A gem of art history by Michelangelo within San Pietro in Vincoli, nestled in the heart of Rome
Located on the Oppian Hill, steps from the Colosseum, sits the beautiful Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains Church). The church is home to the famous statue Michelangelo’s Moses, or Mosè di Michelangelo. The Moses statue is one piece of a larger commission for the tomb of Pope Julius II, also located in the building. When you enter the basilica, as is common to Roman churches, you are met with astounding artwork and architecture.
A traditional church, but stunning nonetheless, San Pietro in Vincoli is adjourned with ancient marble pillars, delicate and detailed masonry, and breathtaking frescos atop the main ceiling and on the ceilings of the Apse and Transept, painted by Giovanni Battista Parodi and Jacopo Coppi.
This space is definitely one worth seeing; it houses art worthy of museums and warranting their place in history books. Best of all, as with all Italian Basilicas – entrance is free! I highly recommend a visit.
Michelangelo’s Moses statue is the highlight of this destination. Originally Michelangelo had been commissioned to make over 40 statues for a massive shrine as a tomb to Pope Julius II. This commission began in 1505 and the tomb took over 40 years to complete, well after the Pope had passed. The final product wound up being significantly smaller than what was originally planned but the moses statue still steals the spotlight of the entire church. The marble giant is seated in a majestic throne. He bears a solemn expression, with one hand on the marble tablets containing the commandments he had just received from God on Mt. Sinai. Despite being made of stone Moses’s features are supple and his hair silky. It appears very human. This statue is truly a profound work of art – Michelangelo’s technique is truly spectacular and demonstrates skill that surpasses even modern technology.
Interpretations of Michelangelo’s Moses
Two noticeable features of this masterpiece are Moses’s stern expression, and the presence of two horns protruding from his head. Sigmund Freud associates the stern expression to the portion of the Old Testament, Exodus 32, when Moses returns from Mt. Sinai with the ten commandments to find that the Israelites had abandoned their path and prayed to a false idol of a golden calf. While Moses feels anger and wants to smash the tablets, in this depiction he is seated.
Freud believes that despite his urge for vengeance, he ignores the temptation. His expression is meant to show his restraint, anger, and disappointment in his people. He is seated to guard the tomb, as his new role.
Another view from Malcom MacMillan and Peter Swales suggest that the statue is referencing Exodus 33 and 34 when Moses returns with new blank tablets. He had made the tablets after smashing the first set. The troubled expression on the statue shows Moses’s uncertainty with his own standing and that of his people after they had made such a massive blunder and he made the bold decision to demand God’s forgiveness.
Why does Michelangelo’s Moses have horns?
One of the most alluring aspects of Michelangelo’s Moses are the horns sprouting from Moses’s head. It turns out the reason behind this feature traces back to a mistranslation of a Hebrew description of Moses in the old testament. In Hebrew, the phrases “radiated light” and “grew horns” are very similar. The two words share the same root and Hebrew scripture does not include vowels, so when the Torah was translated to Latin the error was made. This led to a theme of medieval artworks of Moses frequently having horns.
Piazza San Pietro in Vincoli
Daily 8am-12:30pm and 3-6pm