(ca. 1513-1516; height ~92.5 inches) San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome
The powerful and majestic figure of Moses is depicted during the most important moment in his life. The plates of the Ten Commandments indicate that he has come from Mount Sinai bearing God’s laws for the people of Israel. This is the last of Michelangelo’s sculptures created for the tomb commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1506.
Because Julius wanted his monument to be exemplary, Michelangelo planned a burial chamber that would be a truly architectonic structure, with statues of the Old and New Testament figures at different levels. The figure of Julius was positioned at the top, and allegorical figures of the arts and the virtues would be positioned beneath and around him.
However, the monument was changed frequently because of difficulties with the Pope’s heirs and, when finally finished in 1542-1545, it was greatly reduced in comparison with the original and placed not in St. Peter’s cathedral but in this smaller church where Julius had been cardinal.
Provenance of Michelangelo’s Moses
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni
(Florence 1475 – 1564 Rome)
Moses (Tomb of Pope Julius II)
Selected Reference Literature:
Condivi, Vita di Michelangelo Buonarroti…1553; Ludwig Goldscheider. Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, and Architecture, 1975; George Bull, Michelangelo: A Biography, 1995; Robert Coughlan, The World of Michelangelo 1475-1564, 1972; Nathaniel Harris, The Art of Michelangelo, 1983; Fred Kleiner and Christian Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: Vol 2, Twelfth Edition Volume II, 2005; Georg Brandes, Michelangelo: His Life, His Times, His Era, 1963; Georgia Illetschko, I Michelangelo, 2004; Charles de Tolnay, Michelangelo: Sculptor, Painter, Architect, 1975.
In 1505 Michelangelo would once again leave Florence for Rome, at the request of Pope Julius II. “It was Giuliano da San Gallo who had called the Pope’s attention to Michelangelo, whom he had known ever since the days the half-grown youth enjoyed the favor of Lorenzo de Medici.” Michelangelo and Julius II would have many discussions about his tomb, as it was very important for a papal leader to leave behind a legacy. In April of 1505 the pope would approve one of Michelangelo’s drawings for the tomb, and in a quote, Michelangelo said that:
“The papal mausoleum would surpass in beauty and pride, richness of ornamentation, and abundance of statuary, every ancient Imperial tomb.”
It was agreed that the tomb would be finished within five years and that the tomb would consist of a large marble edifice and include over forty statues.
At the outset of the planning for the tomb it was agreed that it would be placed inside St. Peter’s Basilica. But at this time the church was dilapidated and needed to be restored. Pope Julius would hire the architect Bramante for the new St. Peters, and lose interest in the tomb he commissioned from Michelangelo. It was clear that Julius became strangely uninterested in the tomb, advanced no money to Michelangelo for expenses and soon Michelangelo would see less and less of the Pope. In 1506 Michelangelo is invited to dinner with Pope. He overhears the Pontiff tell the jewelry maker that “he did not wish to spend one baiocco more on small stones or large ones.” This was no doubt a play on words and a subtle comment to Michelangelo.
Shortly after this dinner, Michelangelo went to Julius to obtain payment for all the marble he had quarried for the project and the work done so far and Julius refused to see Michelangelo. Julius had insulted Michelangelo so much, that he left Rome by horseback for Florence without alerting the Pope. When San Gallo wrote to Michelangelo to ask why he had left Rome in such a hurry, he explained that his patience had run out. In Michelangelo’s eyes the Pope had humiliated him. In the letter Michelangelo describes the incident that would lead to his departure.
“I asked the Pope for part of what I needed in order to pursue the work. His Holiness answered that I should return on Monday. And I did return on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday…Finally on Friday morning I was sent away, or rather driven out, and the person who sent me packing said he knew me but he was under orders.”
He goes onto tell San Gallo to give a message to the Pope.
“Let his Holiness understand that I am disposed more than I ever was to pursue the work, and if he himself is absolutely determined to build the tomb it should not annoy him wherever I do it…So if his Holiness wishes to proceed, let him make me over the deposit here in Florence…And I would send the things as I made them…so that His Holiness would be able to enjoy them just as much as if I had been in Rome.”
According to Condivi:
“during the months Michelangelo stayed in Florence three papal briefs were sent to the Signori, full of threats, commanding that he should be sent back by fair means or by force.”
In 1506 Michelangelo would go to Bologna to meet with Julius as the pope was there to occupy the city in the course of his war against Perugia and Bologna. While in Bologna Michelangelo begs the Pontiff for his actions and hasty retreat from Florence. The Pope pardons Michelangelo and gives him a commission to create a bronze statue of himself to commemorate his exploits as a successful warrior pope.
In 1513, four months after the unveiling of the Sistine Chapel, Pope Julius II died. Soon after his death Michelangelo would sign a new contract, with the heir of Julius II, his nephew Cardinal Aginensis. It would be at this time that Michelangelo would have one of his longest periods of uninterrupted work. From 1513 to 1516 he worked on the tomb for Julius II almost without interruption. He started to carve the famous statue of Moses and Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave. Michelangelo also did much of the structural and architectural decoration for the base of the tomb.
After Julius’ death, Michelangelo was “forced to reduce the scale of the project step-by-step until, in 1542, a final contract specified a simple wall tomb with fewer than one-third of the originally planned figures.” The statue of Moses would eventually be the grand masterpiece of the tomb, and considered by many to be one of the artists most beautiful works.
Moses was a figure that Michelangelo had always been fascinated with; as he was a legendary prophet that was the liberator and founder of his people. Michelangelo chose to show us the seated Moses from the front, with his head turned to one side.
“Moses’ flaring anger at the faithlessness of his people provides Michelangelo with the motive for the contrast between the right and left halves of the body. There is in this figure an overwhelming surge of energy not even remotely equaled by any subsequent representation of Moses.”
The horns on top of Moses head were placed there to be a symbol of “light”, a translation from the Hebrew bible that would be misinterpreted throughout the Renaissance. The horns referred to as the “horns of Illumination,” were probably used by Michelangelo to show that Moses had been bestowed divine favor immediately after he received the Tables of Law from the Lord on Mt. Sinai.
According to Vasari:
“There was no other work to be seen, whether ancient or modern, which could rival the [Moses].” Vasari goes on to say that the picturesque treatment of the hair “might lead one to believe that the chisel had become a brush.”
The end result of the finished Tomb of Julius II would not be finished until 1545 and was a “mockery of Julius’ megalomaniac conception” Moses was originally intended as one of several statues that were to be made for upper level of the tomb. In the end, Moses became the central figure for the scaled back tomb. The tomb does not resided in the originally decided St.Peters, and instead was placed in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli.
The famed phrase of the “tragedy of the tomb,” refers not to the large effort put forth by Michelangelo, but the waste of time and energy on the endless negotiations, revised plans and the agony of his worry about the projects details.