Recently, a friend of mine handed me a replica sculpture and asked me to guess who it was. The sculpture was of a bearded man, holding a tablet, robes around his legs, and 2 horns on the front of his head. Will with my greek hat on, I immediately thought of Pan, but he didn’t have goat’s legs and really, apart from the horns had no resemblance to Pan at all. Needless to say… I was stumped. I was then informed that he had been told it was Moses. Well, I was confused to say the least. Why would Moses be depicted with horns? A blatant symbol of the devil? Odd isn’t it. Well of course, I couldn’t leave this stone unturned, so began to research. I wasn’t actually overly hopefully, but simply googling Moses with horns brings up a plethora of information. So here we are, me sharing with you my findings.
I have written about Michelangelo before, so hopefully you should know that he is essentially the superstar of the classics, turning his hand to every kind of art form and excelling at it in the most spectacular way. This particular sculpture was completed in 1545 after being commissioned by Pope Julius II for his tomb in 1505. Michelangelo’s sculptures are nothing less that beautiful. He was certainly a master with a chisel, and worked these pieces from one solid piece of marble. His technique creates amazingly detailed and tactile statues which encapsulate the essence of each person who is represented. The original design for the tomb was extravagant, calling for 40 statues, this was reduced somewhat, but it is still impressive nonetheless..
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.”
Frankly Vasari is correct, the piece does seem to have the embodiment of perhaps the Greek gods (he wouldn’t look out of place if you said he was a sculpture of Poseidon or Zeus), the beard is magnificent.
Just in case you aren’t up to speed with who Moses was… He was the prophet who God sent back to Egypt to demand the freedom of the Israelites, after the initial refusal, 10 plagues were sent to Egypt and Moses led the Exodus out of Egypt, and parted the Red Sea to allow safe and speedy passage. He then received the 10 commandments at the Mount of Sinai. He then died wandering the desert in search of the promised land. This is why he is shown with a tablet under his arm, as it was this that the 10 commandments were documented on.
So then, why do we think he has horns? Do you think it was a horrible oversight by the great Michelangelo…no.
The horns come from a misinterpretation of a the Latin Vulgate translation of the passage found at Exodus chapter 34, specifically verses 29, 30 and 35, in which Moses returns to the people after receiving the commandments for the second time. A close up of the face makes them much easier to see:-
They look almost like terrible bunny ears, don’t they.
Moses’s face is described as “cornuta”, which means “horned”, but the term is now thought to have meant “shining” or “emitting rays”, which makes a lot more sense in the iconography that we are used to with Saints having halos.
The theory of Moses being horned stuck throughout the Renaissance period.
I was quite surprised that I hadn’t come across this before, as it seems like one of those quirky facts that would stick in my mind, but it does now explain why in some of the churches and cathedrals I have visited why there are images of a horned man dotted about.
Did you know about this? Have you seen a horned Moses and not realised that it was him? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?