Europe 1300 - 1800
- Michelangelo: Sculptor, Painter, Architect and Poet
- Who was Michelangelo?
- Michelangelo and his early drawings
- Pietà (marble sculpture)
- Michelangelo's David and the Florentine Republic
- Unfinished business—Michelangelo and the Pope
- Moses (marble sculpture)
- Moses (marble sculpture)
- Carving marble with traditional tools
- Slaves (marble sculptures)
- Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
- Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
- Studies for the Battle of Cascina and the Creation of Adam
- Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small Sketch for a Seated Figure (verso)
- Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto); Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small Sketch for a Seated Figure (verso)
- Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
- Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel
- Last Judgment (altar wall, Sistine Chapel)
- Studies for the Last Judgment and a late crucifixion drawing
- Michelangelo, Medici Chapel (New Sacristy)
- Laurentian Library
- Replicating Michelangelo
The Tomb of Pope Julius II
When Michelangelo finished sculpting David, it was clear that this was quite possibly the most beautiful figure ever created—exceeding the beauty even of Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. Word of David reached Pope Julius II in Rome, and he asked Michelangelo to come to Rome to work for him. The first work Pope Julius II commissioned from Michelangelo was a tomb for the pope.
This may seem a bit strange to us today, but great rulers throughout history have planned fabulous tombs for themselves while they were still alive—they hoped to ensure that they would be remembered forever.
When Michelangelo began the Tomb of Pope Julius II, his ideas were quite ambitious. He planned a two-story structure decorated with more than 20 sculptures—each of these life sized. This was more than one person could do in a lifetime.
Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to pause his work on the tomb to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and he was never able to complete his plan for the tomb. After experiencing trouble with Julius' heirs, Michelangelo eventually completed a much scaled-down version of the tomb, which was installed in San Pietro in Vincoli (and not in St. Peter's Basilica as planned).
Moses is an imposing figure—he is nearly eight feet high sitting down! He has enormous muscular arms and an angry, intense look in his eyes. Under his arms he carries the tablets of the law—the stones inscribed with the Ten Commandments that he has just received from God on Mt. Sinai. You might marvel at Moses' horns. This comes from a mistranslation of a Hebrew word that described Moses as having rays of light coming from his head.
In this story from the Old Testament book of Exodus, Moses leaves the Israelites, who he has just delivered from slavery in Egypt, to go to the top of Mt. Sinai. When he returns, he finds that the Israelites have constructed a golden calf to worship and make sacrifices to. They have, in other words, been acting like the Egyptians and worshipping a pagan idol.
One of the commandments Moses received is “Thou shalt not make any graven images,” so when Moses sees the Israelites worshipping this idol and betraying the one and only God who has just delivered them from slavery, he throws down the tablets and breaks them. Here is the passage from the Hebrew Bible:
Then Moses turned and went down the mountain. He held in his hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. These stone tablets were God's work; the words on them were written by God himself. When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting below them, he exclaimed to Moses, "It sounds as if there is a war in the camp!" But Moses replied, "No, it's neither a cry of victory nor a cry of defeat. It is the sound of a celebration." When they came near the camp, Moses saw the calf and the dancing. In terrible anger, he threw the stone tablets to the ground, smashing them at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32: 15-19)
We can see the figure's pent-up energy. The entire figure is charged with thought and energy. It is not entirely clear what moment of the story Michelangelo shows us. Moses sits with the tables of the ten commandments under his right arm. Is he about to rise in anger after seeing the Israelites worshiping the golden calf?
Moses is not simply sitting down; his left leg is pulled back to the side of his chair as though he is about to rise. And because this leg is pulled back, his hips also face left. Michelangelo, to create an interesting, energetic figure—where the forces of life are pulsing throughout the body—pulls the torso in the opposite direction. And so his torso faces to his right. And because the torso faces to the right, Moses turns his head to the left, and then pulls his beard to the right.
Michelangelo managed to create an intense, energetic figure even though Moses is seated. While the marble itself is still, it seems as though his beard is moving and flowing and that his muscular arms and torso are about to shift.
In comparing Michelangelo's Moses to an Early Renaissance sculpture by Donatello, it is easy to see the difference between the Early and High Renaissance ideals. Donatello's relaxed figure St. John really lacks the power and life of Michelangelo's sculpture. Think about how you’re sitting right now at the computer. Perhaps your legs are crossed, as mine are as I write this. What about if you were not at the computer? And what to do with the hands? You can see that this could be a rather uninteresting position. Yet Michelangelo has given the entire figure energy and movement, even in a sitting position.
In Michelangelo's dynamic figure of Moses we have a clear sense of the prophet and his duty to fulfill God's wishes. Moses is not a passive figure from the distant biblical past, but a living, breathing, present figure that reflects the will and might of God.
Want to join the conversation?
- Do you know why was Moses elected for this tomb?(4 votes)
- Ok, I am no expert, but here is my hypothesis on this. Pope Julius was a great patron of the arts and a warrior pope. (see movie: Agony & Ecstasy). He lived his life mission pursing everything in the glory of God and the protection of the church. He wants to employ Michelangelo to carve some sculpture or figures for his tomb. But he couldn't just ask for a self-portrait...which would focus the glory solely on him forever after, not the church. So an alternative design strategy to get around this problem uses metaphor. A metaphor "is a figure of speech that identifies something as being the same as some unrelated thing for rhetorical effect, thus highlighting the similarities between the two." The main sculpture of Moses is a metaphor for Pope Julius in three areas. The Pope is a great leader of the church; Moses is a great leader of the church. The Pope defends and unifies the papal states; Moses defends and unifies his people out of Egypt toward their own promised land. The Pope upholds the rule of God as define; Moses uploads the ten commandants as the rules of God. In summary, I think Moses is a good choice for a metaphorical figure for the decoration of the tomb of Pope Julius. Perhaps they thought so too. DMZ(9 votes)
- why does moses have horns?(2 votes)
- They were supposed to be rays of light, but somebody mistranslated the Hebrew bible and they thought it said he had horns, not rays of light(1 vote)
- what is ironic about the statue of Moses?(1 vote)
- It is somewhat ironic that the man through whom the command to "make no graven images" is memorialized through a graven image.(4 votes)
- When the mistranslation says beams of light did Michelangelo represents them as horns?(2 votes)
- yes, in the old testament which was written in hebrew it said the word keren, which can mean horn or ray of light. michelangelo obviously misinterpreted this.(1 vote)
- Why is Moses like that? I don't really understand what they are saying about Moses. Can I get some more understanding about this? Please?(1 vote)
- why is there rays of light coming out of his head?(1 vote)
- There are none as he put horns instead because there was a misinterpretation of a latin word that meant rays of light and not horns.(2 votes)
- " they were still alive—they hoped to ensure that they would be remembered forever."
Could it be also any other reason, like a superstitious or spiritual one?(1 vote)
- possibly yes, but there are many actions done in this time period that we are unsure of the motives(1 vote)
- Can you provide citation information on this article? I am a student at Southern New Hampshire University and would like to reference it in a research paper.
Thank you(1 vote)
- Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Michelangelo, Moses," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed October 4, 2017, https://smarthistory.org/michelangelo-moses/.(1 vote)