Moses by Michelangelo

“Those who have not seen this statue, cannot realize the full power of sculpture.” (Stendhal).

Moses (1513-1515), Carrara marble, 235 cm (92.52 in), San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome.  Photo by Prasenberg, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license here.

The angry Patriarch has just seen his people worshipping the Golden Calf and he is about to throw down the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments that God has given him.

And the horns? Moses had horns after seeing God according to a medieval tradition based on what scholars say was a mistranslation of the Bible. Later translations speak of a saintly radiance or rays of light.

People have always admired Moses’ beautiful arms and hands, as well as his long, soft beard. “One might almost believe that the chisel had become a brush,” says Vasari. But some have found fault with the strange outfit he is wearing—imitated perhaps from antique statues of barbarians.

This Moses is the central figure of the tomb of Pope Julius II.
Michelangelo began many figures for the Pope’s tomb but one after another they were scrapped. The commission kept changing. Originally there were going to be forty statues and Pope Julius would have had the most spectacular mausoleum in the world. But he cancelled the first project and later versions by his heirs got smaller and smaller. This is the final, almost pitiful, result. Yet the single statue of Moses, one of the most impressive figures ever carved, is enough to perpetuate Julius’ memory.


Tomb of Pope Julius II (1545)  Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST under GNU Free Documentation License here.

The two figures left and right of Moses are also by Michelangelo. Who do they respresent?
Two sisters from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Rachel and Leah. Leah was Dante’s guide. She led him to his beloved girlfriend in heaven. He first saw Leah singing and picking flowers along a path and saying: “I spend my time making garlands to adorn myself so that I may be pretty when I look in the mirror. But my sister Rachel never leaves her dressing room. She spends all her time at her mirror, admiring her pretty eyes. I am happy doing, she with just seeing.”
But these two figures are also called, more appropriately it seems, The Active Life and The Contemplative Life. Michelangelo’s girls don’t look vain and frivolous like those two sisters in the Divine Comedy.
In any case, they are not among Michelangelo’s best figures. He was fed up with the tomb and Julius’ heirs by the time he carved them.

The other statues on the wall, including the portrait of Pope Julius lounging on his tomb, are the work of at least five sculptors, one worse than the other. Vasari says Michelangelo was not happy with the result. For more on this sad story see Michelangelo’s Ridiculous Mouse.


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14 Responses to Moses by Michelangelo

  1. Ken Januski says:

    All I can say is: Vasari was right!

  2. wpm1955 says:

    Very impressive.

  3. Rich says:

    Truly impressive figure – really seems to bring its message home. Reminded me about the Golden Calf itself having started a reeling dance around us, as someone said.
    However, also adore the flowing and swirling movement of this immense beard, undulating around that magnificent hand, and caught up by the drapery below. Also nice the juxtaposition of these flowing beard-lines with the rectangularity of the tablets.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: I don’t know the reference to the Golden Calf’s own dance but he certainly is well-loved. I shouldn’t have called that beard “soft”, should I? After all, it’s hard marble. Soft-looking only, and APPARENTLY flowing and swirling. … I’m still mulling over that Golden Calf’s reeling dance–do you mean in pied piper style?

  4. Peggi Habets says:

    Sorry, Didn’t mean to post anonymously.

    If this is a pitiful tomb, I can’t imagine an impressive one! I like the architecture more than the figures themselves. They don’t seem to go together, and the two sisters just aren’t that interesting to me. I guess that comes from the frustration the built over the years, and Michelangelo’s increasing disinterest in the “project.” Still it must be quite amazing to see in person.

    • 100swallows says:

      Peggi: Pitiful by comparison with Michelangelo’s first project and with what a man like him was capable of, I meant. Imagine forty figures like this one, the Giants, the Slaves in the Louvre. Those were given away or abandoned because they didn’t fit into a third and fourth design.
      I guess it IS a big deal as tombs go–but, as the Spaniards say of a mess, no tiene pies ni cabeza (neither feet nor head). I keep thinking the Pope will come crashing down like the guy who sits between two chairs. Though he looks comfortable up there, like a cat.

      The two ladies are two of the worst figures Mike ever made. You like the architecture. That second story of upside-down pillars is only there to make the thing taller, like those phony facades of old American buildings. Do you really like the “book stops” between Michelangelo’s figures and those four silly guys above them? Those motifs were already deja vu even in his time. And all that mindless marble “wall-paper”? Of course one might consider the mediocre statues around Moses like the line of chorus girls that show off the star–that would give their badness a purpose.

  5. erikatakacs says:

    Moses is perfect. Thanks for clarifying what were the horns about, I’ve always wondered about that.

  6. Rich says:

    The Pied Piper – good idea, why not? Just felt like taking some surreal liberties (you have incorporated Dali some times here in your blog)
    Yes, and “ractangular tablets” might fit to the rigidity of laws better than the cascade of a swirling beard-;)

  7. wrjones says:

    As many painters get looser as they mature, I wonder if the same happened to Michelangelo’s sculpting. After he had shown he could do the finest work he might have gotten bored with it. Just get a resonable piece finished and get the the gold.

    • 100swallows says:

      No Bill, I didn’t mean that he got slack. Pope Julius’ heirs badgered him for years, accusing him of neglecting to work on the tomb. In fact, he loved that original project and was heartbroken when the Pope cancelled it. Then he again became enthusiastic, twice, three times and more, at the prospect of each new design and started great figures like the Giants and this Moses. Why didn’t he finish? The new popes wouldn’t let him. They had plans of their own for Michelangelo. He was caught between his obligations to Julius’ heirs and the those of each new pope. They each pulled one end of him and made him miserable for years. The heirs even accused him of keeping money Julius had given him as an advance. Once in desperation he offered to pay the heirs all the money he had received and so be free of the commission, but they wouldn’t accept that. He was desperate. He finally got the heirs to allow him to delegate some of the work. Other sculptors and marblers finished the tomb according to his design. The last contract he signed with the heirs specified that only three figures would be by his hand. He wasn’t happy with the way the others worked but by then all he wanted was to be rid of the whole nightmare. It had lasted most of his working life.

  8. Peggi Habets says:

    I can’t really say I LIKE the architecture, only that I like it better than the figures (aside from Moses). Everything seems so crowded together at the bottom and at the top the pope looks like he is doing a Matress commercial. Still I cam imagine that this tomb would be quite impressive to see in person. Have you seen it?

    • 100swallows says:

      Peggi: There are a lot of marble tombs in churches all over Europe. Maybe if this were the first you saw you would consider it impressive. It does cover a big stretch of the wall. Normally guides take people into the church—itself very unimpressive (can this be the place where Michelangelo’s great Moses is?)—and sit them down in front of the main altar to give a spiel on the date of the church’s construction and why it is called St. Peter in Chains, and so on. They expect you to ignore the great Moses off to the right until they are ready to talk about it. But there is nothing as impressive anywhere in the church as that figure. Though he sits, he is taller than a real man and besides, they have him on a marble riser. It is hard to take your eyes of him, even to check out those two ladies left and right. The rest of the monument seems just marble babble and rises high out of sight. Of course since it is Julius’ tomb, you throw a glance up there at him. As you say, he looks simply corny. Michelangelo would have done better not to have him up there and maybe we pilgrims would then picture him as that mighty figure of the great prophet. Julius WAS quite a man.

  9. Peggi Habets says:

    The few tombs I have seen in Germany and Netherlands were much smaller and less ornate, so yeah, I guess my jaw would drop at the mere size of it. Thank you for the added detail and putting it in a context I can envision. That’s what I love about this blog!

  10. Pat Smith says:

    I saw this work at the age of nine in 1959. It has left a lasting impression on me ever since. Yes it is very powerful.

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