Tuesday, March 21, 2006

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.

1 comment:

Robert said...

My literary friend Loretta Proctor explained Moses' horns: '... the Mediaeval mind would associate Moses, The Law Giver with Capricorn which is the sign of Law, Judges and the Thou Shalt Not attitude. And as you know the animal sign associated with Capricorn is the horned goat. Capricorn is ruled by the planet Saturn who was also considered as the archetypal lawgiver. Sat in Sanskrita means Knowledge...but not the stuff in books, or laws made by man when such and such an imposition suits his purpose, but that deep inner feminine, unconscious knowledge, the inner laws that rule a man and humanity in general, instinct you might say, or intuition.

Thus then Satan also is connected with Saturn, but as Satan's knowledge is the dark, deep intuitive feminine knowledge, he is always considered with suspicion and distrust by those who like consciousness and rationality and are afraid of all that smacks of irrationality and chaos. The Church has always seen Satan then as the darkness and the opposite, Feminine shadow side of their idea of the All Good Male God. As you know, the Protestant Church totally banished the Feminine...(at least the Catholic Church kept her through the worship of the Virgin Mary.) And the Muslims nicked the idea and followed suit, terrified of the Feminine as they seem to be.

So that's why Moses had his horns! Hope you aren't even more confused than before.'

Thanks Loretta that's plausible because Michelangelo would have been well aware of Medieval beliefs.