Saturday, February 21, 2004

MOSES' HORNS AGAIN. Gerald A Honigman replies:
In response to Jim Davila's post disputing Gerald A.�Honigman's association of Michelangelo's horns on Moses with the Devil, please consider�that the idea�and image of the Devil Jew had been well ingrained into the average Christian's mind since John's Gospel and was quite common for over a millennium prior to Michelangelo's era.��It's no stretch to suggest that�the sculptor�was aware of this as well. Being the great artist that he was, he certainly also knew that those extra-cranial growths would not be seen as rays of light but as horns.

Now, how were the vast majority of people--already familiar with the Jew as Satan's offspring (earliest picture of a Jew in England entitled, "Aaron--Son Of The Devil")--going to interpret a horny'll forgive the expression?

Despite all of the scholarly hot air --which I've been aware of for decades--debating whether these were rays of light mistranslated into horns instead, the likely explanation...that I've pondered for decades of my own� that Michey saw Moses, the great Lawgiver, still as a Jew...and Jews were commonly associated with the Devil by Christians, Church Fathers, and Christian writings from the getgo. I find it a bit na�ve that people would ignore this and insist, instead, that it was the sculptor's pondering translations of words that led him to place horns--that he knew would be interpreted by the masses as they always had vis-�-vis Jews--on Moses' head.

Let's just say that we don't know why Michey chose to do that...but odds go with about 1,500 years of Christian stereotyping the Jew as the Devil's child. Unless we have an explanation given by he himself that contradicts this, I've seen nothing which leads me to believe the wishful thinking of some scholars. As Theodore Herzl found out while covering the Dreyfus Trial in France, even the "enlightened" could be anti-Semitic and/or at least harbor the same old negative stereotypes and ingrained teaching. That led him to write Der Judenstat in response...and the rest is history as they say. Modern political Zionism was born...and Israel reborn...within a half century.

He then includes links and quotes from numerous sources to show that there's a history of demonizing of Jews in Christianity (which I accept) and a couple of quotes on interpreting Michelangelo's horns on Moses: see (section 5.2) and (sections V and VI).

What I was arguing in my nuancing of his comment ("Hundreds of years later, Michelangelo placed Devil's horns on his famous sculpture of Moses") was that the horns on Michelangelo's Moses were not a good example of Christian demonization of Jews, because the horns come from a (possibly viable) interpretation of a biblical passage about Moses which was actually accepted in at least some Jewish circles, as attested by Aquila's translation and a midrash, and that M. himself would have known it from the Latin Vulgate. Mr. Honigman replies that M. certainly would also have known the demonic Jew meme and he should have known what would be the interpretation of the Christian masses and the effect on them.

These are good points. The origins of the Moses-with-horns motif do not involce demonizing him, but how the motif was transmitted by Christians in this period is a different issue. I suspect M. wouldn't have thought or cared much about what the masses thought, but he certainly would have been concerned for the interpretation of his patrons. He and they would have known their Latin Bible but they also would have known the tradition of Jews as diabolical, so this may well have been at least a subtext of the portrayal of Moses. I'm no specialist in the Renaissance, and if any readers know of anything M. himself said or any comments by contemporaries which would illuminate what he or they took to be the meaning of the horns, I would be obliged if you would pass them on to me. Also � a not insignificant question � can anyone tell me when the devil started to be portrayed with a pair of horns? I assume it was well before this but I don't know.

As for the larger question of what to make of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ if it turns out to be as bad as some people fear, I refer you to the comments of Jack Miles which I cited yesterday and which I think are very sane.

I am grateful to Jerry Honigman for taking the time to comment on my post.

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