The Roman Minute: Why does Moses have horns?

 

Is it just that ecclesiastical art is weird, or is there a reason Moses looks like a satyr?

TRANSCRIPT

Salvete omnes! I'm Lindsey Scholl and welcome again to The Roman Minute, where you can sample a little bit of Rome in around a minute. Today we're answering an important question: why does Moses have horns? If you've looked at medieval or renaissance art, you may have noticed that Moses is sporting not only two stone tablets, but two projections from the top of his head.

Since modern translations of Bible say nothing about a horned Moses, where did these artists get the idea from? To fully answer this question, you have to know some biblical Hebrew, which I don't. The most popular opinion is that the great scholar Jerome, when he was translating the Latin Bible in the 400s, made a small mistake. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, the Hebrew reads "the skin of his face shone." A similar-sounding, but apparently incorrect, reading of the Hebrew words would mean "his face had horns." Jerome wrote "horned", or cornuta, in Latin, and some artists took him seriously.

Certainly before Jerome's translation became popular, Moses was not depicted with horns. You can see him here on the bottom left, from the church Santa Maria Maggiore. But afterwards, it was a popular option, particularly in the West. And what was simply an oddity became a worldwide question when Michelangelo himself adopted this interpretation in his famous Moses statue.

There you have it. I'm Dr. Lindsey Scholl, bringing you the Roman Minute and wishing you Pax Christi.