Michelangelo’s statue of Moses on display in Vincoli, Rome, in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains, depicts Moses with two horns on his head. This horned portrayal of Moses by Michelangelo and by other artists in other works of art and literature stems from a passage in the book of Exodus.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the first set of stone tablets, he encountered the idolatry and immorality of the people. In rage Moses threw down the tablets, breaking them to pieces. After the people repented, God called Moses to climb Mount Sinai again, with new stone tablets to replace those he had broken:
“And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.” Exodus 34:29.
When the people saw Moses’ shining face, they were afraid to go near him. “And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him”. Exodus 34:30, So Moses covered his face with a veil, “And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a vail on his face”. Exodus 34:33. There is nothing in this passage to warrant the idea that Moses had horns, yet this is where the idea comes from, because of a Latin translation.
The original Hebrew word used to describe the radiant skin of Moses’ face is qaran. A related word, qeren, means “horns,” as it refers to something that “projected outward” as horns do. However, the word qaran means “to shine” or “to send out rays.” The Hebrew wording used in Exodus 34 was meant to indicate that Moses’ face “sent forth rays of light” or “projected light.”
The Latin Vulgate translation by Jerome in the fourth century used the Latin word cornuta to describe Moses’ face. Cornuta, related to the word cornucopia (“horn of plenty”), means “horned.” Jerome, in saying that Moses was unaware that “his face had become horned,” was most likely expressing the fact that the skin of Moses’ face radiated with “strong horns of light.” But his wording led to overly literal interpretations by artists who assumed that Moses had actual horns protruding from his face when he descended Mount Sinai.
One English translation retains the “horns” wording in Exodus 34. The Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible translation of Exodus 34:29 says, “When Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord”. The reason that Moses has “horns” in the Douay-Rheims Translation is that the DRT was translated directly from the Latin Vulgate and not from the original Biblical languages.
The Septuagint (280—100 BC), the Ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, refers to the face of Moses as “glorified.”
The apostle Paul confirms that this is the correct meaning:
“But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away:” 2 Corinthians 3:7
It’s possible that Michelangelo and other ancient artists used horns symbolically, in the same way Jerome did in the Latin Vulgate, to visually illustrate rays of light in the form of horn-like protrusions. Although some anti-Semitic propaganda has since depicted Jews as having horns, Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses did not represent anything negative or demonic.
In the Bible, horns often symbolize power, expressing domination of the weak (Ezekiel 34:21), the power of destruction (Zechariah 1:18–21), and deliverance from oppression (1 Kings 22:11; 2 Chronicles 18:10). The seven horns of the Lamb of God represent His infinite power (Revelation 5:6).
Moses did not have actual horns on his head. He had “a face of strength,” emanating rays of light after he talked with God. The Bible is clear about this, but a faulty translation of one verse—some would say an overly literal translation—amplified by classical artwork, has led to some confusion.