The Horns of Moses

by John J. Miller on January 29, 2010 · 27 comments

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Whatever else The Da Vinci Code did, it forced me to look at Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper more closely than I’d ever looked at it before.

Dan Brown’s latest novel, The Lost Symbol, is less controversial than The Da Vinci Code. It’s not as good as a piece of entertainment, either. I’ve written about the book and its blunders here and here. Yet The Lost Symbol did teach me something.

There’s a scene in the Library of Congress, in the Main Reading Room (which happens to be my favorite interior space in Washington, but that’s another story). A character points to a statue of Moses on a balcony–and notes that Moses has horns. We’re treated to a short explanation: “The Moses above them had horns for the same reason thousands of Christian images of Moses had horns–a mistranslation of the book of Exodus.” An online encyclopedia has more.

I’ve spent many hours at the Library of Congress, beneath the gaze of the Moses statue, but I had never noticed this detail. So when I was at the library last week, I investigated. Yes, the Moses statue has horns. They’re hard to see from the floor of the reading room, amid the wisps of hair. The tourist balcony that overlooks the reading room, however, is right behind the Moses statue. It’s impossible to get a good look at the front of the statue, but by craning your neck the right way, you can see that Moses indeed has horns.

I couldn’t find an image of the library’s Moses statue, but here’s a statue of Moses by Michelangelo, complete with horns:

michelangelo_moses1

  • http://schwabsylvania.com/John/john1.php John Schwab

    I had a lot of fun shredding DaVinci Code, you may enjoy this.

    I dealt with Moses with horns in Chapter 55 part 2 – looks like the link I had to the same Michelangelo statue you used isn’t working.

    My favorite part is Saint Mary Magdalene. Make sure to look at the Mickey Mouse Research post also.

  • Bobby

    I haven’t read Brown’s book, but it sounds like he stole this piece of trivia from The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, published in 2004 (itself a DaVinci Code-ish novel).

  • Bob Miller

    Jews, being well-acquainted with Hebrew usage and Biblical interpretation, did not fall into this error.

  • -Ed.

    God magnified His word above all His name according to Psalm 138:2, yet look what man has done to its written form across the centuries. One diminishment, one distortion after another. However, man is powerless to move the stars and planets so the truth is still up there, unchanged and unchanging.

  • Nick Dujmovic

    This banal observation–I thought all moderately well educated schoolchildren learned the story behind the “rays” or “horns” of Michelangelo’s Moses–certainly does not justify the mentioning of Dan Brown. It’s a sign of our times that even perceptive observers like yourself often can’t tell the difference between content worth posting and content that, well, isn’t content. Maybe that’s what Twitter is for….

  • V Inc

    That’s because Moses represents the astrological Age of Aries, who ended the Golden Calf, the Age of Taurus.

    Later, Christ, representing the Fish, the Age of Pisces, ended the Age of Aries, and now we’re moving on up to the Age of Aquarius.

    This all has to do with the Precession of the Equinoxes, if you care.

  • http://www.stonelight.wordpress.com Johnny Utah

    the way I understand it, those aren’t horns, as on an antelope, but radiant beams of pure holy awesomeness emanating from Moses’ melon

  • http://unfortunateideas.blogspot.com Earl Fando

    Looks like Cecil B. DeMille wasn’t the only one who thought Charlton Heston looked like Moses.

  • James Wester

    I love stuff like this. Every little item in a place like the Library of Congress or the White House or whatever has its own history. Learning these little tidbits makes those places even more fun to poke around in.

    And Nick: pointing out trivia in a place like the Library of Congress is, to my mind, the exact opposite of banal, but then again, I probably don’t know as much about everything as you do. If it’s ok with you, I’ll continue to be entertained by such stuff.

  • http://scribalterror.blogs.com gail

    One of the reasons I originally became a medievalist was the chance to find out cool stuff like this — and like all the images of bunny rabbits and bagpipes in illuminated manuscripts (S. Freud, call your office).

  • John Fembup

    Years ago I saw Michaelangelo’s original Moses at the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. While it’s near the Colosseum, it is (or, was) off the beaten path. I hung my hat on one of the horns. It’s probably not there any more. The hat, I mean, not the Moses.

  • John Skaife

    Freud’s ‘The Moses of Michelangelo’ deals with the horns.

  • percy

    Those are not horns, they are fingers.

    Richard Nixon is signaling from Moses’ skull.

  • DanP

    Exodus 34:29–35 Refers to the radiance Moses exhibited after speaking with the Lord for 40 days. After such prolonged time and such experiences in God’s presence, it is no wonder that Moses’ face shone with divine glory when he returned, and the people fell back in fear of him. This phenomenon of light radiating from heavenly beings and earthly beings who are under heavenly influence is not unique here. Compare the descriptions of the Apostles on the day of pentecost ( Acts 2:3 ).

    “The Hebrew word here rendered ‘shone’ is qaran, a denominative verb from a noun meaning ‘horn,’ denominating radial beams of light, like the ‘horns’ or rays of morning seen over the horizon before the sun rises. From this phenomenon, the Arabs call the sun at its rising a ‘gazelle.’ (A mistranslation from Hebrew to Latin caused Michelangelo to put actual horns on the head of his heroic statue of Moses!

  • Reynardine

    Poppycock. You’re all wrong! It’s Michelangelo’s little joke on the Church, which failed to properly fund the full project of which the Moses statue was originally planned to be only a small part. That’s not Moses, it’s the great god Pan!

  • Filippo

    Reynardine is closest to the reality of the situation when he reminds us of the true facts – “That’s not Moses, it’s the great god Pan!”

  • Filippo

    In addition to Reynardine pertinent observation –> “That’s not Moses, it’s the great god Pan!” while viewing a photo of the sculpture I noted that the ‘drapery’ over Mose’s kness is actually an animal skin. This would be very much in keeping with “skin of the kill” wherein Pan then dons the horns of the animal. The is a part of the leterature and language of the mythic history of Pan -

  • Filippo

    Sorry, but I must do a spell check here on the previous post – I was in too much of a hurry…..

    In addition to Reynardine’s pertinent observation –> “That’s not Moses, it’s the great god Pan!” – while viewing a photo of the sculpture I noted that the ‘drapery’ over Mose’s knee is actually an animal skin. This would be very much in keeping with the mythic notion of the “skin of the kill” wherein Pan then would don the horns of the slaughtered animal. This is a significant aspect of the literature and language of the mythic history of Pan -

  • http://sarahcameronmarshall@hotmail.com Sarah

    Every person who reads a book knows before hand if it a work of fiction or fact but dan brown cleverly mixes the two,,,but if u open your eyes and not be bigoted or blind he also tells you his books are works of FICTION !!!! Of course he takes from other authors he writes about bloody conspiracy theories from history,,,,I love his knowledge of the cities he writes about and all the little none facts that when your visiting you have to check them out,,,if your steady in your faith and god is almighty which I kind ov think she /he is,,surely he/she would be proud of our diversity and interested in our little quest for knowledge,,,,I doubt very much god has much time for small minds :) xxx

  • Hugh

    The image of the horned Moses is pretty widespread throughout the middle ages. The earliest extant visual representation is from eleventh-century England, and I’ve seen examples at Chartres and elsewhere (there’s even a modern statue of Moses with horns outside the west side of the Hesburgh Library on the Notre Dame campus – it’s affectionately known as ‘first down Moses’, as he is depicted with his right arm raised and finger pointing heavenward; it’s also, of course, a nod to the better-known ‘touchdown Jesus’ mosaic on the library’s south face). Michelangelo was working within a tradition of some centuries’ vintage. I did a quick online search, and one might get the impression (mistaken, of course) that Michelangelo was the first to depict the horned Moses in visual art. Imagine that – the internet giving misleading information!

  • Hugh

    Sarah – Brown emphasises the fictional aspect when it suits him, but (irresponsibly and dishonestly, if you ask me) also likes to present his sources as having real scholarly standing, which they don’t. Baigent, Lee, and Lincoln’s ‘Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ has long since been debunked by actual scholars.

    Oh, yeah – and there’s no department, or professor, or ‘science’ of ‘Symbology’ – at Harvard or anywhere else.

    The journalist Laura Miller published an article (‘The Da Vinci Con’) in The New York Times in February 2004. It looks into the validity of Brown’s ‘sources’, which he continues to insist are established historical fact. You can find it with a google search. I wish Dan Brown had been as careful and responsible with his research. If he had, though, he wouldn’t have gotten rich by misinforming and misleading millions of readers.

    I don’t have a problem with the idea of open-mindedness, and I think that questions about God and the history of Christianity are well worth asking. Dan Brown, though, is an irresponsible hack, a dreadfully bad writer with no respect for facts, truth, or valid research. When it suits him, he hides behind the veil of fiction, but he’s gotten rich off of stirring up these misconceptions in popular belief, and that should be clear to any honest reader.

  • findthetruth

    call me a hack but it was well known that Alexander the Great had horns….makes me wonder if the fallen had horns

  • http://www.facebook.com/charlene.austin2 Charlene Austin

    Interesting.

  • Anonymous

    I have NO idea what those two “things” are on top on this statues head, but something tells me this is most certainly NOT a statue of Moses despite what anyone says or thinks.  The “majority” of these statues are really of ‘other gods/godesses’, etc. so it really doesn’t matter one way or the other.

  • Jungyin

    Very interseting, V Inc. The way I always understand it was that those weren’t really horns, but radiant beams of light shooting out from his head. People also says that the bible said that Moses had horns in one of the scriptures because they misunderstand it. But the way you tell me was very interesting. Gotta tell my church about that. Thanks for the information!

  • anon

    Michelangelo was taken in at around age 13 by Lorenzo Medici. He was reared around great people like Botticelli, Da Vinci and Marsilio Ficcino. He was certainly trained and shared ideas with these men as I have learned they were all likely part of the Hermetic group called the Careggi circle and Lorenzo inherited the name Pan 
    at initiation by his father Cosimo .  This, then, points us in the proper direction of what is being said. Not as a joke, but as a personal esoteric philosophy. Its Pan.

  • Rhiannon Katmama

    Regardless of Dan Brown, I was taught in Art History class at USF in Tampa that Moses had horns due to an error in translation, which seemed highly probable. Have done no further research on this since I became a nurse!

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