Moses horns seem an odd icon to modern eyes
Little more than a stone’s throw from the Colosseum is the Church of St. Peter in Chains where there is a treasure that will have to await a future visit. It contains Michelangelo’s statue of Moses carved when he was 30 as part of a monumental tomb for Julius II. Even in a photograph the figure is powerful and striking. The locks of hair that fall from the shoulders are rendered soft and pliable – remarkable given the hard marble material from which they are carved.
The statue bears a mark below the knee apparently caused when Michelangelo threw his chisel at the work and screamed “Why don’t you talk?” The story is plausible given Michelangelo’s fiery temperament and the pitch of emotional intensity at which he worked. Lifelike and powerful though the figure is it is not hard to imagine him being frustrated by some subtle nuance that was eluding him.
Although Michelangelo took painting and sculpture to new heights he was always conscious of tradition. The portrayal of Moses with ‘horns’ was a curious medieval icon which Michelangelo continued to use. They seem strange to a contemporary eye and make Moses appear diabolical.
The origin or meaning of Moses horns is obscure. Exodus records an occasion when after talking with God on Sinai Moses face appeared to shine as he stood before his people. I came across an early painting in the Vatican Museum showing Moses displaying the stone tablets with golden rays emanating from his temples - a primitive painterly ploy to depict Moses shining face perhaps. Maybe Michelangelo was seeking a sculptural alternative to suggest Moses’ shining face.