The Horns of Moses – Defending Michelangelo’s Horned Moses

Art historians love to debate the horns of Moses. Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses at Saint Peter in Chains in Rome depicts Moses with two horns. Most claim that the horns of Moses go back to Saint Jerome’s “translation error” in the Latin Vulgate. I’d like to challenge that assumption. Not only did Saint Jerome have reason to translate the horns of Moses, Michelangelo had reason to carve them.

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horns of Moses

In the photo above you can see the horns of Moses. The horns come from the Vulgate version of Exodus 34:

And when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord. And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned, were afraid to come near.” (Exodus 34:29–30, D-R)

Most interpreters say that this should be translated not as “horned” but as “his face shone.” The idea being that his face glowed with the residual glory of the Lord.

What does the Hebrew say?

The original Hebrew word for “horned” is qaran. It literally means “horned.” Here the entry from the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon giving three definitions:

1. a. horn of ram (אַיִל) Gn 22:13, so in Daniel’s vision Dn 8:3(×2), 6, 7, 20, and (of goat) v 5, 8, 9, 21; of oppressors in Isr. (under fig. of rams) Ez 34:21, so of nations Zc 2:2(×3); of רְאֵם Dt 33:17 ψ 22:22 (both fig., cf. 92:11); of Zion under fig. of threshing-ox Mi 4:13; ק׳ בַּרְזֶל 1 K 22:11 = 2 Ch 18:10 (symbol.); seen in Zech.’s vision Zc 2:1. b. used as oil-flask 1 S 16:1, 13 1 K 1:39 (cf. קֶרֶן הַפּוּךְ Infr.). c. ק׳ הַיּוֹבֵל, as wind-instr. Jos 6:5 (cf. שׁוֹפָר). d. קַרְנוֹת שֵׁן Ez 27:15 (from curved shape of tusks).

2. fig., of pers., symbl of strength Dt 33:17, ק׳ יִשְׁעִי 2 S 22:3 = ψ 18:3 (of י׳ as deliverer); others sub 3 or 4; especially as lifted up (רום, as of a lordly animal, cf. Dr 1 S 2:1), denoting increase of might, dignity 1 S 2:1, 10 La 2:17 ψ 75:11; 89:18, 25; 92:11; 112:9, so perhaps 1 Ch 25:5 (v. Kau; > Be blow loudly [cf. 1 c]), + לְעַמּוֹ ψ 148:14 (subj. י׳); also haughtiness, arrogance 75:5, 6; opp. גָּדַע ק׳ hew off horns, i.e. reduce, humiliate, La 2:3 ψ 75:11, pass. Je 48:25, so וְעֹלַעלתִּי בֶעָפָר קַרְנִי Jb 16:15; אַצְמִיחַ ק׳ לְבֵית יִשׂ׳ Ez 29:21 is appar. of restoration of might (as ψ 148:14 supr., c. וַיָּרֶם), but אַצ׳ ק׳ לְדָוִד ψ 132:17 of raising up individual ruler of Davidic line.

3. of altar, horn-like projections at corners (26 times), Am 3:14 Je 17:1 Ez 43:15, 20 ψ 118:27 Ex 27:2(×2) + 8 times Ex, Lv 4:7, 18 + 6 times Lv (all P); as sanctuary, refuge 1 K 1:50, 51; 2:28. † 4. hill (so in Arabic, peak, isolated hill, cf. Ges) Is 5:1. † 5. קַרְנֵיִם מִיָּדוֹ לוֹ Hb 3:4 rays at his side(s) had he (of lightning-flashes in theoph, cf. Now Da).—Am 6:13 v. קַרְנֵיִם n.pr.loc.

As you can see, qaran refers to the 1) horns of goats/oxen, 2) a metaphor for strength, and 3) horns/corners associated with the altar/sanctuary/presence of God. As we’ll see, I think the association of “horns” with the altar of God is especially important for this analysis. I fear that most miss this association of Moses’ face with the altar of God.

Incidentally, the Hebrew verb form in the hiphil stem literally means “grow horns.”

Horns of Moses or Luminous Rays of Moses?

No doubt, the Hebrew reads “horns,” but horns need not be goat horns. A “ray” is, in a sense, a horn. When you shine your flashlight in the darkness, it makes the shape of a horn.

moses horn light in darkness

We could be talking about rays or “horns” of light.” This has precedent in other Hebrew passages: “His brightness shall be as the light: horns are in his hands: There is his strength hid.” (Habakkuk 3:4, D-R)

Here the “horns” in God’s hands seem to be rays of light not animal horns.

This is how almost all interpreters take the Hebrew passage.

Horns of Moses = Face of Moses as Altar

Whether we are dealing with little animal horns or horns of light, allow me to suggest that the phenomenon reveals Moses as an altar. Moses spoke “face to face” with God. The sacramental presence of God has a residual presence on his face. This happens to none of the other prophets. Only Moses. You may recall that the altar of the Old Testament had “horns” and we find the same description in the apocalyptic visions of Revelation:

And the sixth angel sounded the trumpet: and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before the eyes of God.” (Rev 9:13)

We see here a “horned altar” before the “eyes of God.” So when Moses speaks with God, he face becomes horned somehow. After Moses acquired this facial feature, the Israelites were fearful and so “he put a veil upon his face.” (Exodus 34:33, D-R). The veiling of his face demonstrates that his face was an altar or sanctuary of God.

The Horns of Moses by Michelangelo

If you look at the horns of Moses sculpted by Michelangelo, it’s obvious that these are not animal horns. They don’t look like ram horns or goat horns or oxen horns. They are unique. In fact, the horn over left eye is a little off-kilter.

Horns of Moses 2

Michelangelo was good, but he wasn’t good enough to sculpt “rays of light” or “horns of light” out of carrara marble. How can you carve light? Instead, he carved horns just like it said in the Latin Bible. When I look at the horns, I see a stylized depiction of the two tables to the Ten Commandments jutting out of his mind. Here’s Charlton Heston to help you see it:

charlton-heston 10 Commandments Moses Horns

My personal opinion is that Michelangelo wasn’t stupid or misled by a translation error. He wasn’t slavishly following Saint Jerome’s “mistranslation.” He was aware of the tradition. There was no way to sculpt “horns of light” and so he took artistic license to form non-animal horns that evoke the glory of God, power, divinity, and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Question: Now it’s your turn to share your opinion. Do you agree with this analysis of the Hebrew and Michelangelo’s depiction of the horns of Moses? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Ron Conte

    qaran also means to radiate. Moses face glowed after seeing God. And that is why he wore a veil thereafter. There is no indication that the light from his face was in the form of a horn.

    Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich says that Moses also had two small protuberances on his forehead, like the beginnings of horns.

    • James Kohn

      I was also going to say this, thanks for bringing up the ACE comment

  • Dan

    We usually associate the mixture of animal and human characteristics as being a sign of evil, but not all cultures would make the same association. If the horns are in fact meant to call to mind animal horns (a point which Dr. Marshall disputes), I am not sure what the significance of this would be in terms of Hebraic imagery and symbolism. In the world of Greek and Roman imagery, the mixture and animal and human is not always negative, no?

    Another comment: linking the horns with an altar certainly makes sense in terms of the progression of the Old Testament narrative.

    1.) God reveals himself to Moses on the mountain and gives him the Law through angelic intermediaries
    2.) God reveals himself to Israel through Moses who shows and teaches them the Law
    3.) The altar of the tent/tabernacle is constructed and served by priests, according to the Law

    The original sanctuary and altar where God was encountered and where God was spoke was the mountain. Then Moses himself became the altar and sanctuary. Finally an artificial worship space is constructed according to God’s specifications and a people is designated to serve it throughout the appointed time.

    • Dan

      *Levites, not just priests

      *In later history the tent/tabernacle becomes the Temple, a more stable and permanent worship space.

      *In the New Covenant, the physical Temple passes away and a return is made to the primeval tent/tabernacle, this time in the form of Jesus’ movable Eucharistic presence. The Temple is no longer physical but spiritual, the Body of Christ, the Church, built up by the work of the Holy Spirit and filled with God’s infinite yet incarnate Presence.

      • Dan

        Oops. It is physical as well as spiritual. My fault.

  • Sue

    Having been to Rome and to see this statue of Moses three times, and going back again in November, I was told it was rays of light from God, not horns.

  • cheytewa

    I’m just thinking that if I were to try to sculpt horns/rays of light, I’d sculpt more than two of them, it would be more like the crown on the Statue of Liberty.

  • Jeremy

    So, you’re saying that Moses’ face was ALTARED?

    • http://taylormarshall.com/ Dr. Taylor Marshall

      Nice!

  • Carole Sacco Khoury

    I wish I read this before seeing the original last month! Those horns really confused me.

  • RobinJeanne

    I’m so glad you wrote this. Just a few days ago I saw Michelangelo Moses and my
    curiosity was a wakened though I had seen the picture many times in the past…
    I wondered “what’s with the horns” and low and behold, the lord sends someone to
    answer it for me. Thank you.

    • Jesus

      It wasn’t the lord it was Google.

  • Spinmamma

    Thank your so much for this little article. I learned a lot. We who cannot read the original languages must rely on scholars like you to inform us of these very interesting linguistic issues.

  • JMJT

    Taylor’s explanation and the vision of Anne C .E. seem to me to coincide….so it seems that Moses probably had both the shining face and the small horns on the forehead or frontal area of the head.
    If the horns were the only things that shone, and not the face, a turban, or head covering of some sort would have been more likely to have been used than a veil covering the face.

    • http://taylormarshall.com/ Dr. Taylor Marshall

      I should have include Anne C. Emmerich in this post!

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  • Chris

    Great post. As I was reading it your reference to the veiling of Moses’ face made me think of the altar in the Temple, which was “veiled” in that it was separated from the people by the curtain which was “torn in two” at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matt 27:15; Mk 15:38, Lk 23:45).
    While Moses could see God’s glory, it was only from the back (Ex 33:18-23). Yet this was enough to transform his face when he beheld it. With Jesus’ Incarnation we have the fullness of the revelation of God (Heb 1:1-2), so that those who have seen Jesus have seen the Father (Jn 14:9). With the fullness of God’s glory revealed perfectly on the cross, the curtain in the Temple is torn in two ending the separation of the people from God since Jesus is our high priest (as opposed to the Levitical priesthood). While Moses’ face had to remain veiled because of God’s glory, the death of Christ reveals God’s glory perfectly, thus ending the need for such veiling as used in the Temple.

  • Paul Eugene Feurer

    I am fascinated by your blog article. I am at beginning stage of making a statue of MOSES. First I am doing in modeling clay then I am going to wood carve it out of wood.

    • http://taylormarshall.com/ Dr. Taylor Marshall

      One question. Are you including horns?!

      • Paul Eugene Feurer

        Taylor :
        I am going to ask you to get DVD “The Making of Ten Commandments” and DVD of the 50th Anniversary of the movie of “The Ten Commandments” in these DVD’s Cecil De Mille gives information about Moses. Please see these DVD’s and let me know what you think!

  • Sheryl Ward

    Thankyou! This helps a lot!

  • Michele

    Dr. Taylor
    Thank ou once again for explaining something confusing and making sense of it! May the Holy Spirit continue to guide you in all your work!

  • Patti Day

    Michelangelo was feeling a little naughty that day. Later he had to explain it to the Pope, so he said they were little rays of glory.

  • Paul Eugene Feurer

    I am not that far yet. et me think about it.

  • NetPresence

    Biblical Hebrew does not have any “abstract” terms so it borrows terms. I never thought of “keren” as being such a term but it makes sense.

  • Don Schenk

    It seems that Jerome’s “mistranslation” was in being slavishly literal to the Hebrew, in that ‘qaran’, was horned, is a Hebrew idiom meaning to radiate. I read that passage as saying that Moses’ face glowed after talking with God, so that he had to ‘put a veil over it’ when he talked to his fellow humans.

  • mgseamanjr

    I don’t think that looking at the rays of a flashlight can help us here. You’re stretching a bit too far with your interpretation to incorporate both interpretations. The parallels of this OT passage with the NT recounting of the Transfiguration are all too striking. Moses was glowing, just as Jesus later would up on the mountain. In fact, Jerome got it wrong, just as most scholars conclude.

  • mgseamanjr

    By the way, there are countless older depictions of Moses with horns, many that predate Michelangelo’s. So all of these artists had rays of light in mind but limited them to two in the distinct shape of horns? Now, we’re really stretching.

    • x x

      I agree. This blog “explanation” is truly bizarre.

  • Mary Lee

    Having been fortunate enough to see the Moses up close and even touch him, all before he was put behind glass for the bicentennial, I agree with you. And like Michaelangelo himself, I thought he was ready to speak.

  • David Porush

    These “horns” have striation that run parallel to their axis, unlike natural goat or sheep horns, which grow in concentric rings (perpindicular to the axis). I don’t think Michelangelo, keen observer of nature as he was, would have made this mistake. Also, the length of projections possible in Carerra marble would have been longer, and I’m sure he had the artistry to portray something more resembling a ray of light had he chosen to. He must have intended something else. I don’t know what to suggest unless it was meant to echo the cherubim atop the actual Ark of the Covenant described in Torah. But I appreciate your effort at healing a wound that has come into popular culture as a moment of anti-Semitism, when it is obvious that M. was glorifying Moses.

  • nomrah

    Well…he (michelango) may have been aware of the horns in the sky (a constalation of sorts). That sounds far fetched but his mentor was Divinci and he was a grand master mason. At the top of freemasoney…(33rd degree is invitation only) they still believe in the ancient pagan religion of Egyptian gods including Ociris and Isis….for a few people the primary god was the planet venus. Back then the mystery religions were all about the stars…astronomy so to speak. Might check out those who worshiped the horns in the sky. They had a name. Star people ? Maybe !
    Also those who actually met God (spoke to Him) had horns…in the old or the new testaments.

  • nomrah

    Horns in the sky and horns in the bible are discussed in christopher knights book called solomons power brokers.
    Page 75 and 76.
    From my understanding lucifer didnt get horns until the 10th century. Before that the horns were associated with venus…which the Normans understood and worshiped as a God. . Venus had an asyrominical phenomenon known as “the horns”. The rising of venus as a morning star and its alternative roll as the evening star caused it to trace a pair of horns in the sky. Venus …who some early religions believed was God…created horns for the entire planet.
    Maybe michelando was of this “starfamily”..this belief sysyem. . . .and not necessarily a christian…but was more into astrology.
    Check out Freyja.

  • minda

    the Pope was, so to speak, between a rock and a hard place, he had to go with the accepted translation yet he esteemed Moses.
    Michelangelo was, i believe, an artist, not a scholar.

  • Robbie Hudson

    Interesting argument but the sculpture is unmistakably a portrayal of an inhuman creature most likely satan. If you look at the 10 commandments there’s a striking lack of morality and an awful lot of self promotion. Besides if you meet a guy that grew horns after meeting his god you would know that this god is not for you. This is one of the greatest anti semitic works in human history. The first thing Moses did after meeting God and getting the commandments was to murder I think 3000 of his own followers including friends and family. Moses or not this is a statue of satan or whatever name you want to give him. And why is he masturbating?

  • Susan Greenfield

    I have a 15″ replica of this statue that is now 35 years old and, sadly, deteriorating. Thank you for the perspective on this; it’s one I hadn’t encountered before.

  • Ajendu

    The horned sculpture of Moses is non superficial; it has a deeper astro-theological meaning! Think about it this way: Moses received the 10 commandments on Mt.Sinia. Sin is the name of Mesopotamian Moon deity, who’s worshipped on the mount. ai. When Sin and ai are combined, you get Mt.Sinia – that’s the first clue.

    The second clue is the destruction of golden calf (I.e. mother goddess Hathor) by Moses. The destruction of golden calf symbolizes the end of the Taurus Age (the bull), and the start of a new age, Aries (the ram). Moses, Amen/Amun, and Alexandria of Macedonia are all depicted with horns because of their connection to Aries the Ram!

  • Bill_Cromer

    There are two sets of tables mentioned in the Book of Exodus and two significant events associated with each set. In Exodus 32 Moses returns with the first set of tables – crafted and inscribed by God – and breaks them upon seeing the golden calf and Israelites dancing [Exodus 32:19]. Exodus 34 describes the second set of tables – set crafted by Moses and inscribed by God – and God’s decent to Mount Sinai where He passed in front of Moses showing His Glory [Exodus 34:5-9].

    The atheist Sigmund Freud – essay entitled “Moses of Michelangelo” – was unable to see God in Michelangelo’s Moses and associated the work with the first set of tables. His spiritual blindness is evident in his description of the statue when he unknowingly alluded to the event associated with the second set of tables: “It is as though the controlling influence had proceeded downwards from above.”

  • John Sandy

    When I was in undergraduate school for painting and drawing, my art history professor (who was a retired Nun) said that the horns on Moses’ head were to be interpreted as the “horns of wisdom”. Does that make any sense to anyone out there? Thanks for your feedback.

  • Hollis Bush

    The first letter of the Alef-bet is a Ram with horns and represents God or in other words a powerful one amongst us.
    I always pondered on if Christ would have horns when he returns to earth and how many people would be fearful of such a great sight and how many people would be glad to see him.
    Here’s some good imagery for the mind:” When I saw the son of man coming on the clouds he shone the radiance of God in his face and upon his head were two horns and a crown of thorns, upon his head was written faithful and true.”

  • P00R RICH

    I don’t think someone like Michelangelo would just substitute rays of light for horns. There are plenty of statues in St. Peters with the halo of light behind them. I even read that to a sixteen year old and she didn’t buy that line for a minute.
    Neither do I. Horns aren’t the sign of the devil. Jews were WARNED not to conform to what society dictates and the deal with the horns and fire being of the devil is a modern pop culture and pagan idea.
    No matter how bad it looks to the gentiles, the Jewish people are supposed to keep up with their faith and practice including head covers and beards, the whole shabang. This extends to customs and beliefs.
    If it’s the PAGANS who believe in Halos and Horns with their pop culture rules than the Jewish people should say “Hey we don’t care what you guys are doing or how bad you say this looks we will keep to our text and not change one yod!”

    Who wants to display Moses with a pagan sun ray halo anyone just to make it worse?
    YHVH appears more in fire than anything else.
    Look I don’t have a concordance in front of me but I’m going to say one thing if you do.

    The most important rule I follow when translating scripture is that I see how the word was used the first time it was used in the oldest most reliable version of the text that is available for the verse in question.

    If the word translated as horns the first time it was used then well folks, it’s clear to say that this was intentional.

    Furthermore there is an even deeper indication that this was put on Moses by YHVH in the actual Hebrew text where during his encounter with the all mighty our prophet refuses to change his name to include a large letter Aleph in it. Why? Abram became Abraham when YHVH changed his SHEM (character or name) Moses didn’t do that, so YHVH changed his face. Makes sense, no?

    Don’t take my word I just eat sleep and breathe Hebrew as a personal life long Love, look it up yourself and point me out if I’m wrong so I can be right okay?

    Shalom/Clown Love
    Your Favorite Jewggalo

  • P00R RICH

    After reading this I scrolled down the comments and I have to say you need to step it up and provide real information because peoples IQ points are lowering from reading this article. Yes they are real horns. No it is not light. DO your research instead of relying on petty articles by just anyone. Read Hebrew Yourself or get lost in translation forever relying on second rate intermediaries .

  • Travis Bryan iii

    It was horns. Jerome was correct. The law was given to Moses by an angel. Acts 7:53. The passage in 2 Cor 3 and 4 contrasts the reflection on Moses’ face with the reflection of the face of Christ on the believer’s face. 2 Cor 3:17-18 and 2 Cor 4:4. Satan, an angel who disguises himself as an angel of light, gave Moses the law. Satan has the power of death. The Mosaic law is a ministry of condemnation and death. 2 Cor 3:6-7. They people were terrified of the reflection on Moses’s face. Other verses that support the fact that Satan gave Moses the law are Heb 2:2-3; gal 3:19-20. Gal 3:20 stands for proposition that God was not even present when Satan gave Moses the law otherwise the presence of Moses as a mediator would not have been required. No mediator would have been required is a single party, God, had been involved.

    The horned reflection on Moses face was the face of Satan .

    • Raymond ‘Wolf’ Ritzmann

      One thinks you really ought to return to bible school. neither Hebrews 2:2-3 nor Galatians 3:19-20 has anything to do with Moses.

      You also contradict yourself badly by saying first it was given by an angel then it was given by Satan. By the time of the passing of the law, Satan had already fallen and in no way would be referred to as an angel.

  • brenda

    I would defend Michelangelo’s right to interpret Moses having horns projecting from his cranium as his own interpretation of God’s radiant light. As always, twenty first century views and values differ form those of the High Renaissance, and viewers may be enlightened to place their own interpretation to the sublime figure of Moses created and executed by Michelangelo. Art in all its complexities is there to be discussed and interpreted, there is no right or wrong. brenda

  • johnfrancis, a disciple

    T, I do think the horns look like animal horns, and I have to tell of the extreme laughter of this child’s attempts at holding-back laughter when gazing upon this seeming anomaly–especially when no writer or docent attempts to explain!
    Yeah, I think horns are just fine now that you’ve explained this (shekinah?) Glory emanating from the sacred and transferring glory-to-glory upon the Light!
    During my pentecostal days how well I understood all this from reading Sacred Scripture by myself, being so ‘full’ of the Spirit, wanting to ‘burst’ out of me so wishing there was a person around who could understand…no wonder we were called ‘Jesus Freaks’!

  • Anthony Howell

    Moses has horns and so does Enkidu, in the epic of Gilgamesh. Enkidu was a wild man, he lived in the wilderness, and Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness. Like Moses, Enkidu came in from the cold, he came with a message (in Enkidu’s case loyalty and friendship were what he brought to King Gilgamesh – human companionship). The myth is of course written on tablets.

  • danny

    I suspect that these are cones, or rays, of light emanating from above and focussed on Moses. Shekinah is the Ashkenazi term for the same. A quern a also a cone or home shaped stone for grinding corn.

  • danny

    Cone shaped stone