The aging warrior Pope, Julius II (1443-1513), was nearing the end of his life and realized he needed a tomb prepared for a pontiff of his stature. Wanting only the best for his final resting place, Julius II contracted the master artist, Michelangelo, to outfit his envisioned crypt with no less than forty marble statues. Michelangelo accepted the contract, put away his paintbrushes in favor of a hammer and chisel and began his work on the first statue, The Moses. Unfortunately for Michelangelo, at some point during the production of The Moses, the Papacy informed him that the other thirty-nine statues were no longer affordable. The Moses, which originally was supposed to be elevated as a centerpiece among other statues, had to be reworked to be viewed at close proximity. Michelangelo had already made the body of Moses longer, and the anatomical details deeper, meant to be viewed from a distance. Yet, despite the setbacks, Michelangelo was able to finish The Moses anywhere from 1513 to 1515. Even today, the statue still astounds viewers with its grasp and portrayal of emotion. It is housed in San Pietro in Vicoli, a church in Rome.
Michelangelo’s The Moses, however, tells a stranger story. This peculiar tale begins around 405, when Saint Jerome finished his Latin translation of the Bible, called the Vulgate. While the translation was a great achievement that remained the church’s translation of choice for centuries, it had some flaws. In particular, the problem that Michelangelo later sculpted was Jerome’s mistake in translating the Hebrew word, “Keren.” The word could mean either “radiated light” or “grew horns.” Unfortunately, Jerome chose the second option, and worse, he used the phrase to describe Moses, stating that Moses had horns on his head.
More than a thousand years later, Michelangelo used this description of Moses as a reference in making The Moses. That is why, to this day, The Moses features two small horns poking through the curls of marble hair.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.