Michelangelo’s Moses of the Julius Tomb: The Definitive Michelangelo Sculpture

Michelangelo’s Moses of the Julius Tomb: The Definitive Michelangelo Sculpture

Joseph Hedges Published Online (2011)


Michelangelo’s Moses of the Julius Tomb is one of the most powerful works from one of the most important artists of all time. Michelangelo is perhaps best known for the David. However, a more definitive although lesser known work rests silently within the old stone walls of San Pietro in Vincoli Church in Rome. On a pedestal flanked by several other figures, Moses sits in Neolassical dress upon a chair, looking eager to spring to life. His muscles bulge, his long beard flows, and two horns protrude from is turned head. Under his right arm are the ten commandments. His face is stern and his whole being is full of pent-up emotional and spiritual energy. Before one can consider symbolic interpretations of this impressive marble work, Michelangelo’s Moses should be considered within the historical context of the entire Julius Tomb.

Moses was carved by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, then forty years old in 1515, from a block of marble as one of many sculptural elements within a long ambitious project known as the Julius Tomb. The Julius Tomb was the greatest sculptural commission of its day, and Pope Julius II was one of the greatest patrons of the arts of all time. A few years before the commission, a free standing papal tomb was created by Antonio Pollaiuolo for Pope Sixtus IV and included religious figures and allegories to the arts. This monument no doubt influenced both Julius II and Michelangelo in their conception of the Julius Tomb. Both men may have envisioned the Julius Tomb as even grander than the tomb of Sixtus IV. The Tomb would give Julius a grand monument to his life, and Michelangelo the freedom to carve countless dramatic human figures. Perhaps Michelangelo and Julius II, both proud men of high ambitions, imagined that upon its completion the Julius tomb would be heralded as the grandest tomb ever. What happened, however, has been referred to by Michelangelo scholars as a failure and a tragedy.

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