Michelangelo's Stunning Moses Sculpture in Rome's St. Peter in Chains
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
facade of St. Peter's in Chains in Rome's Monti neighborhood
Here's my guide to visiting Rome's St. Peter in Chains, or the Basilica de San Pietro in Vincoli, to see Michelangelo's acclaimed Moses sculpture. The stirring sculpture is central piece of the Tomb of Pope Julius II, who was an important patron of Renaissance art.
For Michelangelo fans, St. Peter in Chains is a must see site in Rome. 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.
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 remains 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
History of Michelangelo's 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 artist envisioned 47 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.
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.
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.
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, but a massive painting job.
the most famous section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam
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 single handedly completed the Sistine Chapel in four years, determined to return to his beloved tomb, which he viewed as his master work. But Julius died in 1513. Michelangelo worked on the tomb sporadically thereafter. But, finally, the funding dried up. He 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 is on the shedded serpent skin held by Saint Bartholomew -- the Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel
the incomplete Tomb of Julius II in St. Peter in Chains Basilica
The Tomb of Julius II Today
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.
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, the sculptures may have been too large.
Today, Julius' tomb consists of just 7 of the planned 47 sculptures. Flanking Moses on the left and right are the Old Testament sister-wives of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. 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.
Michelangelo, Rebellious Slave, 1513 -- originally intended for the tomb, now in the Louvre
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'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.
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.
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 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.
Raphael, The Liberation of St. Peter, 1514 -- Room of Heliodorus in the Vatican Museums