Wednesday, February 25, 2004

STILL MORE ON MOSES' HORNS. Larry Swain e-mails:
Thank you very much for posting my points on Moses' horns the other day. I would like to respond, perhaps a final time, to Gerald Honigman's points and suggest some bibliography for those interested in pursuing the matter further.

Gerald writes: "While scholars, artists and others may interpret this sculpture as they will and assume Michelangelo's understanding of the fine details of the differing translations and attempts to portray a variety of ideas via his Moses, my main point stays the same"

Here I will raise a number of points:
a. merely restating the position does not make it any more true
b. Gerald has passed by the import of my comments. The point I sought to make was that Michaelangelo was certainly NOT weighing in his mind the various semantic options. There really was one option available to him: the Latin Vulgate. Remember that Michey worked on this sculpture 1513-1515: this is before any of the great vernacular
translations, before Erasmus' Greek NT, before the Reformation. Michaelangelo knew the Vulgate, the Vulgate has "cornutam faciem". There are few options for Michaelangelo here. So no fine details of translations are needed, only a basic knowledge of the story of the ten commandments in Latin, which he would have known as an educated man in the Renaissance.
c. And as if this were not enough, let me mention once again that not only does the Vulgate invite such a depiction of Moses, and had done so as the principle Scriptural source for over 1100 years before Michaelangelo, but we have a long, ubiquitous, and very common understanding of Moses with portruding horns on his head--commentaries, sermons in Latin and the vernacular languages, sculpture, stained glass, manuscript art, church art and sculpture....a horned Moses, sometimes with two "horned" groups of rays, sometimes with horns of light (which in sculpture is difficult to depict), but by the time of Michaelangelo again we have some 1100 years of such depictions of Moses, and very little else. This is difficult to set aside.

Gerald continues with a lengthy discussion again on the unfortunate anti-Semitic depictions of Jews. I don't deny any of this demonization of Jews. Its a matter of historical record. What I do deny is the connection made by Gerald that this is the necessary background for Michey's Moses. As I pointed out last time, figures from the Christian Old Testament are NOT lumped in with the Jews of Jesus' and subsequent eras. The heroes of the Bible are commemorated in church calendars and have "saints" days, they are studied and provide exempla for Christian belief and practice, they enjoy special priveledge in the liturgy where the works of the Old Testament are read and preached on and commented on. The figures of the Old Testament are types of Christ and so not only prophesy about him, but the events of their lives become prophesies too, and so Moses' shining face with horns is read as a prophecy of Jesus'transfiguration. In fact, in the famous, and so very influential, story of the Harrowing of Hell, it is these Old Testament figures, MOSES included, that Christ comes down and delivers from Hell!

Now what Gerald's position would have to lead us to is that Michaelangelo and company rejected that understanding and use of the Old Testament and that suddenly Moses, rather than as a type of Christ, is without preamble or comment understood as standing in for Jewry. I don't find such a change in perspective in the literature, not even in the Reformation.

This brings me to Gerald's most interesting point, that the masses would have seen horns on Moses' head as "devil's horns" and thus that all Jews, including Moses, are some devil spawn. But would the masses have seen horns on Moses in this fashion? Frankly, no. I've already given the reasons: 1) Old Testament figures were pre-Christian Christian heroes and were not lumped together with the villified Jews. 2) there was a long, common, all but omnipresent tradition of describing and depicting Moses with horns.

Let me take a couple of off the top of my head examples. There's a Botticelli painting that depicts the rebellion and punishment of Korath and company. In this painting Moses is depicted as having two horns of light rays emanating from his forehead. All the other people in the painting are Jews. NONE of them has horns. Not one.

Let me skip backwards to a 12th century Cistercian mss that has an illumination of Moses teaching the 10 Commandments to the children of Israel. Once again we have a crowd of "Jews" gathered around Moses but the only figure with horns is Moses, horns colored white presumably to signify light.

There are myriads more, but the point is simply that the average person in the street going into church, passing statuary on the street, looking at stained glass, hearing sermons on Moses and the ten commandments and the giving of the law etc would have been quite accustomed to seeing and hearing about Moses with horns, and knowing that it was Moses with horns of light, not a devil spawned Jew.

On the issue of Michey's not including horns on other Jewish figures, we need to remember that we are not just talking about David here--there are sculptures of Jeremiah and other Old Testament prophets as there are also on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And in not one of these cases are there horns. Only on Moses, which I suggest is best explained by not only the choice of words in the Vulgate, but by a hoary tradition of depicting and describing Moses in such a fashion.

Finally, I'll make an additional point that I did not make before. That point is that we need to look at the context. Michey was commissioned by the pope to sculpt an appropriate tomb for him, a very large and expensive tomb was planned with the sculpture of Moses as its centerpiece. Before M completed it, the pope died, and his family approached M about a smaller, less expensive ediface to the pope. This is what we now have located in the church "St Peter in Chains" which is were the Horned Moses is. To sustain Gerald's position we must ourselves why Michaelangelo would risk offending his patron's family and lose a very good commission by making an insulting sculpture the centerpiece of a "tomb" commemorating a pope? While Michey often had no use for the church and disagreed with the church, and even ran into some difficulties on certain paintings in the Chapel, nonetheless, I don't think that he would go so far as to put a demonized Moses/Jew as the centerpiece of that large memorial to the Pope just to tweak a nose or two It just doesn't fit the context of his creation or even of his personality.

I in no way wish to minimize the horror of anti-semitism in Christian society, nor its theological justifications in those circles. However, I will say that this is not a case of anti-semitism, but simply a piece of fabulous art depicting an important and lauded figure commemorating appropriately another kind of law-giver, in a typical and well-wrought fashion.

To end at last, I will point to Ruth Mellinkoff _The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought_ to start, and of course opening any Medieval or Renaissance art book will show a number of such depictions of Moses with his horns.

UPDATE: David Nishimura of Cronaca holds the same view.

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