Visual Analysis

Art History is not just about memorizing the titles and dates of images.  One of the first things that students learn in this class is the importance of understanding the influences, both external and internal, that inform a work of art.

Recently I asked my eleventh grade students to complete a visual analysis of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Moses (see image below), the primary figure of the tomb of Julius II.  Each student analyzed the sculpture in the following categories:  context, rhetoric, design, and personal opinion.  After completing the written portion of the assignment, they then chose a small section of the sculpture and executed a detailed drawing of it.  By formally analyzing this piece, students gained a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, this powerful work of art and the artist who created it.

Enjoy the beautiful drawing by 11th grader E. Jordan, below.  Scroll down to read her analysis.

'Moses', by Michelangelo Buonarroti, c. 1515 San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome,Italy ‘Moses’, by Michelangelo Buonarroti, c. 1515, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, Italy

Detail of 'Moses', by E. Jordan, grade 11

Detail of ‘Moses’, by E. Jordan, grade 11

November 13, 2015

Michelangelo’s Moses: An Analysis

Mrs. Collins, Art History


Born on the sixth of March, 1475, in the town of Caprese, Italy, Michelangelo Buonarroti was raised in the city of Florence. Although his father was a banker and a politician, he was entranced by the arts from a young age, and spent much of his time with his nurse and her husband, a stonemason who introduced the boy to the craft of cutting marble. After apprenticing for some time under the artist Ghirlandaio, he proceeded to study in The Accademia, a school of art founded by the Medici family. He traveled throughout Italy during the course of his professional life, spending much of his time in Florence and Rome. It was in these cities that he crafted some of his greatest works, including his sculpture of David and his painting of the Holy Family in Florence, as well as his sculpture, Pieta, in Rome.

Created in Michelangelo’s workshop in Rome between the years 1513 and 1515 for the Tomb of Pope Julius II, Moses is one of Michelangelo’s greatest works. Rome, at this time, had fallen into a tragic state of disrepair, well exemplified by the dilapidated basilica of St. Peter, the projected site of the papal tomb. The reigning pope, Julius II was a man characterized by his fiery temperament and passion for fine things. Although he was nicknamed the “fearsome” or “warrior” pope for his complex political maneuvers, he was also known to be a great patron of the arts, and commissioned many great works of art, including the frescoes adorning the Sistine Chapel, the ceiling of which was painted by Michelangelo himself. One of his greatest commissions was the design and sculpture of his own tomb, which was to incorporate numerous carved figures, including the figure of Moses. 

One of the most famous sculptures of the High Renaissance, Moses was carved of Carrara marble, and may be found in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, in Rome. As a feature of what was supposed to be his greatest artistic feat, Michelangelo created Moses not merely for profit, about which he cared little, but for his own immortalization. Although Michelangelo’s original design for the tomb was extraordinarily vast and ornate, calling for 42 individual sculptures, and was intended to be housed in St Peter’s Basilica, Pope Julius II diverted a great deal of Michelangelo’s funding to another project, the restoration of the basilica itself, almost a year into Michelangelo’s preparations. This resulted not only in a great deal of personal friction between Michelangelo and the pope, but also in the significant downsizing of the tomb, and the statue of Moses, originally intended for one of the top tiers of the structure, assumed a prominent position on the tomb’s base level. This explains why Moses’ torso and head may appear disproportionately large; he was intended to be viewed from below.

The statue itself is comprised of the figure of Moses, seated, holding under his right arm the tablets of the Law, fingers twined in his flowing beard. His mighty left arm is extended across his lap, muscles tensed, veins and tendons bulging with pent power. Another remarkable feature of the statue is the pair of horns erupting from the crown of Moses’ head. These are commonly attributed to a translational error in the Vulgate, which describes Moses as returning from Mt. Sinai sporting a pair of horns, rather than a heavenly glow. Michelangelo regarded Moses as a figure of strength, a mighty prophet and leader. His depiction of Moses in this manner has impacted multitudes, and its cultural significance has only increased with time.  According to one of Michelangelo’s biographers, Giorgio Vasari, the Jews of the time would frequent the site of the statue “to visit and adore it as a divine, not a human thing.” Over the centuries, thousands of viewers have been struck by the electric energy emanating from the stone, the sense of divine power wrought into every aspect of the figure. This work is truly one of the great masterpieces of the Italian High Renaissance, and ought to be revered as such. Michelangelo himself felt that the sculpture of Moses was his most life-like, and is said to have struck the great knee of the figure after its completion, commanding it to speak. A small mark on Moses’ right knee seemingly corroborates this legend, claimed by many to be the mark of Michelangelo’s hammer. 


Moses is characterized by an overwhelming sense of power, energy, and motion which cannot fail to impress itself upon each viewer. Each detail of Moses’ anatomy and posture further persuades the viewer, to the point that one cannot help but suspect that Michelangelo has accomplished the impossible, transforming cold, dead stone into a being of majesty, alive, poised as if to rise in all his strength. In light of Moses’ set jaw and furrowed brow, his intense glare, and his coiled, taut muscles, viewers are inspired with a sense of awe and intimidation. Michelangelo has encapsulated the idea of the warrior prophet, a man touched by the presence of God. He also employs historical devices to influence the audience’s interpretation of the timing of the event. The presence of the stone tablets under his arm and the horns atop his head reflect the Biblical account in Exodus of Moses’ return from the mountain, and his expression and posture seem to denote his fury upon discovering the Israelites reveling in sin and idol worship. The sculpture seems to argue the point of Moses’ righteous anger, and perhaps reflects some of Michelangelo’s own resentment toward the pope for supposedly cheating him of his masterpiece.


Not only is Michelangelo’s Moses beautiful and awe inspiring, it is compositionally excellent, involving numerous elements of artistic design. Michelangelo employs the concept of variety in Moses through his use of texture, creating a great deal of visual interest by juxtaposing Moses’ thick, soft ringlets, his hardened, corded muscles, and the intricate drapery of his clothing. In addition to this variety of materials and textures, a great deal of contrast may also be observed in the various values carved throughout the piece. From the minute, delicate layers of Moses’ eyes to the deep folds of his robes, Michelangelo combines skillful sculpture with a natural manipulation of light and shadow in order to create a wide contrast of values. Moses also exhibits a sort of crosswise symmetry, sitting up straight with one limb angled forward and one backward on each side. On his right side, his arm is drawn back and his leg assumes prominence, while, on his left side, his arm is placed at the forefront, across his torso, while his left leg is bent back and shrouded in clothing. Although each section of Moses’ body is beautifully proportioned within itself (for example, the elements within his face are well proportioned with each other), his body as a whole is disproportionate, due to the angle at which the sculpture is viewed (straight on, rather than from below). Moses also exhibits Michelangelo’s mastery of the human form, each muscle and tendon expertly sculpted. The only obvious exception to his anatomical excellence is the pair of horns nestled in his curls, the result of a widespread hermeneutical error. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the sculpture is its sense of motion. Although the figure is still seated, the positions of his limbs and the tension of his muscles suggest that he is in the action of rising. He exudes a sense of majestic energy which commands the attention and respect of everyone in his presence.


Personally, I have an immense amount of respect and admiration for this work of art. Aside from my appreciation for the technical excellence of the sculpture, I am awestruck by Moses’ splendor and power, the noble qualities of his face and the strength of his mighty hands. For both of these reasons, its extraordinarily high quality as a work of sculpture and its profundity of meaning, I would not hesitate to recommend that others view it. It has provoked my personal consideration of the power and capability of Moses, infinitely frail in the presence of an infinitely mighty God. Having studied Michelangelo’s Moses, I am eager to view and learn about his other works.   

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2 Responses

  1. casquette ssur

    Spot on with this write-up, I really think this website needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the information!

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