Recently, I wrote about the importance of understanding the meaning of works of statuary and the iconic messages they convey.
Most high school students who take art history learn who Michelangelo was. These students also learn that his statue of Moses holding the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments is curious because it depicts Moses with two horns growing from his head.
For centuries, Western scholars have puzzled over, and written about, why the famous Italian artist placed horns among Moses’ wavy locks. But it is without question that Michelangelo’s artistic expression relied upon the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible’s Old Testament, translated by Saint Jerome from the Hebrew text, which says in Exodus 34:29 that Moses’ “face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.”
Even though Saint Jerome was a highly regarded biblical scholar of the 4th century who produced a version of the Bible that was the most commonly used for more than a thousand years, Eurocentric scholars have maintained that Michelangelo’s placing horns on Moses’ head was due to Saint Jerome’s mistranslation of the relevant passage. These Eurocentric scholars have declared that the proper translation of that passage should have been, “light was shining from Moses’ face.” And in modern times, the Vulgate translation has been discarded and Exodus 34:29 speaks of Moses coming down from the mountain with a radiant face.
Elon Gilad, a feature writer for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, has written, “Saint Jerome, who made the translation called the Vulgate at the end of the 4th century, would not have made such a crude mistake.” He continues by stating,
“… Jerome must truly have believed that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with horns, and not radiant. Since Jerome was living in the Holy Land at the time and consulted with Jews when working on his translation, he must have been informed by them that Moses indeed had horns. This may be a bit hard to believe, but we in fact know that some Jews did believe that Moses was literally horned.”
But this makes no sense – unless you stop looking at it from a European perspective.
If Moses did not have wavy curls on his head, and instead had hair more like the tightly curled frizziness or kinky hair found in Africa, he could have had what appeared to be horns on his head when he came down from Mount Sinai.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many Jewish youths proudly wore their frizzy hair in a puffy style termed the “Isro,” and resembling the “Afro” that was popular in the Black community at the time. Those youths who were able to style their hair this way could do so because their hair was more like Africans’ hair than most Europeans’ hair.
The biblical narrative of Hebrews living in the Egyptian corner of the African continent presents a plausible explanation. Moses likely had kinky hair. He was born on the African continent and descended from people who had lived there for 430 years, according to Exodus 12:40.
And having kinky hair that looked like horns coming out of his head would not have been enough to frighten the Hebrews, the majority of whom probably had kinky hair as well. Anyone, like me, with kinky hair of enough length sees these horns in the mirror after first waking from sleep. Moses’ horns were a sign to the Hebrews that he had been asleep and talking to God in a dream state.
In many ancient cultures, dreams were considered divine. Ancient Egyptians believed the dream world existed between the realms of the living and the dead, frequented by deities and spirits. Dreams were how people communicated with the gods and received prophetic visions – ripe with divine intervention, teachings and sage advice from beyond. The Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands traditionally believed that dreams were the single most valuable source of guidance both in spiritual and practical matters. And those of the Hindu faith, as well as Australian Aboriginals, have dream-based celestial origin traditions. Years before Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, Hebrew tradition held that God had communicated with Jacob through a dream where angels ascended and descended to and from heaven.
Moses, and the other Hebrews joining in the Exodus, had been raised in ancient Egypt where it was believed that dreams were like oracles, and it was thought that the best way to receive divine revelation was through dreaming.
So, it would not have been a stretch for the Biblical text to state that when Moses descended from Mount Sinai with divine laws, it frightened the Hebrews because they knew from his “horns” that he had been talking to God in a dream state.
Michelangelo and other Renaissance Italians were familiar with the kinky hair of the African Diaspora. The tragic story of the 16th century Moorish general of Venice made its way all the way to England and inspired Shakespeare’s play, “Othello.” But Renaissance artists had a penchant for modeling heroic figures after themselves. Michelangelo even created a depiction of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in his own image, or that of a European male.
So, in sculpting the famous statue of Moses, giving a man born in Africa the appearance of a European, Michelangelo erased the important possibility of Moses having kinky hair and, instead, depicted him with horns on his head.
There is a long history of kinky hair being seen as an undesirable aspect of one’s appearance. The belittling of kinky hair can be found stretching back for centuries in European culture. Quite often Italian clowns wore red kinky wigs. Kinky red hair in Renaissance Italy could imply that one was shamefully descended from both northern Franks with red hair and African moors with frizzy hair.
This belittling exists to this day in the iconic Bozo the Clown whose red hair is so frizzy it sticks out like horns. And the most important inference of Bozo’s hair sticking out like horns is that he is lazy and has been sleeping.
This commentary is not intended to take away from any belief system, but the intent is to point out how one statute exemplifies how Western perspectives can distort history and upend cultural traditions. We should all be mindful of what art is saying and how it is saying it.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia. His earlier commentaries may be found at https://oblayton1.medium.com/