John Palcewski (forioscribe) wrote,
John Palcewski


Michelangelo, in awe of the fearsome qualities that were emerging from his massive block of Carrara marble, hurled his chisel, slightly chipping Moses’s knee.

“Perché non parli?” he shouted.

Now apparently Moses didn’t reply to the sculptor, but said a great deal to Sigmund Freud, who was compelled to visit San Pietro in Vincoli each day for a week and later wrote down much what he heard.

As for me--thirty-four years ago on my very first visit to Rome--I put a lire coin into a metal box. The lights came on and I set my camera to a 60th of a second at f 2.8. I tried to keep steady, but unfortunately I was enormously hung over and shaky, thus the image (above) is not as sharp as I wanted. I failed to capture that famous chip in the knee, and also the profile of Michelangelo that allegedly can be seen in the figure’s beard.

I suppose it wasn’t meant to be.

No longer hung over and shaky I now study the image. I can see much more clearly now. And I wonder: Why the horns, which elicited so much of Sigmund’s psychoanalytical attention?


Exodus 34:29-35 tells that after meeting with God the skin of Moses' face became radiant, frightening the Israelites and leading Moses to wear a veil. Jonathan Kirsch in his book Moses: A Life, thought that, since he subsequently had to wear a veil to hide it, Moses' face was disfigured by a sort of "divine radiation burn".

This story has led to one longstanding tradition that Moses grew horns This is derived from a mistranslation of the Hebrew phrase "karnu panav" The root -- קרן -- may be read as either "horn" or "ray", as in "ray of light". "Panav" -- פניו -- translates as "his face".

If interpreted correctly those two words form an expression which means that he was enlightened, and many rabbinical studies explain that the knowledge that was revealed to him made his face metaphorically shine with enlightenment, and not that it suddenly sported a pair of horns.

The Septuagint properly translates the Hebrew word -- קרן -- as δεδοξασται, 'was glorified', but Jerome translated it as cornuta, 'horned', and it was the latter image that became the more popular.

This tradition survived from the first centuries AD well into the Renaissance. Many artists, including Michelangelo in a famed sculpture, depicted Moses with horns.

My own form of enlightenment has come from a half dozen years of asceticism and solitude on this isola verde. Much reading, and intense contemplation. Each night I experience nekyia, like the sun god’s perilous undersea journey that skirts madness and destruction. One convoluted dream after another. Sometimes even nightmares, from which I awake each morning, grateful and refreshed.


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