Horned Moses

Michelangelo’s statue of Moses has horns, thanks to a mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate Bible.

Michelangelo's horned Moses statue
Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Vulgate, a 4th century CE translation of the bible into Latin, has this to say about Moses’ return from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments:

Cumque descenderet Moyses de monte Sinai, tenebat duas tabulas testimonii, et ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies sua ex consortio sermonis Domini.

Vulgate, Exodus 34:29

In modern biblical translations, this verse is translated as follows:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.

NIV, Exodus 34:29

The key word here is “radiant” – it conjures an image of rays of light that shine out from Moses’ brow following his divine encounter. But in the Latin translation, the equivalent word is “cornuta.” Not radiating light, but sprouting horns. Moses, thanks to his brush with God, returns from the mountain with… horns.

So, the original word in Hebrew is related to the word for horns. But it was almost certainly used here in a metaphorical sense – a radiant light that looks like horns, not literal keratin protuberance like a goat. Pretty much all translations use that sense (even King James goes with “Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone”).

Despite this, many Medieval works of art give Moses literal horns:

Horned Moses in Reims
Fab5669, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Another horned Moses
Morio60, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Horned Moses in an illuminated manuscript
William de Brailes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Horned Moses at the Louvre
Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Not every Medieval Moses has horns – in fact, most of them don’t. But there are enough horned Moses images out there to make this a funny footnote in the history of Western art. The most famous horned Moses is, of course, the statue that Michelangelo carved for the tomb of Pope Julius II. It’s a beautiful work: stately, distant, but not without concern and empathy for his flock. Either that, or concern for the horns growing out of his head.

Michelangelo's horned Moses statue
Palickap, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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