If you look closely at Moses in this image of a circa 1621 painting by Giovanni Lanfranco you can see that the painter has stuck a couple of horns on his head. What’s up with that? I’m no biblical scholar but I’m pretty sure I would remember reading passages about horns growing out of someone’s head and I’m sure that I’ve never heard a Sunday sermon about it.
This is another one of those historical art oddities like the one we discussed in my post about paintings showing freakishly tall wheat being harvested with hand scythes. There we learned that many grain crops, especially wheat, did actually grow much taller before scientists of the 1950s and 60s developed the higher yielding, more wind proof, and easier to machine harvest ‘dwarf’ varieties that we see today. The artists weren’t just taking artistic liberties, they were accurately portraying what they saw.
Now in case you think this is just a one off kind of a thing by Lanfranco, here is another painting from around the same time that may not show horns exactly, but certainly something funky is up with Moses’ head here too. He seems to have beams of light coming out of his gourd.
In fact for hundreds of years painters and sculptors depicted Moses with horns or beams of light coming out of his head. Even Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome has horns on its head. You can’t argue with Michelangelo can you?
So what’s going on here? Did Moses have horns or not?
Well unlike the wheat fields we can’t actually go out and look at the real subject matter, Moses, and neither could these painters. All we have to go on are ancient text descriptions and historical traditions. And of course that means controversy.
The most common and simplest answer goes like this. Back in the fourth century when this guy named Jerome was translating the book of Exodus into Latin he made an error. He mis-translated a difficult Hebrew word in Exodus 34:29.
Moses has been up on Mount Sinai meeting with God and when he comes down carrying the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments on them, his face is changed. The Hebrew word for this change is difficult to translate. It may be translated as physical horns or emitting rays or more simply as shining. Jerome goes with the physical horns translation and so for centuries artists painted and sculpted horns onto Moses’ head.
Oh those wacky ancient dudes. They didn’t care what they did, right? Nowadays we know that putting horns on someone’s head is goofy at least and possibly even offensive. Why would Moses, a man of God, have evil devil horns on his head? More modern translations go for the idea that Moses’ face was just generally shining and didn’t actually have physical horns protruding from it.
But wait there’s a little more to the story. In fact a lot more. Whole books (“The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought” by Ruth W. Mellinkoff) have been written about the subject of whether Jerome made a mistake or a conscious decision to go with physical horns and the influence of that choice down through the ages.
Horns were not always the ‘devil sign’ that we associate with them these days. There was a time when they denoted divine power and authority. Centuries ago having horns on your head was cool. As Mellinkoff points out in her book:
The metaphorical meaning of horns or horned in the Bible continued the ancient meaning of horns as symbols of honor, divinity, strength, kingship, and power.The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought by Ruth W. Mellinkoff
Mellinkoff goes on to point out that Jerome as an accomplished scholar didn’t find his translation odd or offensive and neither did the people of his time that read it. So it’s quite possible that depicting Moses with physical horns is the correct way to go and that Lanfranco’s painting shouldn’t be a surprise to us at all.
Who knew that a couple of brush strokes on a painting could be a clue to a centuries long controversy? Not one that’s going to keep me awake nights, but still a fun and interesting art oddity.