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.