Journey to Italy: Michelangelo’s Moses

Art is a physical representation of the values, vices, and lifestyles of its corresponding time period. Consequently, the Church reform of the 1200s, in which religious leaders modeled holy lifestyles and pushed to make God more accessible to all, provided religious foundation for Renaissance act. Michelangelo’s Moses, though sculpted at the end of the same era, presents a starkly different image of life than originally intended for by the Church reform. Michelangelo’s Moses is important in contrasting the goal of making God more accessible that initiated the Renaissance period with the attitude of teribilita that concluded the artistic era.

At the end of the 12th century, the Church was very stagnant and orthodox, having remained in power since the fall of the Roman Empire. As people began moving to cities, the rurally-based religious foundation weakened, and a need for a modernized Church system arose. Practices and beliefs of Christianity became a public affair and religious leaders took advantage of this shift, wearing oaths of humility, chastity, and obedience to encourage a growing middle class to abandon a reckless lifestyle. This movement, headed by St. Francis of Assisi and formally recognized by the archbishop of Florence, required the simplification of religious ideals and portrayal in art that would make God accessible personally to Christians.
By the end of the Renaissance period, both the lifestyles of the commissioner and sculptor represented an ironic position in relief of the founding Renaissance ideals. Viewing Michelangelo’s Moses in situ at San Pietro in Vincoli, as well as further understanding the process and individuals associated with its production, exposes teribilita, or terribleness, at conflict with Renaissance ideals. In 1503, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt his tomb monument, ridiculously proposed to include forty marble figures and to be erected above the grave of St. Francis in his basilica. This unbridled egotism, demonstrated through wealthy demands, is unexpected and undesirable in any Christian leader, but especially the Pope. Fortunately, the wishes of Pope Julius II did not come to fruition, but only due to a teribilita of Michelangelo’s own. Throughout the creation process of the monument, Michelangelo revised the specific with his patron and the Pope’s relatives five different times, reducing the number of figures in each contract. The Moses seen above the Pope’s tomb today was finished in 1513. However, Michelangelo put off the project repeatedly until sued by the family for his stalling in 1526. He agreed to finally complete the monument in exchange for advance payment. Moses did not rest above the tomb until 1547, twenty-one years after being sued and thirty-four years after it was sculpted; again, Michelangelo received payment. In the end, his stalling and revisions earned him $50 million for a single figure.

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