The Grand Moses in the Great Basilica
Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli is one of the great Roman Basilicas which should be visited by every pilgrim who comes to Rome. It is situated on the Esquiline Hill not far away from the Colosseum. When I came up to the Basilica it was closed but there were many people waiting for the opening. Almost all of them had a definite tourist look with guidebooks and maps of Rome, and some of them even carried suitcases.
When the church doors finally opened, all visitors rushed to the north transept of the church, or to the far right corner, where is installed a giant marble composition with Moses in the center. During next 10-15 minutes the crowd, standing in front of the sculpture, silently and intently kept clicking their cameras. Dozens of flashes simultaneously illuminated the semi-dark space. That looked more like a photo session of some celebrity on the red carpet than a visit to the temple. I have never seen such a show before. Finally, the initial agitation was exhausted and the flock began slowly dispersing. I was also captured by the general excitement and made several shots from uncomfortable position. Before leaving, I came back to the statue and took few photos from different angles.
The sculptural composition consists of two levels divided into three niches. In the center of the lower level is placed the powerful figure of seated Moses. On both sides of him stand Leah and Rachel, symbolizing an active and contemplative life. In the central niche of the upper level is situated the Madonna with Child, flanked by a Sibyl and a Prophet. At Madonna’s t foot is located a reclining figure of Pope Julius II. Such an unusual sculpture group is none other than the Pope’s mausoleum. The powerful Pope had commissioned Michelangelo to build his mausoleum long before his own death.
The artist proceeded to work in 1505. First of all he created the Carrara marble architectural “frame” of grand dimensions, 11 m high and 7 m wide. Original design provided for 47 sculptures. Very soon Julius II had lost interest in his own mausoleum and was carried away by another ambitious project, namely, Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The construction of the funeral monument had been delayed for nearly 40 years.
During all these years, the original plan had undergone significant alterations. On the one hand, the number of statues was decreased by 40, on the other – their size had been increased. Finally, Michelangelo who initially was commissioned to make only Moses had carved all lower figures. As it turned out quite recently, he had also completed the statue of Pope Julius II. It is noteworthy to note that the remains of Julius II, disappeared during the barbaric plunder of Rome in 1527.
Moses is considered to be one of the most outstanding works of the great sculptor. The figure of prophet is not only monumental (2.35 m), but a dynamic one. Michelangelo depicted Moses at the very moment when he has descended from the sacred Mount Sinai with tables of the Law. Though Moses is sitting, his pose expresses rather inner movement than peace. His powerful body is turned to the audience, while his concentrated stare is directed to the left. His right forearm presses the sacred book to his body while fingers of this same hand fiddle the luxuriant beard. The left hand rests on his knees, but its muscles and veins are bulging. His right foot stands firmly on the ground, while the left one touches the surface only with fingertips. It seems that Moses can rise any moment to all his large stature and burst into wrath against the Israelites, who worshiped the golden calf.
Not only admiring observers, but Michelangelo himself sometimes regarded his creation as a human being. The rumor says that the artist sometimes talked with the statue during the work. One day the sculptor exclaimed in a temper:”Why don’t you speak?” And hit the statue with his chisel in the hearts. They say that when looking attentively, you can notice a slight mark on the giant’s knee. But the statue of Moses has been completely restored in 2003.
I’ve managed to catch the Moses’ stare and to make a rare full-face photo when the crowd dispersed. For this purpose I slipped under the ropes which enclosed the mausoleum on the left.