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Moses (marble sculpture)

Michelangelo, Moses, marble, ca. 1513-15 (San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker.  

Usually considered unfinished, these sculptures were originally intended for 

the tomb of Pope Julius II. According to the Louvre, the artist gave the marbles 

to Roberto Strozzi who presented them to the King of France.

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(calming piano music) - [Dr. Steven] We're in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, St. Peter in Chains in Rome, looking at the tomb of the Pope Julius II. - [Dr. Beth] One of Michelangelo's biographers referred to this project as the tragedy of the tomb and that's because it just went on and on and on. - [Dr. Steven] Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to produce a tomb of an unprecedented scale. He wanted as many as 47 over life sized figures. - [Dr. Beth] And a multi storied free standing structure. It was very common for rulers to plan their tombs before their death and so Julius II wasn't doing anything unusual, but Julius was a very ambitious pope. - [Dr. Steven] He was known as the Warrior Pope and actually led military campaigns to reclaim lands that had once been controlled by the church. He also was responsible for the building of the new St. Peter's Basilica. - [Dr. Beth] And that was the destination for this tomb originally. It wasn't supposed to be here, a church that was actually associated with Julius' family so Michelangelo impresses everyone with his sculpture of David and he gets called to Rome by Pope Julius II and this is the first project the pope gives him. - [Dr. Steven] This is a wall tomb and it's much smaller than what was originally envisioned. In addition, there is only one large scale figure by Michelangelo and that is the central figure, the figure of Moses. - [Dr. Beth] Two other figures were completed for the tomb, but those are in the Louvre, the dying slave and the rebellious slave. - [Dr. Steven] And those were to be two of many figures of the male nude known as The Slaves or the Bound Figures. And in the academy in Florence, there are actually a number of unfinished sculptures that Michelangelo had originally intended for this tomb. - [Dr. Beth] There is some confusion about exactly what Michelangelo meant by these slaves or captives. One of his biographers offered the interpretation that these represent the arts, the arts of for example painting, sculpture and architecture that Julius II was such a great patron of that would be captive because of Julius II's death. - [Dr. Steven] A kind of mourning, a kind of agony that they had lost their greatest benefactor. - [Dr. Beth] There were Herm figures. There were figures of Victory that were meant for the tomb. There were also supposed to be seated figures in addition to Moses of Paul and of the active and contemplative life so this is an incredibly ambitious tomb. - [Dr. Steven] But most importantly, Michelangelo was to produce a portrait of Julius II, an effigy, and it's interesting that Michelangelo actually avoided sculpting that particular figure and instead focused on the Old Testament Prophet Moses. - [Dr. Beth] When you sculpt someone's tomb, the most important figure would be a portrait of that person whose tomb it is but typical for Michelangelo, he's much more interested in the human body than he is in capturing the likeness of an individual person. - [Dr. Steve] And here in the representation of Moses, we see Michelangelo's interest in power of the human body, but also his interest in the interior self. - [Dr. Beth] Power is a really good word here. This is a seated figured. Sitting is not a very active pose, but Michelangelo has filled this figure with energy and drama and tension. - [Dr. Steven] Look at the way his left foot pushes back as if he's gonna propel himself up. Look at the latent power in those arms and those legs. I don't think I've ever seen a figure that has more potential energy. - [Dr. Beth] As he pulls his left leg back, his hips shift naturally in that direction, but his shoulders turn slightly in the opposite direction, activating the figure, giving it a spiral tension and then his head shifts in the opposite direction, but the beard pulls again opposite to the direction of the head and so each part of the body moves in opposition to the part next to it. - [Dr. Steven] The opposition is wonderfully clear in that his focus is to the left. He's looking into the distance and remember, this would have been some 15 feet off the ground. - [Dr. Beth] And we would have been looking up at him, very different than the way we're looking at him today, but it's that gaze. Just like with his figure of the David, we have a sense of the presence of something that Moses is looking out to. - [Dr. Steven] So what is that? - [Dr. Beth] One interpretation is that Moses is looking at the Israelites worshiping the golden calf. He's come down from receiving the Ten Commandments from God. - [Dr. Steven] Moses is the great symbol of monotheism, but the Israelites have reverted to the polytheism of Ancient Egypt. - [Dr. Beth] So perhaps that is the focus of that very angry gaze, although there is also a sense that the tablet seem to be slipping from between his torso and his arm and so there is a question of what moment this is in the narrative. This problem pinning down what moment this is or what the captives or slaves represent, this is not unusual for Michelangelo. - [Dr. Steven] He may not be representing a specific moment, he may be creating a distillation, a figure that can represent the continuity of that story overtime. - [Dr. Beth] One art historian has talked about the ways that perhaps Michelangelo in Moses and in The Slaves and in other work is in interested in this idea of binding, of releasing the figure from within the stone. This is a theme in Michelangelo's work and even that drapery that goes over the knee gives us a sense of uncovering, of removing something to find something underneath which is the process of carving stone. - [Dr. Steven] It's important to remember also that the horns at the top of Moses' head would only just be visible if we were looking up at the figure as opposed to across the figure. - [Dr. Beth] We recognize figures by their attributes and the horns were an attribute of Moses and this comes from a mistranslation from the Hebrew word for rays of light and traditionally, Moses just became represented with these horns. Michelangelo is very excited to work on the tomb. It's an enormous commission for the pope with close to 50 figures. Michelangelo spends much of 1505 actually quarrying the marble so he's really invested in this project, but Pope Julius II takes him off the project for the tomb and asks him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which Michelangelo does reluctantly at first, but Michelangelo through paint explores the male nude which will become so important when he returns to the subject of the tomb of Pope Julius II. - [Dr. Steven] In the end, Moses became the central figure in the tomb for Julius, but it's important to remember that the tomb that we see now is just a shadow of Julius II's initial ambitions. (calming piano music)