The Intriguing Interpretation of Horns in Michelangelo’s Sculpture — Moses
Moses a prophet is a biblical figure in Judaism and Christianity. But why is Moses depicted with “Horns” in medieval Christian iconography?
Michelangelo’s marble sculpture Moses
The marble sculpture of Moses was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1505.
Initially, the plan was to create forty statues with Moses as the center statue for Pope Julius' tomb. But due to insufficient money, Michelangelo was never allowed to pursue the project.
The sculpture is described as, “Moses sitting and glaring from his marble seat. His right hand clutching the stone tablets bearing the Commandments. While he came down from Mount Sinai and found his people worshipping the Golden Calf — the false idol worship, his anger defies the prison of stone. His long beard descends to his lap and his protruding swollen veins of the left arm.”
Why Moses is depicted with horns in medieval Christian iconography
This dates back to Ancient Hebrew which was difficult to comprehend. Moses spent days on Mount Sinai taking down God’s words of the Ten Commandments when his face was glorified emitting rays of light called “qeren” in Hebrew (which also means “horn”).
The medieval theologians and scholars felt that St. Jerome's intention was to express the glorification of Moses' face but the literal translation was misinterpreted and persisted as horns through the renaissance.
Depictions of horned Moses in medieval Christian iconography
Michelangelo was not the first artist to depict horns on Moses' sculpture. Several wall frescos, paintings have seen Moses with horns.
Moses in Vilnius Cathedral, Lithuania depicts horned Moses.
Similarly, Well of Moses in the Dijon Museum in the 14th century portrays Moses with horns.
The fresco of God giving the Ten Commandments to a horned Moses in St. Andrews Church in Westhall can be seen in England’s finest medieval paintings.
The linguistic blunder and mistranslation led to the depiction of horns on Moses — a feature commonly associated with the devil.
Although the horns on the biblical figure created a negative connotation with the development of anti-Jewish sentiment in the early modern period but in the 16th century, the depiction of horns on Moses gradually declined.