In our last full episode, we got started on a discussion of the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains. We first looked at the church through the eyes of the pious pilgrims of the Middle Ages, who were drawn to it by the relics of the two sets of chains, miraculously bound together, that were believed to have bound Peter when he was imprisoned first in Jerusalem and later in Rome. Then we turned to Pope Julius II, the Warrior Pope from the powerful Della Rovere family, and his plans to have Michelangelo sculpt a massive funeral monument for him, which was first intended to be placed in a not-so-modest position near the crossing of St. Peter’s in the Vatican.
But the impetuous pope then abruptly postponed the project, which removed from Michelangelo a magnificent opportunity to hone and display his talents as a sculptor, left him without an income, and made fruitless his collection of a huge supply of marble blocks carefully selected and transported from Carrara. The pope had turned his attention instead to the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica and to wars to reunite the Papal States, and he then conceived the idea of having Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This would be less expensive for the pope than a huge monument in marble, but it was also much less attractive to an artist who most wanted to sculpt, not paint.
When Michelangelo returned to and finished a funeral monument for Julius almost four decades later, it was much smaller than the original plan, and Michelangelo had it placed it in another St. Peter’s, St. Peter’s in Chains, which was the church to which Pope Julius had been assigned when his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, made him a cardinal. Sixtus had previously served as the cardinal affiliated with St. Peter in Chains, so the location made sense because of its strong connection with the two popes from the Della Rovere family.
Michelangelo, drawing of an early version of the Tomb of Pope Julius II, c. 1505, (Galleria degli Uffizi)
It’s worth recalling the scope of the original project as evidence of the vast ambitions of this pope who named himself after a pagan general who sought to become a king, Julius Caesar. Pope Julius seems to have turned to the great pagans when thinking of his mausoleum just as he did when choosing his name as pope: certainly his funeral monument had little in common with the tombs of his papal predecessors. According to one of his early biographers, the original plan was for about forty-five statues, as compared to the seven we find in the resultant project. Its iconography was also grand, for it was to have presented an overview of the Christian view of the world. The lower level was represented as the realm of human beings, the middle level as that of the prophets and saints, and the top level as that of God’s judgment of the saved and the condemned. At the peak of the monument, there were to have been two angels leading the Pope out of his tomb on the occasion of the Last Judgement.
I once thought that it must have been hard for the proud pope to cut back so radically on the scale of the monument he was planning to himself, but he died without knowing how much reduced the final monument would be, and he probably would not have looked at his career as one of diminishing expectations. He would be right to note that he began the building of the new St. Peter’s Basilica and that he added to the large rooms of the Vatican the beautiful frescoes of Raphael, Michelangelo, and others. These projects are even more impressive signs of his ambition than the mausoleum as originally planned. And even his reduced monument, which Michelangelo completed in 1545, is bigger than the biggest of the papal tombs in St. Peter’s, and it rivals or exceeds the best of them in its artistry.
Michelangelo, “Rebellious Slave,” Louvre Museum (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Forty years intervened between the first plan for the monument and the final product, and there is a vast scholarly literature on the changes that ensued over these four decades. It appears that there were five plans altogether, each marked by a different contract between the artist and either Julius or, after his death, a family member. Only a few sketches and a few words remain to give a rough idea of how the earlier projects might have appeared, so I will leave these differing sets of plans to the experts except to note that the third contract, which was drawn up in 1516, made mention of sculptures which scholars take to have been completed but not added to the monument we see today. Since the 19th century, these statues are generally known collectively as the Slaves or Captives. There are two of these in the Louvre Museum in Paris, and they appear to be
Michelangelo, “Bearded Slave,” Galleria Accademia Sailko, CC BY 3.0
finished or nearly so. Four others are in the Galleria Accademia in Florence, also home to Michelangelo’s David, and they seem—whether by chance or design—unfinished. They are powerful and suggestive and would have made good company for Moses. I remember being moved by them the only time I’ve seen them, thirty years ago. I’ve of course put pictures on my website.
The monument we see today is a large wall of architecture divided into niches that house statues. There are three main niches on two levels, and each niche is filled by a statue. At the top center is the Madonna who stands holding the infant Jesus, with an effigy of the pope reclining on the lid of his casket just beneath her. Two seated figures flank them. One is a prophet, the other a Sybil—that is, a prophetess from the pagan world who nonetheless was able to see the coming of Christ. On the lower level two standing figures flank a seated Moses. They are Rachel and Leah, both of whom appear in the Book of Genesis as sisters of one another and wives of Jacob.
The architectural setting is classical in its general inspiration, for there are pilasters, capitals, cornices, and volutes. There are four carved heads on the four upper pilasters, and four carved busts on the lower ones. Each of the eight supports a section of the cornice just above them, as the heads of caryatids do. (Caryatids are sculpted humans who function as columns; we saw some in the Forum of Augustus.) The three standing figures are protected by niches crowned by a scallop shell design; the three seated figures are in niches open above them. The lower level is adorned by designs in low relief; the surfaces of the upper level are plain.
Michelangelo for Julius II Jörg Bittner Unna, CC BY 3.0
Michelangelo Moses Michelangelo, CC BY 3.0 Wikimedia
The statue of Moses enjoys pride of place, for he is front and center and larger than the other carvings in the group. Even sitting down, he is over eight feet tall, which makes him markedly taller than the standing statues on either side of him. It is clear that Michelangelo worked hardest on this one statue. Most sources say he is directly responsible also for the statues of Rachel and Leah, which flank the Moses, but I don’t think they have the realistic detail or emotional complexity we see in Moses. Look at them and decide for yourselves. Michelangelo designed the monument as a whole, but he contracted out much of the rest of the carving to other artists.
The Moses statue prompts me to think again that Michelangelo was not just a skilled technician or clever virtuoso who could shape stone into any form he happened to conceive; he also conceived forms that he thought deserved to be represented in art. But what did he want to represent? What did he consider to be worthy subjects of his great artistry? The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel will suggest a more cosmological answer when we get to it, but the Moses statue makes me think of Michelangelo as a psychologist, as a man who wishes to represent the human psyche or soul in its various states. We look different when we are subject to hope, terror, gratitude, shame, or hate, for example. Our faces, eyes, gestures, and postures can thus grant access to our character, our invisible interior.
I think—and you should of course test this idea to see whether you agree—that Michelangelo, Raphael, and many other good artists, especially from the Renaissance and before—excel not only in displaying various emotions as in a catalog; they also interpret them and lead us to feel some and avoid or struggle against others. That is, their work often has a moral effect or tendency, and someone today might call it “judgmental.” More than most of us, Michelangelo knew the ethical teaching of the Biblical and Neoplatonic traditions and the kind of actions they wanted to encourage. Some of his subjects appear to deserve esteem and others are ugly in every sense. His Pietà does not just represent pity and piety; it recommends them as beautiful human dispositions. This beautiful statue is not content to teach only that pity is different from cruelty and indifference: it adds that it is more beautiful and seeks to elicit it in viewers. His David does not just show composure in the face of adversity: it wants us to admire it and summons us to it. His world is a world created by a beneficent God, not the purposeless movement of atoms in a void, so there should be no surprise that his work has a particular moral orientation.
Having said this, I have to admit that what his Moses represents is hard to say, but perhaps we are meant to supplement our direct looking at the statue by considering the story on which it is based, as knowing something of Goliath and Christ’s Passion help us appreciate the David and the Pietà. Let me pause on the statues that flank it before turning directly to the Moses.
To our left is Rachel, and to our right is her sister Leah. Both sisters are attractive. Rachel is in a posture of prayer with her hair covered, and she looks toward God, while Leah’s gaze is lowered, and she appears deep in thought. Their stories in the Book of Genesis are intertwined and complicated, and my reading of them does not illuminate the statues. But Dante and St. Thomas come to the rescue and remind that there is a Catholic tradition beyond the Bible. They both indicate that Rachel and Leah became symbols of the Active and Contemplative lives, which offer alternate paths to salvation. This clue helps to unlock the meaning of the statues, though it still leaves the viewer the interesting challenge of deciding which statue represents which life. It also enables us to see that, unsurprisingly, action and contemplation are here understood in a Biblical and perhaps even in a Christian way, not as an ancient Roman warrior or philosopher would have understood them. There are different kinds of contemplation, as there also are of action.
No such hardened interpretation of Moses seems to have taken over in the Middle Ages, so we are left with direct observation of the statue and the complex story of his life, which is told especially but not only in the Book of Exodus.
Moses is represented as seated and yet as showing great power, great potential energy. He is a well-muscled figure, and his body is twisted against itself: his head looks left, his beard and shoulders move right, and, lower down, his hips again turn left. This tension along the axis of his body gives him vitality and suggests incipient movement. His left foot is pressing toe-first, which suggests he is about to spring from his seat or at least that he could do so if he wished. Even his beard, and his fidgety twisting of it, give movement to Moses’ seated figure. Meanwhile, he is completely engaged by what he is looking at, whatever that might be.
Scholars have offered widely varied interpretations of the statue. Some don’t even pause over its nominal subject, Moses, but turn to allegories, for example, and suggest that the flowing beard represents water, the wildly twisting hair fire, the heavy drapery earth. But Michelangelo has clearly identified this man as Moses, for he is holding the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. Curiously, he also has two small horns on his head, and these too identify him as Moses. So let’s try some thought experiments about how and why Michelangelo chose Moses as his subject and represented him as he did.
In the first place, Moses was a powerful and wildly successful political leader, and Machiavelli, whom Michelangelo probably met, even chose him—along with Theseus, Romulus, and Cyrus—as one of the four greatest examples of a political founder. Against all odds, Moses led the Israelites out of slavery and, after forty years, to the promised land. One might diminish his achievement by saying that with God as an ally, everything is easy, but this is certainly not the way the Book of Exodus describes Moses’s political career. Sometimes Moses gets God’s help in saving the Israelites, such as when God parts the Red Sea so they can escape the pursuing Egyptians, but sometimes Moses must save them even against God’s plans. For when they forget their sworn loyalty to their God and begin to worship images they themselves have made, God grows angry and says to Moses:
9 “I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and so that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
But rather than accept God’s offer to build a new nation for him, Moses stands up to God, placates him, and saves his people. Talk about speaking truth to power!
So as a political leader, and one close to God, Moses stands out. If we wish to associate Pope Julius, the Warrior Pope, with a Biblical figure he might himself have identified with, I can think of none better. Another nickname for Julius was “il Papa Terribile,” which means “the terrifying pope,” and a quick rereading of Exodus 32, which is only slightly longer than a page, may shock you that after Moses protects the Israelites from God, he has several thousand of them killed and has harsh words for the rest. He was “the Prophet Terribile.”
So, to speak generally, I find Moses an apt and provocative subject for a monument to a Warrior Pope. But let’s not forget the horns. Moses is shown with horns in art as early as the 12th century, and scholars explain them as based on a mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. Exodus has it that Moses’ face “shone brightly” or, in another translation, “put forth beams of light” after he witnessed God’s Glory on Mount Sinai and returned with the Commandments. St. Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew verb for “shine,” which is similar to the word for “horn,” as if it meant that Moses was horned at this moment.
It is easiest to say that the horns are the result of a mistranslation, a kind of accident. It is at least possible, however, that it is a mistranslation Michelangelo was aware of and welcomed. It is not as easy to sculpt beams of light as it is to paint them, and the artist might well have wanted to show that Moses was distinguished by a supernatural connection. God had singled him out by speaking to him alone, and He even allowed Moses, and only Moses, to look at him, if only from behind. The natural power of Moses’s arms, shoulders, and legs is obvious, but it is more of a challenge to represent the supernatural evidence of Moses’s privileged relationship with God. So the horns are perhaps just the result of a mistranslation, but—to use an overused word in its literal sense—Moses is an awesome character: what makes him worthy of awe is his closeness to God, which is indicated in the Bible by visible but supernatural signs. Perhaps the horns are a way of showing this distinction in sculpture.
As a pope, Julius too might claim his authority derives directly from God, but this is a claim that might also be questioned. It is striking that the pope is a relatively minor figure on his own funeral monument, while Moses dominates.
I think, then, that Moses is a good subject for Michelangelo to have placed on the tomb of Pope Julius II, but Exodus is complicated and Michelangelo may have had still another thought in mind. The story mentions Moses with two different sets of tablets, the first in Exodus 24-32, the second in Exodus 34. Moses remains with God for forty days and nights on each of the two occasions. He smashes the first set when he sees the Israelites worshiping images; he hands down the second set, and they then become law for his people in the future. Moses’ psychological state is thus quite different on these two occasions, and we might wonder whether the artist had these differences in mind when he sculpted the statue.
It is natural to think that the tension visible in the statue reflects Moses’s inner turmoil when he sees his people worshiping false idols. He is in this case about to launch himself into action, break the tablets, and punish his subjects. Or, in the interpretation proposed by Sigmund Freud, Michelangelo departs from the Bible and shows Moses controlling his anger and resisting the temptation to react with violence to what he sees.
It seems reasonable to me to see the tension in the statue as called for by the drama of Moses’s descent from Sinai in chapter 32, but this does present a little problem that I don’t want to ignore. It is that Moses’s horns or light beams are mentioned only in chapter 34, when he is no longer angry but is about to hand the law down to the Israelites. And this is something he might do while seated, as he would not be when he raged against his people’s idolatry. Is there then a slight mismatch between Moses’s sculpted emotions and the precise moment in Exodus when he appears to his people as illuminated or horned? Or is Moses’s demeanor as Michelangelo represents it in accord with the act of declaring God’s law? I’m not sure. And while I love answers, this strikes me as a good question to keep in mind when viewing the statue.
It should go without saying that there is much more to look at in this church, and you might ask yourself where its beautiful columns might have come from, for example. But I’ll leave it for now with the hope this has been a useful introduction to a magnificent statue and a funeral monument to a pope who was also a warrior.