Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of Michelangelo’s Moses.

Michelangelo, Moses, marble, c. 1513–15 (San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome)

The Tomb of Pope Julius II

When Michelangelo had finished sculpting David, it was clear that this was quite possibly the most beautiful figure ever created—exceeding the beauty even of Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. Word of David reached Pope Julius II in Rome, and he asked Michelangelo to come to Rome to work for him. The first work Pope Julius II commissioned from Michelangelo was to sculpt his tomb (Pope Julius II’s tomb that is).

This may seem a bit strange to us today, but great rulers throughout history have planned fabulous tombs for themselves while they were still alive to ensure that they will be remembered forever (think of the Pharaohs in Egypt having the Pyramids built). When Michelangelo began the tomb of Pope Julius II his ideas were quite ambitious. He planned a two-story-high structure that would be decorated with over 20 sculptures (each of these over life size—see figure 1). This was more than one person could do in a lifetime!

The tomb was proposed to be massive with two archways, one on either side of the entrance, and intricate columns flanking the arches. These were in addition to several human sculptures.

Figure 1. Sketch of the proposed tomb.

Of course, Michelangelo was never able to finish the entire tomb. Not least because of Pope Julius himself, who asked Michelangelo to stop working on it and to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (but that’s another story). Michelangelo eventually completed a much scaled-down version of the tomb after trouble from the heirs of Pope Julius II (and this is what can be seen today in San Pietro in Vincoli, in Rome).

The completed face of the tomb. The structure includes 7 human sculptures on two different levels. The upper level has the Madonna and child at its center with a statue on either side of them, and another at their feet. The lower level has Moses at its center with two other figures carved standing in alcoves.

Figure 2. Michelangelo, Moses, marble, 1515 (San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome)

Moses is an imposing figure—he is nearly eight feet high sitting down! He has enormous muscular arms and an angry, intense look in his eyes. Under his arms he carries the tablets of the law—the stones inscribed with the Ten Commandments that he has just received from God on Mt. Sinai.

A close up of Moses's face. This picture focuses on his expression. His mouth is almost pulled into a frown, and his eyes are clearly focused on something the viewer doesn't know about.

Figure 3. Moses (detail)

In this story from the Old Testament book of Exodus, Moses leaves the Israelites (who he has just delivered from slavery in Egypt) to go to the top of Mt. Sinai. When he returns he finds that they have constructed a golden calf to worship and make sacrifices to—they have, in other words, been acting like the Egyptians and worshipping a pagan idol.

One of the commandments is “Thou shalt not make any graven images,” so when Moses sees the Israelites worshipping this idol and betraying the one and only God who has, after all, just delivered them from slavery, he throws down the tablets and breaks them. Here is the passage from the Old Testament:

15 Then Moses turned and went down the mountain. He held in his hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back.
16 These stone tablets were God’s work; the words on them were written by God himself.
17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting below them, he exclaimed to Moses, “It sounds as if there is a war in the camp!”
18 But Moses replied, “No, it’s neither a cry of victory nor a cry of defeat. It is the sound of a celebration.”
19 When they came near the camp, Moses saw the calf and the dancing. In terrible anger, he threw the stone tablets to the ground, smashing them at the foot of the mountain.

We can see the figure’s pent-up energy. The entire figure is charged with thought and energy. It is not entirely clear what moment of the story Michelangelo shows us, is he about to rise in anger after seeing the Israelites worshiping the golden calf? He has the tablets with the ten commandments on them under his right arm. Creating an interesting seated figure is not an easy thing to do!

Figure 4a shows a seated figure sculpted by Donatello. It really lacks the power and life of Michelangelo’s sculpture, doesn’t it?

A two-part image. Part a is Donatello’s St. John. This sculpture of Saint John doesn't have the sense of life that Moses does. John is looking at some distance scene, just as Moses is, but John's expression appears more serene. John's limbs appear to be at rest, while Moses has a kind of tension throughout his body. Part b is a photograph of Moses, showing the sculpture from head to toe. The detail in incredible; Moses's beard is long and curled over his hands. Moses is also sculpted with two horns coming from the crown of his head.

Figure 4. (a) Donatello, St. John, marble, ca. 1408–15 (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence); (b)Moses seated at the tomb

Think about how you’re sitting right now at the computer. Perhaps your legs are crossed, as mine are as I write this. What about if you were not at the computer? And what to do with the hands? You can see that this could be a rather uninteresting position. Yet Michelangelo’s Moses has energy and movement in the entire figure. (Look at Figure 4b.)

First of all, you’ll see that Moses is not just sitting down; his left leg is pulled back to the side of his chair as though he is about to rise. And because this leg is pulled back, his hips also face left. Michelangelo, to create an interesting, energetic figure where the forces of life are pulsing throughout the body, pulls the torso in the opposite direction. And so his torso faces to his right. And because the torso faces to the right, Moses turns his head to the left, and then pulls his beard to the right.

Michelangelo has created a figure where one part of the body turns in the opposite direction from another part. This creates a dynamic figure—we have a clear sense of the prophet and his duty to fulfill God’s wishes. You have probably noticed that Moses has horns. This comes from a mistranslation of a Hebrew word that described Moses as having rays of light coming from his head.