jones>Jonathan Jones for The Guardian. June 7, 2002. Moses, Michelangelo (1513-16)</ref>


The statue has what are commonly accepted to be two horns on its head.<ref name=Jones /><ref name=Mellinkoff1970>Ruth Mellinkoff. The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought (California Studies in the History of Art, 14). University of California Press; First Edition edition (June 1970) ISBN 0520017056</ref><ref name=Blech>Blech, Benjamin, & Doliner, Roy (2008). The Sistine Secrets, p. 238. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780061469053></ref><ref name=Medjuck>Bena Elisha Medjuck Exodus 34:29-35: Moses' "Horns" in Early Bible Translations and Interpretations. A Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, Department of Jewish Studies, McGill University. March 1998</ref>

The depiction of a horned Moses stems from the description of Moses' face as "Template:Lang" ("horned") in the Latin Vulgate translation of the passage from Exodus in which Moses returns to the people after receiving the commandments for the second time. The Douay-Rheims Bible translates the 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." This was Jerome's effort to faithfully translate the difficult, original Hebrew Masoretic text, which uses the term, karan (based on the root, keren, which often means "horn"); the term is now interpreted to mean "shining" or "emitting rays" (somewhat like a horn). Although some historians believe that Jerome made an outright error, Jerome himself appears to have seen keren as a metaphor for "glorified", based on other commentaries he wrote, including one on Ezekiel, where he wrote that Moses' face had "become 'glorified', or as it says in the Hebrew, 'horned'."<ref name=Mellinkoff1970 />Template:Rp<ref name=Medjuck />Template:Rp The Greek Septuagint, which Jerome also had available, translated the verse as "Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was glorified." In general medieval theologians and scholars understood that Jerome had intended to express a glorification of Moses' face, by his use of the Latin word for "horned."<ref name=Mellinkoff1970 />Template:Rp The understanding that the original Hebrew was difficult and was not likely to literally mean "horns" persisted into and through the Renaissance.

Although Jerome completed the Vulgate in the late 3rd century, the first known applications of the literal language of the Vulgate in art are found in an English illustrated book written in the vernacular, that was created around 1050: the Aelfric Paraphrase of the Pentateuch and Joshua.<ref name=Mellinkoff1970 />Template:Rp For the next 150 years or so, evidence for further images of a horned Moses is sparse.<ref name=Mellinkoff1970 />Template:Rp Afterwards, such images proliferated and can be found, for example, in the stained glass windows at the Chartres Cathedral, Sainte-Chapelle, and Notre Dame, even as Moses continued to be depicted many times without horns.<ref name=Mellinkoff1970 />Template:Rp In the 16th century, the prevalence of depictions of a horned Moses steeply diminished.<ref name=Mellinkoff1970 />Template:Rp

In Christian art of the Middle Ages, Moses is depicted wearing horns and without them; sometimes in glory, as a prophet and precursor of Jesus, but also in negative contexts, especially with regard to Pauline contrasts between faith and law - the iconography was not black and white.<ref name=Mellinkoff1970 />Template:Rp<ref name=Medjuck />Template:Rp However, starting in the 11th and 12th centuries, the social position of Jews, and their depictions in Christian art, became increasingly negative and reached a low point as the Middle Ages ended.<ref name=Mellinkoff1970 />Template:Rp Jews became identified with the devil, and were commonly depicted in an evil light, with horns, a slanderous stereotype that exists to this day.<ref name=Mellinkoff1970 />Template:Rp Hence many people today interpret the horns on Michelangelo's statue only in a negative light, a situation that was not true in Michelangelo's day.<ref name=Mellinkoff1970 />Template:Rp

A book published in 2008 advanced a theory that the "horns" on Michelangelo's statue were never meant to be seen and that it is wrong to interpret them as horns: "[The statue] never had horns. The artist had planned Moses as a masterpiece not only of sculpture, but also of special optical effects worthy of any Hollywood movie. For this reason, the piece had to be elevated and facing straight forward, looking in the direction of the front door of the basilica. The two protrusions on the head would have been invisible to the viewer looking up from the floor below — the only thing that would have been seen was the light reflected off of them."<ref name = "Blech" /> This interpretation has been contested.


In his essay entitled The Moses of Michelangelo, Sigmund Freud, associates the moment in the biblical narrative when Moses descends from the mountain the first time, carrying the tablets, and finds the Hebrew people worshipping the Golden Calf, as described in Exodus 32.<ref name=Freud /> Freud describes Moses in a complex psychological state:
We may now, I believe, permit ourselves to reap the fruits of our endeavours. We have seen how many of those who have felt the influence of this statue have been impelled to interpret it as representing Moses agitated by the spectacle of his people fallen from grace and dancing round an idol. But this interpretation had to be given up, for it made us expect to see him spring up in the next moment, break the Tables and accomplish the work of vengeance. Such a conception, however, would fail to harmonize with the design of making this figure, together with three (or five) more seated figures, a part of the tomb of Julius II. We may now take up again the abandoned interpretation, for the Moses we have reconstructed will neither leap up nor cast the Tables from him. What we see before us is not the inception of a violent action but the remains of a movement that has already taken place. In his first transport of fury, Moses desired to act, to spring up and take vengeance and forget the Tables; but he has overcome the temptation, and he will now remain seated and still, in his frozen wrath and in his pain mingled with contempt. Nor will he throw away the Tables so that they will break on the stones, for it is on their especial account that he has controlled his anger; it was to preserve them that he kept his passion in check. In giving way to his rage and indignation, he had to neglect the Tables, and the hand which upheld them was withdrawn. They began to slide down and were in danger of being broken. This brought him to himself. He remembered his mission and for its sake renounced an indulgence of his feelings. His hand returned and saved the unsupported Tables before they had actually fallen to the ground. In this attitude he remained immobilized, and in this attitude Michelangelo has portrayed him as the guardian of the tomb. As our eyes travel down it the figure exhibits three distinct emotional strata. The lines of the face reflect the feelings which have won the 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. No mention has been made so far of the left arm, and it seems to claim a share in our interpretation. The hand is laid in the lap in a mild gesture and holds as though in a caress the end of the flowing beard. It seems as if it is meant to counteract the violence with which the other hand had misused the beard a few moments ago.<ref name=Freud />

Another view, put forward by Malcolm MacMillan and Peter Swales in their essay entitled Observations from the Refuse-Heap: Freud, Michelangelo’s Moses, and Psychoanalysis,<ref name=Macmillan>Template:Citation</ref> relates the sculpture to the second set of Tables and the events mentioned in Exodus 33 and 34. They note that Moses is holding blank tablets, which God had commanded Moses to make in preparation for the second giving of the Law; they also note that Moses is depicted with "horns," which the biblical texts describe Moses as having only after he returned to the Hebrew people after the second giving of the Law. They argue that the statue depicts the moment when Moses sees God, as described in Exodus 33: "The incident in question is the most significant part of the Old Testament story of the exodus. Moses, full of doubt about his own standing and that of his people, takes the considerable risk of requesting—even demanding—that they be forgiven, that he be granted the Lord’s grace, and that the Lord resume his place and lead them to the Promised Land. Emboldened by his success, he then risks all by asking that the Lord reveal his glory. Little imagination is required to sense the intense emotion with which such a Moses would have awaited the Lord: Will he come? Will he renew the Covenant? Will he reveal his glory?"<ref name=Macmillan />Template:Rp They further argue that both Paul and Moses experienced God directly, an idea and pairing that were important to the Florentine Neo-Platonists, a group that the authors view both Michelangelo and Pope Julius II as being akin to. Finally, the authors state the key emotion on Moses' face is "awe at being face to face with the creator."<ref name=Macmillan />

See also

  • Art patronage of Julius II


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External links

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