Moses’ Horns: The Perils of Mistranslation

William Keckler
3 min readJun 7, 2020

How strange.

I was reading up on the concept of terribilità in relation to Michelangelo.

Then it struck me that I had never really questioned why Moses is depicted with horns by Michelangelo. I suppose I just let it sink into my subconscious as M.’s typical flair for the hyper-dramatic in form. Maybe I had thought it was part of a stylized crown, the rest of which was out of sight in Moses’ thick hair. Rather than appearing Luciferian, the horns evoke creatures which existed in pagan stories. Pan had horns. Fauns and satyrs had horns. Cuckolds were also depicted with horns in the Middle Ages.

Michelangelo creates weird ambiguity by putting those horns on the religious leader’s head. It’s strong visual dissonance, but it adds a piquant quality that makes the work more interesting. You’re much more likely to remember the whole because of the unexpected nature of that part. I think Michelangelo might have been ahead of his time in understanding how memory works. This is why so many surreal commercials help you to remember the products or services they are advertising. A jolting image is applied to something bland your mind might have otherwise ignored as absolutely pedestrian. The two become linked in memory. Some Mr. or Ms. Clever Clogs has zapped you into storing something in your brain forever. Maybe Moses’ horns are just the Geico Gecko of 1513.

But what I’m throwing out here are just impressions and guesses. I searched for the answer.

I found this, which I thought is actually rather funny:

Why does Michelangelo’s Moses have horns?

The horns on the head of Moses apparently result from an incorrect translation of the Exodus book which says that as Moses came down from Sinai, he had two rays on his forehead. The Jewish “karan” or “karnaim” — “rays” — may have been confused with “keren” — “horns”.

Wikipedia also includes a similar discussion on the matter:

The depiction of a horned Moses stems from the description of Moses’ face as “cornuta” (“horned”) in the Latin Vulgate translation of the passage found at Exodus chapter 34, specifically verses 29, 30 and 35, in which Moses returns to the people after receiving the commandments for the second time. The Douay-Rheims Bible translates the Vulgate as, “And when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai, he held the two tablets of the testimony, and he knew not that his face

--

--

William Keckler

Writer, visual artist. Books include Sanskrit of the Body, which won in the U.S. National Poetry Series (Penguin). https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/532348.