Sometimes I recall walking down a narrow aisle in a dim light. Ahead of me is a box, the front made of glass, lit, and containing chains that may have been used to bind the apostle Peter. Then, turning to the right, there He is. And every time, my breath is taken away.
My recollection of San Pietro in Vincoli is obviously flawed. What I remember is a small dark church, but when I look at pictures I see that it is bigger, actually more grand than my memory gives it credit for. Maybe it’s because there was some renovation and construction going on inside at the time, or maybe it’s because I was jet-lagged and just coming inside after being out in the bright Italian sun. Or maybe it’s because Michelangelo’s work is so overpowering as to completely dwarf the building in which it is held.
The statue of Moses was not originally intended to be housed in the church known in English as Saint Peter in Chains. In fact the final product of which Moses is a part is a massively scaled down version of what was going to be a gigantic and amazing structure, a tomb for Pope Julius the Second, and housed in none other than St. Peter’s Basilica. Moses was to be but one of almost 40 other statues for the three tiered sepulcher. This was a commission that could live up to the imagination, ambition and talent of the extraordinary Michelangelo and he was up for it.
My relationship with Moses (beyond your basic Bible stories) began when I was about seven years old. My parents had just returned from a trip to Egypt and Israel, first stopping in Rome. They brought home a book full of pictures of the astounding city with all of its wonders, and two small marble replicas: the Pieta and Moses, both by Michelangelo. The Pieta was placed on our piano. Moses started out on a bookshelf, and eventually made his way up to Salt Lake City to my dad’s office, where I would see him sitting seriously, contemplating the great matters of the universe when I went to visit. Even in miniature he seemed a little fearsome. And why a prophet of God would have horns on his head was a mystery to me.
Pope Julius II, who I can only imagine had a huge ego and an incredible opinion of his holy self, had asked Michelangelo to create the masterpiece that would house his body once his spirit had left this earth. However, the commission was put on hold. Some speculate that funds were diverted to the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s itself. Having imagined and even sketched out this spectacular piece of creation, Michelangelo abandoned Rome for Florence. He was eventually lured back by Julius to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which was signed upon completion by “Michelangelo the Sculptor.”
Though later on, when the pope died, the contract was reduced to a shadow of what had originally been agreed upon, the great monument was never abandoned completely. The sculptor turned painter turned sculptor again, and unleashed his talent on what must have been a massive piece of marble to create an awesome work.
Living in the Paris suburbs for sometime, I had ample opportunity to see many statues, including the famous Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory (a.k.a. Nike) at the Louvre. My favorite Paris museum, the Musee D’Orsay has so many marble statues it’s easy to become almost blind to them. They are nice, some of them lovely, but their creators were no Michelangelo.
The statue of Moses has a soul. There is a palpable energy about it that reached out and grabbed me and I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stand there for the rest of the day just soaking it in. I wanted to know how it could be humanly possible to create such a work. That someone could create such a life like, larger than life, creature from stone is incredible to me. The detail of the muscles, of the placement of the hands and fingers, his kneecaps, for heaven sakes, are amazing to look at. Due to a mistranslation of the Bible in Italian, the horns which caused me such consternation are supposed to be beams of light.
Many talk about the smoldering wrath of Moses, the controlled anger in his face and body as he holds the stone tablets, but that is not what struck me as I stood before him. I would talk about power, definitely. I would talk about a terrible strength. And an awesome beauty.
I have never seen a picture that does the sculpture justice. They all come across as flat. But this image from a postcard we picked up in Rome manages to illustrate something, since it focuses on the detail which makes Moses so astounding, instead of trying to capture the entire piece.
It has been almost four years since I stood in Rome, marveling at the creations that were before me, almost four years since I stepped into that church with anticipation and was not disappointed. As I analyze my reaction to Moses, which was not just a response of the mind, but of my whole soul, I think I realize why I am so moved by the work of Michelangelo.
Michelangelo’s work is not a pagan worship of man alone in his glory. Nor is it the embodiment of man’s weaknesses and frailties. The wonder of Michelangelo’s art lies in the fact that in his recreations of the human body, he manages to direct us firmly to the majesty and power of God, the Creator of man in the beginning.