More than one way to view Moses with horns.

Moses by Michaelangelo

Moses, marble, c. 1513-1515, Michelangelo, 1475-1564

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

After Moses talked with God on Mt. Sinai, he returned to his people but was not aware that his face was glowing. Because of his radiance, people were reluctant to approach him, but when he called they came closer to hear what the Lord had commanded. Moses placed a veil on his face but removed it while in the presence of God. The veil was placed on his face again when he returned to the Israelites.

While he was still a young man, Michelangelo’s stone carving skills were recognized and he was invited to study at the Medici workshop in Florence under the patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Commissions followed and at age twenty-four, the well-known Pieta (now in St. Peter’s Basilica) was carved. His next major commission would be a statue of David for the City of Florence.

Pope Julius II was impressed with David and invited Michelangelo to Rome to design what would be, in effect, a grandiose monument, a tomb that he envisioned for himself. After Michelangelo began carving figures for the tomb, he was not pleased when he was redirected to paint frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was working again on the tomb when Julius II died (a year after the ceiling was completed). By then funds had depleted and the size of the tomb was scaled back. It was during this period that the Moses was carved.

Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo’s biographer, described the sculpture of Moses to be “…unequalled by any modern or ancient work. Seated in a serious attitude, he rests with one arm on the tablets, and with the other holds his long glossy beard, so difficult to render in sculpture, being soft … that it seems the iron chisel must have become a brush.” Although Michelangelo’s Moses displays remarkable carving skills, is engaging in its formal relationships, and is of psychological interest, tourists tend to be unduly preoccupied with the horns on his head.

Errors sometimes occur when languages are translated, and at times they lead to unusual descriptions (e.g. Cinderella’s “glass” slippers). In the fourth century, Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew to Latin, and found that the word, keren had various meanings. One meaning was, “horn.” In translation, Jerome described Moses’ face as being, “horned,” which was to say it was “glorified” or “radiant.” At the time of translation, Jerome was well aware of the multiple meanings of, keren, but elected to use “horn” as a metaphor for strength and power. Medieval artists took the words of the Latin Bible literally and depicted Moses with actual horns. Michelangelo knew, of course, that Jerome’s use of “horned” had been misinterpreted but he chose, nevertheless, to place horns on Moses’ head to impart a sense of strength and authority. Other historical figures have been given horns to suggest strength. Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun have been depicted with horns, and images of warriors with horned helmets are very familiar to us.

Depictions of a “horned” Moses decreased during the Renaissance and was seldom seen beyond the sixteenth century.

Hovak Najarian © 2017

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.

Image: Pvasiliadis at Greek Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

Trinity Sunday Year A

Art and Faith on Trinity Sunday

The Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam (detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling),
fresco, 1508-12, Michelangelo, 1475-1564

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” is a much-quoted statement that sometimes is attributed to Confucius, but this observation is neither completely true nor oriental in origin. The quote originated in America and gained attention from commercial advertising in the 1920s. In some instances a picture or schematic image may be clearer than a complex verbal description, but there are times also when ideas found in words are impossible to illustrate by means of art. The creation story in the Book of Geneses is far less than a thousand words, yet a single painting cannot depict adequately all of the events contained in the narrative.

When artists depict subject matter from the creation, they tend to select the more dramatic events. Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel excludes the third day when grass, herbs and trees were created, and omits the fish and fowl that were created on the fifth day. The frescos begin with God separating light from darkness and is followed by the separation of water from the land. In the third panel God is shown creating the sun, moon and planets. The well-known fourth panel depicts the moment God gave life to Adam.

In, The Creation of Adam, Adam is reclining on the earth in the relaxed manner of Roman river gods. His left forearm is resting on a knee and his hand is extended as God reaches into the empty space that separates them. They do not touch but there is a sense that in the small space between their fingers, the spark of life, like an electrical arc, has been passed from God to Adam.

An oval shaped cloak serves as a backdrop for God and he is surrounded by figures. It is in our nature as humans to make connections and project meaning onto things we see. A long-standing belief is that the woman in the crook of God’s left arm is Eve. Because God’s hand is touching a child that is next to the woman, however, it has been suggested recently that she may be the future Virgin Mary and the child is Jesus.

Much has been written about what Michelangelo was attempting to communicate in this painting and most of it is speculation. When an imaginative medical student saw, The Creation of Adam, the cloak and figures around God, brought to mind the shape of a human brain. From this, he thought it was possible that Michelangelo was intending to indicate symbolically that while life was being given to Adam, the gift of intellect also was being bestowed. This interpretation has captured the fancy of people who look for secret meanings. The suggestion that intellect was being given to Adam is repeated now even by tour guides at the Sistine Chapel. There is no incontrovertible evidence that a cryptic message was placed in this painting.

Hovak Najarian © 2017

The Delphic Sibyl | Art for Easter 7C

The Delphic Sibyl
The Delphic Sibyl
Fresco, 350 x 380 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Delphic Sibyl (detail from the Sistine Chapel), fresco, 1509, Michelangelo, 1475-1564

In Greek mythology, Gaia (mother earth) assigned a very large serpent called Python to guard the shrine at Delphi; the shrine’s location was believed to be the navel of the earth. Apollo killed the serpent and claimed the shrine as his own. The serpent rotted and the place became known as Pytho (Greek: meaning “rot”). The prophetesses at Apollo’s shrine were called, “Pythia” and there was a prevalent belief that the spirit of the dead serpent, Python, was still there and spoke through them. In Acts (16:16), a fortune telling slave girl was described as having “…a spirit of Python.” This was to say she was like the prophetesses at Delphi.

In the ancient world, a sibyl (Greek: meaning “prophetess”) was a woman who was believed to have the ability to foretell the future. Sibyls were the subject of legends and myths, and stories about them varied. Their origins were obscure. The Delphic Sibyl was said to have been the daughter of an immortal nymph and a sea monster. Other sources say she was thought to be a sister or daughter of Apollo. She was known to make her prophecies in the precinct of Apollo but she was not the same as Pythia, the priestess at the oracle. Sibyls sometimes remained in a particular locale but others were known to wander from place to place and live in caves.

Among Christians, sibyls were regarded as pagans yet when their prophecies coincided with those of biblical prophets their words tended to be acknowledged. The belief that Jesus came for everyone – gentiles as well as Jews – led early Christians to interpret particular prophecies as signs, even when they were from non-Christian sources. Also, events that a non-believer might regard circumstantial were interpreted as part of God’s plan; e.g. Because Roman Emperor Augustus called for a census, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as was prophesied. The Magi (pagan foreigners) brought gifts for the infant Jesus, thus supporting the belief that Christ came for everyone.

Among the sibyls, five of them made prophecies that were interpreted as having a connection to the coming of Christ. Michelangelo included these five among the prophets pictured on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One of them, the youthful Delphic Sibyl, is holding the scroll on which her prophecy has been written and she has turned her head in what seems to be anticipation or expectation. Perhaps she is responding to a prophetic voice that will speak through her. Like the other sibyls, the Delphic Sibyl is placed in a painted architectural setting. Behind her on either side are caryatids; figures that serve as columns. A youth is directly behind her reading prophecies.

Sibyls may seem inappropriate among biblical images but their inclusion on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel reflects the teaching that God works through many sources. The five sibyls on the ceiling represent a diverse geographic area. They are from Africa, Asia, Greece and Ionia.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

The mural and the fresco

Editor’s Note: Hovak Najarian, Art History Professor Emeritus from College of the Desert, will begin to help us understand the art that informs our faith and understand the faith that informs our art. In our lectionary on Sunday we read from Numbers 21:4-9. Michelangelo’s fresco the Brazen Serpent, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, opens up this scene from the Exodus. Enjoy the art, enjoy this background to the art. Keep learning.

Become more familiar with often encountered terms:

Mural:  A mural is a large work of art that is usually created directly on a large architectural surface.  The murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel often are referred to as “ceiling frescos” because the fresco process was used to paint them.  In the same manner, critics often refer to an oil painting simply by its medium, “oil,” but all paintings are not oils and all murals are not frescos  The terms mural and fresco are not synonymous.  Mural identifies a work’s category (the type of work that it is) and fresco refers to its medium (the material that is used to make it).

Fresco: In the fresco process, an artist paints directly on wet plaster with water based pigments.  Before painting begins, a plasterer covers an area of a wall (or ceiling) according to an estimate of how much the artist believes can be painted before the plaster sets.  While the plaster is still moist, the pigment is absorbed into its surface and when it is set the pigment becomes an integral part of it.  The pigment is not on the wall or ceiling, it is within its surface.

If a plastered area has set before it can be painted it is no longer capable of absorbing pigment and must be chipped off.  A fresh area of plaster is spread on the wall before work continues.  The removal of plaster is done along a contour of a figure in order that a seam is not apparent.  This procedure is repeated until the mural is completed.  It is a time consuming and messy process and is seldom used now unless a particular effect is desired.  Michelangelo worked on the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel from 1508 to 1512 AD.

Sistine Chapel: This chapel is named “Sistine” because it was Pope Sixtus who had it restored in the latter part of the fifteenth century.

© 2012 Hovak Najarian

A Chirst the King, Art for Readings November 20, 2011

(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)
Click to open Web Gallery of Art Artist Biography and to explore other works by this artist.

Last Judgment (extra large size image)
Fresco, 1370 x 1220 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican

Click to open Web Gallery of Art display page. Click on their image to enlarge/fit page etc.
Also on the Web Gallery search page, enter ‘MICHELANGELO’ in the Author box, ‘LAST JUDGMENT’ in the Title box, then click on the SEARCH! button for a variety of detail images and commentary.

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