The Bizarre Reason Michelangelo’s Moses Has Horns
Every other Friday in D-List Saints, Luke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.
If you ever visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you’ll likely see the tomb of Pope Julius II, an ornate structure that includes one of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures: his depiction of Moses. Widely considered one of the world’s most striking works of art, the piece depicts the biblical lawgiver seated, clutching the Ten Commandments, and looking into the distance with an intense glare, apparently at Israel’s idolatry of the golden calf. Supposedly, upon completing the marble figure, the sculptor struck its knee with a hammer and commanded it, “Now, speak!” (but in Italian, so it sounded sexier), thus announcing that the only way this figure could be more lifelike is if it were actually alive. In light of the work’s enduring popularity, the words seem almost prophetic: people still travel from all over the world to marvel at the softness of Moses’ beard and clothes, the detail of his skin and muscles, and the raw emotion in his eyes.
For several centuries, if you wanted to make sure the viewer knew you were sculpting Moses, you gave him horns. Weird, right?And also his rather doofy-looking pair of horns.
It’s true. Despite all its majesty, the statue possesses a rather sad, floppy-looking pair of horns—the sort you might expect to see on a baby goat, or something. And it’s actually not terribly unique in that regard—the image of a horned Moses is fairly common in Western medieval iconography, to the point that horns are nearly as closely associated with Moses as the Ten Commandments are. For several centuries, if you wanted to make sure the viewer knew you were sculpting Moses, you gave him horns. Weird, right?
So what gives?
It all goes back to Ancient Hebrew, which, like a lot of ancient languages, didn’t have quite enough words for all of the things the writers of the Bible wanted to talk about (not like today when we have very good words, the best words, everyone says so). Specifically, it didn’t have a word for a ray of light, so most biblical authors used the Hebrew word for horn, because the shape of a ray of light is kind of, sort of, like the shape of a horn, I guess. So, in Exodus chapter 34, after spending several days on Mt. Sinai, taking down God’s dictation of the Ten Commandments, Moses’ face is described as being “horned.” The writers of the third-century–B.C. Septuagint, the Ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, got the gist and rendered the word as glorified—that is, shining with the glory of God—but then St. Jerome had to come along 700 years later and screw everything up.
Jerome, if you’re unfamiliar, was one of the early scholars of the Church, mainly known for composing the “Vulgate,” an early Latin translation of the Bible. Jerome’s world was one where Christians in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, who mainly spoke Greek, had Greek versions of the Old and New Testaments at their disposal, but western Christians, who mainly spoke Latin, didn’t have a Bible they could easily read and understand. So he took it upon himself to translate the Bible into the vulgar (i.e., common) language of the people, probably unaware of the fact that, 1,600 years later, I’d be sitting here giggling at the idea of translating the Bible into vulgar language.
Unfortunately for Moses, though, Jerome translated the Old Testament directly from Hebrew into Latin, bypassing the Septuagint entirely—and because the Hebrew said “horns,” “horns” was what went into the Vulgate. Some historians have claimed this was an error on Jerome’s part, but Jerome’s other writings—specifically, his commentary on Ezekiel—suggest he actually understood what the Hebrew meant. Why he chose not to clarify it in his translation is anyone’s guess.
And so, for the next dozen centuries, Moses had horns.
You might be wondering how depicting one of the Bible’s key figures as having horns—a feature commonly associated with the devil—could have become so popular. The answer is that horns weren’t actually associated with the devil until fairly recently. Scripture itself offers few, if any, visual descriptions of Satan, and what is there rarely mentions horns (the main exception being the Book of Revelation, which depicts him as a 10-horned dragon). Ancient and medieval artists illustrated Satan in a variety of ways, but it took until the early Renaissance for him to sprout a pair of horns, which were apparently borrowed, originally, from depictions of various pagan gods.
Of course, once both Satan and Moses were depicted with horns, for completely different reasons, various anti-Semites jumped on the coincidence as proof that Jews were secretly satanic (“See??? The founder of Judaism is horned, just like Satan!!!”). There were obviously about a thousand things wrong with that argument, not the least of them that Christians revere Moses just as much as Jews do, but as we all know, an idea’s stupidity is rarely an impediment to its popularity. Meanwhile, for most of history, horns were a fairly neutral symbol in the West and Middle East—in fact, they’re used throughout the Old Testament as a symbol of strength—often specifically divine strength (e.g., in Psalm 148:14: “He has raised up a horn for his people”).
Interestingly, though, by the time Michelangelo was working on Julius II’s tomb, it was pretty widely known that the idea of a horned Moses stemmed from an overly literal translation. Which, of course, raises the question of why Michelangelo chose to portray his Moses with horns anyway. It’s possible he did so entirely out of a sense of tradition, but certain historians have also theorized he did so as a final “screw you” to Pope Julius, with whom he feuded endlessly, despite the fact that Julius had been by far his biggest patron. (Actually, no one really got along with Julius—the guy was a heel who, like many medieval and Renaissance popes, was far more interested in military conquest than theology or church leadership.) If so, it wouldn’t be the first time Michelangelo had encoded disdain for the pope into his art. The Sistine Chapel ceiling, the first Michelangelo project Julius commissioned, includes a cherub making an obscene gesture, and Michelangelo’s mural of The Last Judgment depicts the mouth of hell opening directly behind the altar. Subtlety was not one of Michelangelo’s strong suits.
And so, Moses, who in life shared in so much of the glory of God that his face shone with majesty, got his most enduring likeness carved with a pair of sad, floppy horns, partly because St. Jerome was a tad careless with his Bible translation and partly because Michelangelo had it in for the guy whose tomb he was carving.
History is weird, you guys.
Michelangelo’s magnificent Moses is in the minor basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (St Peter in Chains) in Rome, not at the Vatican. I’ve seen it there the four times I’ve visited….
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