"Moses of Michelangelo, The"

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"The Moses of Michelangelo" is a short essay on Michelangelo's masterpiece adorning the tomb of Pope Julius II in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. Freud provides a reading of this enigmatic work that has given rise to a number of contradictory interpretations. The essay was first published anonymously in volume 3 of Imago in April 1914, then acknowledged by Freud in 1924 during the publication of volume ten of his collected works in German. In 1927 he added an afterword reaffirming his 1914 interpretation.

Freud saw the Moses for the first time in 1901. The idea for writing the essay came to him during a trip to Rome with Ferenczi in September 1912. On his return to Vienna he pored over texts about the statue, then had photographs sent to him of the various details. But doubts concerning the accuracy of his interpretation continued to torment him. He returned to Rome in September 1913 and visited the tomb several times. He wrote his essay in a few days at the end of 1913.

Freud's approach in this essay is unique and radically unlike his work on Leonardo da Vinci and his interpretation of Saint Anne. His reading of the Moses is not based on a construction of Michelangelo's unconscious libidinal past or even on the concepts or theoretical developments arising from psychoanalysis. It makes use of a procedure developed by Ivan Lermolieff, which was used to distinguish original paintings from copies on the basis of details that had been neglected by the copyists.

So, it was the details of the statue that had been neglected or distorted in descriptions, the "rubbish heap, as it were of our observations" (1914b, p. 222), that Freud focused on: the position of the right hand of Moses and the twists of his beard that it holds, the position of the Tablets of the Ten Commandments.

After a minute description of these details, he reconstructs and illustrates, in a series of drawings, the changes in position he assumes they have undergone to clarify their role in the sculpture. The sacrilegious implications of the statue then become obviouson the verge of rising and allowing his anger to break out, Moses restrains himself to save the Ten Commandments.

The essay has elicited a number of commentaries and articles primarily bearing on Freud's interpretation of the statue. But the singularities of the text and Freud's approach (treating the unnoticed details of observations as letters whose displacement reveals their hidden meaning) have supplied analysts with a number of opportunities that remain largely unexplored.

Brigitte LemÉrer

See also: Applied psychoanalysis and the interaction of psychoanalysis; Literary and artistic creation; Moses and Monotheism ; Visual arts and psychoanalysis.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1914b). Der Moses des Michelangelo. Imago, 3, 15-36; G.W., X, 172-201; The Moses of Michelangelo. SE, 13: 209-238.


Jones, Ernest. (1953). Sigmund Freud: Life and work. London: Hogarth Press.

Lemérer, Brigitte. (1997). Les Deux Moïse de Freud (1914-1939). Freud et Moïse: écritures du père 1. Ramonville-Saint-Agne:Érès.

Yerushalmi, Yosef Haim. (1991). Freud's Moses, Judaism terminable and interminable. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

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"Moses of Michelangelo, The"