Main page: Moses by Michelangelo

San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

  • Eline Ronde - Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences
  • Liana Wobben - Faculty of Science and Engineering

Moses in the tomb of Julius II, in the
San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome [11]

The Moses is a sculpture made by Michelangelo Buonarrotti (1475-1564) [1]. It was intended for the tomb of the former pope Julius II (1443-1513), in the Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. Comparing the patriarch Moses to Julius - and thereby to the whole papacy - was an effort to regain the faith of the people in a time in which they started questioning the legitimacy of the power of the pope and the church.

Julius commissioned Michelangelo to build his tomb in 1505 [1]. However, due to various reasons (including other projects of Michelangelo and the death of Julius II) the original project for the tomb was never carried out. After lots of changes and simplifications, Michelangelo finished the tomb very late in his life, in 1545. Moreover, it was not located in Saint Peter's Basilica, but in the San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) in Rome.

Michelangelo made Moses in a culturally flourishing, but moving time. This time was characterized by a rising humanistic view and was later known as the (High) Renaissance [2]. People started to think for themselves and question the temporal and the spiritual power of the papacy. The pope was a secular leader, but also the religious leader of the Church. These powers were connected to each other, but they were both challenged in different ways. Some reasons to question the legitimacy of the temporal power were the forgery of the donation of Constantine [3] and the leadership of the corrupt pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) [4]. People were worried that the pope had too much political authority. With bibles available, people started having their own interpretations of the bible. They began thinking critically about the spiritual power of the pope by questioning if the interpretations given by the Catholic Church could be wrong.

This downfall of faith in two different aspects of the papal power was a huge problem for Julius. He knew that the faith in the papacy needed to be restored. In the bible, Moses is a strong leader who stands close to God and the people. Seeing the sculpture of Moses, would reassure the people that they had to trust their leader, their pope. The people would remember that Moses was the temporal and spiritual leader of the people of Israel. Even though the people of Israel did not always listen to Moses, he did eventually bring them to the Promised Land. The tragedy, that the project of the tomb turned out to be, learns us that cancelling the questioning was easier said than done. Due to the meddling of Julius and other difficult circumstances, working on the tomb became a nightmare for Michelangelo. The big and large-scaled problems of the papacy worsened and could not be solved by this piece of art. Even though the Moses is a fascinating sculpture, the attempt to cancel the questioning of the papal power was unsuccessful.

1. The problems and the questioning of the papal power
2. Moses as a solution to the problems
2.1 The bible figure Moses
2.2 Ethos, pathos and logos
3. The realization of the project
3.1 The tragedy of the tomb
3.2 The effect of Moses and the tomb

The problems and the questioning of the papal power

Julius II in the Expulsion of
Heliodorus from the temple by
Raphael (1512-1514) [12]

At the start of the sixteenth century there were multiple serious problems that had to be tackled. First of all, there was a growing political problem. When pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to design a tomb, the power of the Catholic Church was reducing because of the Renaissance and the rising humanistic view. The people started to think for themselves and develop their own opinion. They did not want to take everything a leader said for granted. 'Ad Fontes', meaning 'back to the sources', was an important humanistic phrase. People used the bible as the most fundamental source of their religion. It was easier for the people to develop their own views and interpretations of the bible, because Italian bibles became available. Around 1440, 'De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio' by Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) began circulating. This essay proved that the donation of Constantine was a forgery [2].

The 95 Theses of Luther [13]

During the making of the tomb the political problems worsened. The essay by Valla was formally published and printed in 1517 and became popular among Protestants [3]. In 1534, Cromwell published an English translation of the essay which caused rebellion in other countries as well. The Reformation of the church accelerated when Luther (1483-1546) turned against the Catholic Church [5]. He spread his 95-theses in which he explained why selling indulgences was wrong and questioned the papal power. He nailed his theses to the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg and the document quickly distributed through Germany.

Julius II also had personal problems. A big problem was caused by his predecessor, Alexander VI. Alexander was very corrupt and is now known as one of the worst popes in history. The people were dissatisfied by the papacy because of his actions and pope Julius II had to clear the reputation of the popes. Julius II did this by being close to the people as a general in the army, but also by being close to God by hearing Mass almost every day [6]. Furthermore he commissioned Michelangelo, Raphael (1483-1520) and Bramante (1444-1514) to make their greatest masterpieces [7]. The artworks did not only show the power of the Catholic Church, but also made sure Julius II would be remembered as a patron of arts [6]. Julius II wanted a huge free-standing tomb in the back of the Saint Peter's Basilica to show his great leadership to the people and to answer all the questions on what a leader of the church should be like. Beside the problems of Pope Julius II, the personal problems of Michelangelo also played a role in the making of the tomb. These problems will be discussed in the page 'The tragedy of the tomb'.

Moses as a solution to the problems

Moses can be seen as an attempt to cancel the questioning of the legitimacy of the papal power. For the topic of his sculpture, Julius decided to stay close to the bible, 'ad fontes'. But in the meanwhile, Julius wanted to go further than that, through art. This attempt to convince the people through art can be divided in three fundamental rhetoric elements.

The bible figure Moses

Drawing of Moses as the leader of the Isrealites [14]

It has become clear that Julius II wanted to cancel the questioning of the legitimacy of the papal power through his tomb, and through Moses. The question remains why the bible figure Moses was chosen for this important task. The book Exodus can give us an answer to that question. The sculpture is based on a story in the Bible (or at that time: the Vulgate). The book Exodus describes how the Israelites left Egypt to travel to the land of Canaan (the Promised Land), led by Moses. During this 40-day-trip, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Moses had to climb mountain Sinai to receive the two stone tablets that contained the law. When Moses came back from the mountain, he saw the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. He got furious and threw the tablets on the ground, breaking them into pieces. After Moses begged God to forgive the sins of the Israelites, God gave Moses permission to go up the Mountain again and receive a second set of Tablets. There are different opinions about the moment of the story that the Moses by Michelangelo represents. It is probably the moment that Moses returned from the mountain the second time, which is described in Exodus 34:

"29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai [8]."

The sculpture of Moses has two horns on his head, due to a wrong translation. The Hebrew word 'qeren' was translated as 'a horn' in the vulgate, but the actual meaning is 'a ray of light'.

Ethos, pathos and logos

The determined look of Moses [15]

According to Aristotle (384-322 BCE), there are three fundamental elements of rhetoric, which are used in art in order to convince the audience of a certain statement. The attempts to cancel the questioning of the legitimacy of the papal power through Moses can be divided in these three elements. The first element, ethos, refers to personal character and qualities [9]. This concerns the speaker, Julius II, as well as Moses. Julius wanted to be remembered as a good Christian man (with spiritual power) and a strong leader (with temporal power). In the bible, Moses is a figure who has a huge spiritual and temporal power. He is known for his good leadership and was chosen by God. He stood close to God and close to his people. By comparing the ethos of Moses to himself, Julius hoped the people would see him as a good leader, spiritual and temporal. That would make the people accept Julius and thereby have more faith in the whole papacy. The element 'pathos' stirs the emotions of the audience. The active position and clear facial expressions make Moses look almost alive, which makes the audience feel the story. Making a statue of Moses that looked so real, was a way to play with the emotions of the audience. The serious, but determined expression on the face of Moses carries passion. These emotions contribute to the persuasiveness of the sculpture, because now the audience does not only understand, but also feel the importance of a good and passionate leader. In the last element, logos, logic is very important. A claim should be supported by facts. The words of the bible are these facts. In the time of Julius, the people believed what was written in the bible. The Moses should be convincing because it was based on a real story. Moses lead the people to the promised land. In this way, glory and good leadership was linked to Julius ll. By putting Moses on the tomb of Julius II people would think of Julius II as a good Christian leader. The chosen moment of the story is important. Because Moses is represented with the ten commandments Michelangelo does not only refer to Moses as a great leader, but also as a law giver. The catholic church is built on these commandments. The people could trust the papacy, because the popes are leaders that lead the people according to the law given by God.

The realization of the project

It is clear what problems Julius wanted to solve through Moses and how he was planning to do this. Studying the realization process of the tomb gives an insight into the tomb's effect on the questioning of the legitimacy of the papal power.

The tragedy of the tomb

The tomb of Julius II [16]

Julius was aware of the seriousness of the problems of the papacy and he felt lots of pressure to fix them, but they turned out to be hard to solve. He became overenthusiastic and insecure at the same time. He wanted to change the plans repeatedly. Eventually, they became smaller and smaller. The project was a big nightmare for Michelangelo. What was supposed to be a free-standing tomb with 47 sculptures eventually became a simple wall tomb with seven sculptures [10]. The details of this tragedy are described in the page 'The tragedy of the tomb'.

The effect of Moses and the tomb

Julius (and Michelangelo) tried to cancel the questioning of the papal power, by the making of the tomb, in a rhetorical way. The problems Julius was facing were very big and large-scaled. People in other countries were also questioning the legitimacy of the papal power. Despite the hard effort of Julius and Michelangelo, the attempt to cancel the questioning was unsuccessful. The eventual tomb was simple and can not be compared with the original plan. The problems in the society worsened and people started criticizing the papacy more and more, which resulted in the reformation. However, the question is how many influence one piece of art could have had. There was a lot of disturbance among the people at the time of the commissioning. This disturbance built up to the reformation, an enormous international movement. It makes sense that these problems affected the building of the tomb. The tomb might not be as pretty as it was supposed to be, but it is a good learning example for how the problems of the society can affect art. And even though the tomb is small and slightly disappointing, it still contains one very special sculpture: the Moses!


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