A David-like poise in Rome?

November 4, 2009 / Art & Archaeology
Rome, Lazio
amy-moses300While thousands of visitors queue to see Michelangelo’s David in Florence, fewer visit David’s virtual twin in Rome. Housed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli – the same church where the chains that bound St. Peter are kept – Michelangelo’s depiction of Moses is as awesome as the David itself.

Seated in a nook on the right-most aisle of the church, Moses, with his massive, muscular hands, legs and chest, is nearly the same height and size as David. If it weren’t for the beard and the horns, you might think this was one and the same. And what about the horns? A pair of these peculiar appendages appear on the statue due to a simple error in transcribing the book Exodus in the 5th century Latin translation of the Bible: “horns” for “halo.”

Horns aside, Michelangelo intended Moses to be part of a Pope Julius II’s enormous tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica, but alas, the project was never completed due to a lack of funding. All that remains of the abandoned project is this horned beauty of a man and the “lesser” but equally impressive statues surrounding it.


– Contributed by Amy Battis, ItalianNotebook.com reader. Thank you!!

14 Responses to “A David-like poise in Rome?”

  1. Thank you for calling attention to this statue in this less-visited church. We were astounded to walk in and see this Michelangelo just sitting there, with one sleeping guard nearby! Rome, as with Italy itself, is filled with secret treasures!

  2. Philip Gallagher

    Again, thank you for highlighting one of my favorite art works. Look closely and one sees a crease on Moses’ knee. Michaelangelo is reported to have, when the statue was completed, struck the knee and said “Speak”. Phil Gallagher

  3. Norma Luther

    It is a spectular statue. I think you meant pose not poise. I took every one of my visitors to see it. Can’t wait to return to Rome!!

  4. Christina Sbarra

    I visited the statue of Moses in Rome many years ago. Our tour guide pointed out gash across the statue’s forehead and shared a legend. They say that the statue looked so real that Michelangelo wanted it to speak, and when it did not, he threw he chisel at the Moses statue, leaving the gash mark.

  5. Christina Sbarra

    The mark is actually on the knee – I see now the comment from Phil, he is right.

  6. Helen Ruchti

    During our 25 years in Roma, my husband and I took a Texas doctor to see the Moses. The doctor looked carefully at the muscles and veins and said Michelangelo’s carving was anatomically correct.

    On August 1, the reliquary of Peter’s chains under the altar in the Church of St. Peter in Chains is open so the faithful can touch the cold, clammy chains from the Roman jail.

    Read about these Italian treasures and others in my book, La Bella Vita–Daily Inspiration from Italy – ISBN 978-1-60-148-012-5

  7. I remember seeing this on our first visit to Rome. I was astounded that it so out in the open and unguarded, expect for the old guy asleep in his chair) I had to resist the temptation to touch. I still tell the story of how we found the church with the aid of a shopkeeper who left his one man store and walked with us for one and a half blocks to be certain that we turned on the correct street.

  8. D. Bianchi

    My wife and I have visited this church and each time left impressed. I can understand the artist’s desire for it to speak. By the way, there is a great example of the Roman viaducts near to the church, which typifies Rome: Ancient, Rinsciamento and almost modern.

  9. L. Selter

    The interesting thing about Michaelangelo’s depiction of the halo as horns is that in contributed to the long held belief that Jews had horns.This then became incorporated into many antisemitic drawings and literature.

  10. Angelina Limato

    I haven’t been lucky enough to see any of his or the other artists work in person so can only imagine how breathtaking they must be when the pictures are so wonderful. I am awed at how the garments flow even though they are made of stone. I am amazed at the life in the body eventhough there is none. The muscular features, veins, hair it is if a person were turned into stone themselves. How wonderful it must have been to be able to create such beauty and marvelous work. I wonder if Michaeangelo was actually impressed with his own work as many artists are their own worse critics. To say I am impressed is an understatement. Thanks for sharing this the legend also.

  11. Cesare DeLuca

    Regarding the “horns”: I got a different answer when I asked a Jewish
    traveler with me. He said these were rays of light, depicting God’s
    “conversations” with Moses.

  12. Read the Old Testament Book of Exodus 34:28-35 for details about Moses’ countenance after he spent 40 days with the Lord God of Israel. “…the skin of his face shone”. Another translation could be “rays of light”.

  13. S Spector

    I’ve seen the statue a few times & one thing that I could never reconcile is how Michaelangelo, who did such a perfect job on the anatomy, would ever think a human had horns, so I would have to disregard that explaination. As to “rays of light”… they don’t look like rays either. (They do in fact, to me, look like he meant horns???)
    The breasts on the female statues in the Medici Chapel in Florence (ex. “the Night”) look like he had never seen a live woman’s breasts though!


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