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Why is Moses depicted with horns?

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Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny - Reporter at The European Times News

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An image in the German edition of Jacob de Teramo’s book The Consolation of Sinners, or the Trial of Lucifer against Jesus Christ (Jacobi de Ancharano (alias de Teramo): Litigatio Christi cum Belial), shows an imaginary court presided over by King Solomon. Lucifer started a case against Jesus Christ because he illegally entered his domain – the underworld. The prophet Moses is Christ’s defender at the trial, and the demon Belial represents the prosecution. But on the heads of the opponents – Moses and Belial – identical small horns are depicted. How is it that the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, who led the Jewish people out of Egyptian slavery and received the tablets of God’s ten commandments, looks so much like Lucifer’s lawyer?

This is not an artist’s fault or some quirk. On the famous statue of Moses, created by Michelangelo Buonarroti around 1513-1515 as part of the tombstone of Julius II in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, two strange “bumps” are also visible on the prophet’s head, and in the Middle Ages the horned “portraits “they had no respect for Moses at all.

According to the most common version, the horns on his head appeared in Christian iconography as a result of a mistake made by Jerome of Stridon (345–420) when translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin. According to the book of Exodus, Moses climbed Mount Sinai twice. The first time God gave him two tablets with commandments. But coming down, the prophet found that his people had fallen into idolatry and began to worship the Golden Calf. “And when he drew near to the camp, he saw the calf and the games; and Moses’ anger was kindled, so he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them under the mountain” (32:19). After that, at God’s command, he himself made two stone tablets and with them ascended Sinai for the second time, where God again dictated to him the commandments that the people of Israel were to follow.

If we open “Exodus”, we will read that “while Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai and holding the two tablets of revelation in his hand, when he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face was shining, because he had talked with God” ( 34:29). But in the Latin translation (Vulgate) made by Jerome, this place looks quite different: there it is written that Moses did not know that his face had become “cornuta”. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the so-called The Septuagint (3rd century BC), from which the Church Slavonic translation was later made, no longer has horns. Jerome was certainly familiar with the Greek translation of the book of Exodus. How then could he have made such a strange mistake? Many believe that he confused the similar words “radiance” and “horns”. In the Hebrew text, the verb “qāran” stands in this place (based on the root, קָ֫רֶן‎ qeren, which often means “horn”); which is now interpreted to mean “shining” or “radiating”). But there is another point – the “horn” was one of the ancient metaphors for earthly and divine power, which in the biblical text refers not only to different kingdoms, but also to the Lord himself. The influential theologian and encyclopedist Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) compared two parts of Scripture—the Old and New Testaments—to two horns. The Old Testament Book of the prophet Daniel (8:3-22) describes his vision: a ram with two horns of different sizes and a goat with a single one above the eyes appeared on the bank of the river. The goat broke both of the ram’s horns, but after the victory, his own huge horn turned into four smaller ones.

Archangel Gabriel explained to Daniel the meaning of his revelation. The large horn of the ram denoted the Persian kingdom, and the small horn denoted the Median. “The wild goat is the Greek king; and the great horn between his eyes is the first king. And where he crumbled and four came forth in his stead, it means that four kings will arise from that people, but not with power like his” (8: 21-22). The first images of Moses with horns appeared only in the 11th century – 600 years after the death of Jerome. Previously, Christian masters did not separate the first and second ascent of Sinai and did not try in any special way to depict the transfiguration that took place there with the prophet. According to the American historian Ruth Melinkoff, the oldest example of the horns of Moses appeared in England – in the illustrations to one of the manuscripts of the Hexagram by the learned monk Aelfric the Grammaticus. Starting from the Latin text of the Vulgate, he, following Jerome, wrote that Moses returned the second time from Sinai “horned”, and the miniaturist who illustrated his story painted the prophet.

From the twelfth century, the horns became a standard attribute of Moses, which was reproduced in thousands of images. Although around the same time Satan and demons were also increasingly depicted as horned, the similarity between the mark of the chosen and the mark of the rejected was clearly in the order of things, and none of the clergy raised much objection to this. However, this did not exclude confusion. The situation began to change only at the end of the Middle Ages, when artists, trying to correct the “mistake” of Jerome, sometimes began to depict the horns as rays or tried to “rationalize” them.

Moses was not the only holy man depicted with horns in the Middle Ages. Miniatures are known in which they appear in the Old Testament ancestors Noah and Abraham. It’s not clear exactly why. Probably, after the horns became a symbol of the chosenness of Moses, to whom God himself addressed on Mount Sinai, the same sign began to be sometimes applied to other characters of the Old Testament who were worthy of communion with the Lord. However, there is also a more prosaic explanation – a mistake: it is possible that medieval masters, confusing such scenes, depicted Noah or Abraham as Moses.

Photo: A woodcut of Belial and some of his followers from a German edition of Consolatio peccatorum, seu Processus Luciferi contra Jesum Christum (1473) / Public Domain

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