This very famous Michelangelo statue from the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, shows Moses with the most exuberant and lush beard, which he seems almost to caress with his left hand, which is at the same time holding the stone tablets of law. However he also has two horns sprouting from his head.
Images of Moses with horns were used in manuscripts, too. This delightful miniature in a British Library manuscript of a rather youthful God, possibly a golden angel peeping over his right shoulder and clearly in a blue sky, is explaining the proper forms of sacrifice to a rather young horned Moses (unbearded, unlike the wonderfully soft curly bearded locks of Michelangelo’s Moses), a young Aaron – shown as a Bishop with his crozier and mitre – and an attendant.
A favourite manuscript, the twelfth-century (about 1355) Bury Bible, now in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, has magnificent miniatures (although some are almost 30 cm, one foot square, so not so mini, though more on this in a later blog) painted by ‘the incomparable Master Hugo’. This is one is two-storey and shows Moses, in the upper part he is instructing the Israelites using the recently received laws, and below that, Moses is pointing out the birds and animals Jews can and cannot eat by law. The Jews are recognised by their Jewish hats – brims with a conical middle part. Moses has bright white, very obvious horns. Note, too, the stunning borders, intricate colourful patterns on a black background which are very characteristic of Master Hugo. Another design device he uses is to paint a plain dark green rectangle behind the main figures, which focuses the viewer on the central action. Master Hugo’s palette and painting style is quite simply stunning (more on this later too).
So why should Moses be shown with horns in this way? Was he born with horns? Other images of Moses, before he went up on Mount Sinai show Moses un-horned, so it was when he went to get the tablets of law from God that the horns appeared.
There are some theories about this. First, when Jerome was translating the Old and New Testaments into Latin Vulgate in the fourth century, it is thought that he may have mistranslated the Hebrew word qaran – meaning to shine – to qeren – meaning horn. As Hebrew was usually written without vowels, this confusion is understandable. Horns can also be quite shiny, so context is quite important. This theory seems perfectly reasonable and is one that many find very plausible.
However, when Jerome translated this text into Latin his words were: splendor eius ut lux erit cornua in manibus eius ibi abscondita est fortitudo eius (Exodus 34), which can be translated as: His brightness shall be as the light: horns are in his hands; There is his strength hid.
Now the horns seem to be not on Moses’ head but in his hands!
Others have thought that again there is no confusion by Jerome. The sun’s rays can be considered as horns in shape, and horns can be polished until they shine and reflect the light.
Some feel that horns are a symbol of ancient mystery. Greek and Roman gods, such as Pan (seen right with Daphnis), Triton, Dionysos, and Bacchus were horned, and so the special god-like attributes of those with horns – those who were divine and honoured – may have been applied by artists to Moses once he had received the tablets of law from God.
On a recent trip to Rome, I was delighted to see in the Piazza di Spagna, close to the Spanish Steps, at the base of the Colonna dell’Immacolata, a statue of Moses where the sculptor had decided to cover every eventuality. Here is Moses holding the tablets of law and with horns on his head, but the horns are shown as beams of light as well!