Whenever visitors arrive at the Church of St. Peter-in-Chains in Rome, they are struck with the grandeur of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses but ultimately are vexed by his appearance. Why does Moses have horns on his head? In our contemporary context, horned figures often represent devils and demons. Most docents or tour guides would immediately launch into an explanation involving a mistranslation in the Bible. But the history of a horned Moses is actually much more complicated and contextual.
It begins with the Bible. In the Book of Exodus, Moses receives the law after seeing God’s glory. The God of Israel states that Moses could not see his face and live. Rather Moses is told to stand in the cleft of a rock. As God passes by, Moses sees his back, not his face. When Moses descends from Sinai with the two tablets of the law, he is visibly changed. The key phrase is that “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29, ESV).
In the late fourth century, the Christian monk Jerome translated the Old Testament from Hebrew and the New Testament from Greek into Latin. His translation became known as the Vulgate. In the original Hebrew, the word employed to connote this change in Moses’s appearance is qeren. In other books of the Hebrew Bible, such as Habakkuk 3:4, qeren indicates “rays,” such as “rays of light.” Jerome translates the phrase as cornuta esset facies, literally “(his) face was horned.”
It is debatable whether Jerome had any malicious intent in using the word cornuta (“horned”), but it seems unlikely. He probably used the best Latin word at his disposal to insinuate that Moses had been visibly altered by his communion with God. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew text from the third century BCE, does not use a similar word, instead using dedoxastai to imply that Moses’s face was “glorified.”
Words matter. Jerome’s translation became the most popular version of the Bible in the Christian West. The word choice in Exodus moved from the metaphorical to the literal in the medieval period. However, even then, some theologians interpreted the horns of Moses in Exodus as horns of light, likely closer to Jerome’s intended meaning.
But with the appearance of a Moses with horns on his head in Christian art, a shift began toward a derogative, anti-Jewish interpretation of Moses’s horns. This shift is evident by examining the context of medieval Europe, especially the friction between Christians and Jews. One only need look at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that ordered all Jews to be identified by a different style of dress in public and to not venture out during Holy Week. Christian anti-Judaism weaponized Jerome’s translation to justify hatred toward Jews.
In other ancient religions, horns were seen as a source of power and not viewed negatively.1 Mesopotamian deities were often depicted with horned headdresses. Figures, such as Alexander the Great, are seen on coins with a horned ram’s helmet, and esteemed Norse figures also appeared with horns.
Even in Christian contexts, horns were not always negative. The horns of a bishop’s mitre could recall the horns of Moses; as Pope Innocent III noted, they represent the Old and the New Testaments. Thus, the horns of Moses could be viewed not as horns of derision but as marks of respect or proximity to the holy.
Moses was featured heavily in early Christian art from the third century onward, occasionally receiving the law but, more often than not, performing miracles. Even though the Vulgate was completed in the fourth century, there were several hundred years wherein Moses appeared hornless. He was depicted ad nauseum in catacomb art and relief sculpture striking water from the rock or crossing the Red Sea, usually holding his miracle-working staff. Early Christian authors, such as Origen in Against Celsus, referred to Moses as the most important miracle worker of the Old Testament.
Early Christian texts and art sought to connect Jesus to Moses through the medium of miracles and proximity to God. Jesus was often depicted performing similar miracles as Moses, occasionally juxtaposed with an image of Moses, such as in a mid-fourth century scene from the Catacomb of Domitilla in Rome. Jesus was also depicted as performing miracles with a staff—just like Moses—even though there is no mention of his use of a staff in the New Testament.
Iconographically, Jesus was bequeathed the staff of Moses, connecting them as the preeminent miracle workers of the Bible and showing Jesus as a “New Moses.”2 For early Christians, just as Moses reflected the glory of the Lord by the giving of the “old” law and covenant, Jesus reflected the glory of God with the “new” law and covenant. Painting or sculpting horns on Moses’s head would have sent a different theological message and separated him from Jesus, which would not have been profitable to the nascent Christian religion.
In medieval interpretations, however, Moses and the old law began to be distanced from Jesus and his new law. The horns became readily visible in appearances of Moses, beginning in medieval England. The earliest representation comes from the 11th-century illuminated manuscript known as the Aelfric Paraphrase of the Pentateuch and Joshua, now in the British Museum. Occasionally the horns appeared as small nodules, such as on a statue at Dijon, France, but they could also be rather large and demon-like in stained-glass windows and illuminated manuscripts, such as the Huntingfield Psalter.
Jesus’s closeness to Moses was deemphasized with the appearance of the horns, as they served to segregate Jews in a Christian era when Jews were often labeled as Christ-killers or desecrators of the sacrament. Not coincidentally, other pejorative images of Jews appear in medieval Christian art, including the representation of blind “Synagoga” (a figural personification of the Jewish synagogue) on the Strasbourg Cathedral in France.
Although Moses had previously been an honorable figure in early Christian texts and art, after the 13th century he was associated with blind Synagoga and increasingly derogative images of Jews who followed the “old” law. Images of Jews wearing horned headdresses, or devil’s horns, appeared more readily in post-Reformation art, even on the cover of Martin Luther’s infamous tract On the Jews and Their Lies. Jews were seen as united with the devil in opposition to Christ, resurrecting a quite literal reading of John 8:44 accusing Abraham’s children as being from “your father the devil.” The idea developed that if Moses, the most important Jew of the Old Testament, had horns, then all Jews must have horns, reflecting a demonic heritage. Even up to the contemporary era, Jews have reported anti-Semitic accusations that all Jews are born with horns. Art and Jerome’s translation have thus been successively manipulated and motivated by anti-Jewish attitudes.
The horns of Moses in Jerome’s Vulgate did not initially represent derision or dishonor; rather they reflected the presence of God. And for centuries after Jerome’s translation, Moses was depicted along with Jesus, performing miracles, also reflecting proximity to the divine. But the horns took a literal turn once they became visible in art. They came to be understood as indicators of devilry and rejection of Christianity. However, this understanding was not entirely uniform.
Michelangelo’s Moses, perhaps the most famous statue of Moses with horns, was created in the 16th century for the tomb of Pope Julius II, who likely did not see Moses’s status as ignoble. And more modern artists, such as Marc Chagall, depicted Moses with two ray-like beams on the top of his head rather than physical horns. Artistic representations such as these remind contemporary readers that Moses’s horns are not monolithic in interpretation, and they may not even be horns at all.
Lee M. Jefferson is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Associate Professor of Religion at Centre College. His area of interest is the development of the Christian tradition and art and imagery of Late Antiquity.
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