Michelangelo’s Stunning Moses Sculpture in Rome’s St. Peter in Chains

facade of St. Peter's in Chains in Rome's Monti neighborhood
facade of St. Peter’s in Chains in Rome’s Monti neighborhood

Are you a fan of Michelanglo visiting Rome? If so, you need to visit St. Peter in Chains, or the Basilica de San Pietro in Vincoli.

The off the beaten path church houses Michelangelo’s acclaimed Moses sculpture. The stirring sculpture is the central piece of the Tomb of Pope Julius II, who was an important patron of Renaissance art.

Michelangeo was once the world’s greatest sculptor, bending stone and marble to his will. He considered his greatest life work to be Julius’ tomb.

But the tomb was the divine Michelangelo’s greatest failure, one that played out over 40 years.

Basilica di san Pietro
Basilica di san Pietro

If completed, it would have been his most impressive project. Now, it’s dubbed the “tomb tragedy.”

Despite his desire to work on the tomb, Michelangelo was hijacked to work on the Sistine Chapel by Julius himself. When Julius died, funding ran out. Michelangelo wept over his unfinished masterpiece.

Despite the fact that the tomb was never completed, you can visit the powerful remnants in a historic church that also houses the Apostle St. Peter’s chains. Located in Rome’s Monti neighborhood, the 5th century church is a hidden gem in Rome.

For me, admiring the fierce looking Moses was a far superior experience to fighting the crowds for a distant glimpse of Michelangelo’s Pieta (behind glass) in St. Peter’s Basilica. I also think Moses is the more interesting sculpture. Its backstory is fascinating, providing a glimpse into competitive world of Renaissance artists.

Jacopino del Conte, Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1535
Jacopino del Conte, Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1535

History of Michelangelo’s Tomb Commission

At the outset of the 16th century, a young Michelangelo had already completed two of his masterpieces, David and Pieta. The sculptures were renowned for their beauty. Michelangelo’s fame quickly spread.

In 1505, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to build a tomb to exceed “every ancient or imperial tomb every made.” It was intended to be an extravagant monument placed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Michelangelo sketched designs for a free-standing three story mountain of marble.

The pope and the artist envisioned a three level tomb. It would showcase over 40 over life size sculptures, with an effigy of the pope topping the lot of them.

A central figure, Moses, was intended to sit on the upper level as well. Jubilant at the ambitious project, Michelangelo spent months picking out 100 tons of Carrara marble and hired assistants.

In effect, Julius’ tomb was intended to be more church than tomb.

St. Peter's Basilica after Julius II's remodel
St. Peter’s Basilica after Julius II’s remodel

Michelangelo’s Scheming Rivals, Bramante and Raphael

But then, in 1508, Pope Julius II inexplicably changed his mind. He decided to focus instead on remodeling St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.

Legend holds that Michelangelo’s jealous rivals, the architect Donato Bramante and painter Raphael, schemed behind the scenes to make this happen.

READ: Guide To Michelangelo’s Frescos in the Sistine Chapel

Bramante wanted the lucrative architectural project. He convinced Julius that it was an invitation to death to create an expensive tomb while he lived.

Bramante and Raphael recommended that the pope hire Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

the most famous section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam
the most famous section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam

It was a set up. Raphael hoped to see Michelangelo flop in his attempt at the notoriously difficult task of fresco painting.

After these machinations, Julius summoned Michelangelo from Florence and gave him the bad news. No monumental tomb; a massive painting job instead.

As expected, a gnarly and irascible Michelangelo wasn’t enthusiastic. In fact, he was pissed. Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor, not a painter. He was invested in the tomb project.

But Michelangelo had no choice in the matter. According to Julius — nicknamed il papa terrible — it was “paint or hang.” In any event, Michelangelo was insanely talented and up to the task at hand — which no doubt piqued his tormentors.

Michelangelo’s Genius of Victory in the Palazzo Vecchio

Michelangelo single handedly completed the Sistine Chapel in four years. He sped along because he was determined to return to his beloved tomb, which he viewed as his master work.

Michelangelo worked on the tomb sporadically thereafter. He carved the the statue the Genius of Victory. It was intended for the tomb, but eventually wound up in the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio.

But Julius died in 1513. Julius left money for his tomb. But his heirs wanted to reduce the scale of the project.

detail of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel
detail of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel

Pope Leo X, who succeeded Julius II, also had other plans for Michelangelo. He wanted him to design a facade for the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.

Finally, the funding dried up and the commission was cancelled in 1532. Michelangelo was forced to move on to other commissions.

In 1533, Michelangelo was summoned once again to the Sistine Chapel to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall.

Perhaps to depict his unhappiness at the enforced painting servitude, Michelangelo hid two dour self portraits in The Last Judgment. He painted his face on Holofernes’ severed head and on the shedded serpent skin held by Saint Bartholomew.

Michelangelo's face face is on the shedded serpent skin held by Saint Bartholomew
Michelangelo’s face is on the shedded serpent skin held by Saint Bartholomew — the Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel

The Tomb of Julius II

But the tomb survived, although in a radically altered form. In 1542, Michelangelo’s assistants intervened.

Remnants of the tomb project were brought to St. Peters in Chains and pieced together. It’s nothing as grandiose as the original design, which was revised several times.

It’s not even technically Julius’ tomb. He’s buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. So this is a funerary monument.

Some of Michelangelo’s best sculptures for the tomb ended up in other museums. For example, his Slaves are in the Louvre and his Prisoners are in Florence’s Accademia Gallery. When plans for the tomb were revised to be more modest, these sculptures may have been too large.

Today, Julius’ tomb consists of just 7 of the planned 40+ sculptures. Flanking Moses on the left and right are the Old Testament sister-wives of Jacob, Rachel and Leah.

the incomplete Tomb of Julius II in St. Peter in Chains Basilica
the incomplete Tomb of Julius II in St. Peter in Chains

These three statues on the lower tier are the only ones by Michelangelo, though the sisters were likely completed by Michelangelo’s assistants.

On the next level is a reclining (rather awkward looking) statue of a contemplative Julius II.

It was carved in Etruscan manner by Tommaso di Pietro Boscoli. Raffaello da Montelupo, one of Michelangelo’s assistants, sculpted the madonna and child on the top level.

But the absolute gem of the tomb is the imposing 8 feet sculpture of Moses on his throne, from 1516. As depicted by Michelangelo, Moses has just returned from his meet up with God, who gave him the Ten Commandments. Back home, he’s presented with a pagan idol, a golden calf, and he’s pissed at the wayward citizenry.

Michelangelo, Rebellious Slave, 1513 -- originally intended for the tomb, now in the Louvre
Michelangelo, Rebellious Slave, 1513 — originally intended for the tomb, now in the Louvre

Michelangelo’s sculpture exudes power. It captures the rage of disapproval and raw emotion coursing through Moses’ body.

Moses is tensed in anger, clutching the Ten Commandments. He appears ready to leap from his throne. The anatomical details, especially the flowing beard and furrowed brow, are amazing.

Legend holds that that Michelangelo thought Moses was so lifelike that he asked the sculpture to speak. He also purportedly hid his profile in the beard, right under the chin. This was Michelangelo’s preferred method of “signing” his work.

Michelangelo placed some rather un-majestic stubby horns atop Moses’s head. They’re likely the result of a mistranslation of Hebrew in the Bible, with horns standing in for “rays of light.” In pop culture, horns are associated with the devil. But that association is historically very recent.

Michelangelo's Moses sculpture

Moses is slightly disproportionate and elongated when viewed straight on. But according to sketches, Michelangelo did this intentionally. Moses was supposed to be on the upper tier.

Michelangelo went to his grave thinking he’d wasted his life on the “tragedy of the sepulcher.” He had problems with supplies, constant project revisions, and insufficient funding.

In the end, despite his insistence and energy, the tomb was left unfinished. And never sat in its intended place of glory, though Julius’ family said he loved St. Peter in Chains.

In 2017, Moses got a good cleaning. Restorers also discovered that the church window that was supposed to shine light on his face had been covered over. Now, concealed LED lights illuminate the fierce face.

Michelangelo's Moses sculpture

The Reliquary of St. Peter Chains in the Church

I went to the St. Peter in Chains on a mission to see Michelangelo’s Moses and the Tomb of Julius II. Others come on a pilgrimage to see the chains of St. Peter.

The church itself is rather unremarkable, albeit there are some good frescos. But the chains are a valuable relic.

The Apostle Peter was arrested and jailed in Jerusalem for preaching about Jesus.  He was placed under guard and shackled with an iron chain. 

the reliquary containing the chains of the Saint
the reliquary containing the chains of the Saint

The night before his trial, an angel miraculously released St. Peter’s chains and led him out of prison while the guards slept.

The chains that bound Peter were given to Pope Leo by Empress Eudoxia, the wife of Emperor Valentinian III. According to legend, this chain was miraculously joined with chains from Peter’s previous imprisonment. The pope placed them both in the church.

The chains are now prominently displayed in a golden reliquary under the basilica’s altar. There’s a beautiful painting by Raphael depicting the moment of Peter’s liberation in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican Museums.

READ: Guide to the Vatican’s Raphael Rooms

Raphael, The Liberation of St. Peter, 1514 -- Room of Heliodorus in the Vatican Museums
Raphael, The Liberation of St. Peter, 1514 — Room of Heliodorus in the Vatican Museums

Practical Information and Tips for Visiting St. Peter in Chains in Rome

Address: Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli

Getting there: The church is just a 10 minute walk, albeit uphill, from the Colosseum.

Closest metro stop: Colosseo

Hours: Open daily 8:00 am to 12:30 pm & 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Oct-March only open until 6:00 pm.

Entry fee: free

Dress code: Modest dress only. Shoulders and knees must be covered.

I hope you’ve enjoyed by guide to Michelangelo’s Moses. You may enjoy these other Rome travel guides and resources:

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