Freud, Moses and Michelangelo

Freud, Moses and Michelangelo 


Howard Adelman


In response to my last blog on the Two Faces of Moses, one of my readers sent the following:

“I enjoyed your article, and here is another classic one you may enjoy revisiting. I also detected a slip, although not necessarily Freudian, in the first paragraph: Joseph once again meets his brothers face to face, the same brothers who sold him into slavery, but now is the Vizier or Prime Minister of Israel.”

Alex cited Sigmund Freud’s article on Michelangelo’s Moses, a statue produced at the beginning of the sixteenth century during the High Renaissance. I shall write about my not necessarily Freudian slip in tomorrow’s blog on Joseph versus Netanyahu as Vizier or Prime Minister of Israel. This morning I want to write about Freud on Michelangelo’s carrara marble sculpture of Moses that can be found at the entrance of the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. A picture of that sculpture can be found online as can the relevant section of the biblical text in Exodus. Though Freud had drafted his paper first at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was not until before WWI that Sigmund Freud published his paper, “The Moses of Michelangelo” anonymously rather than under his own name. Why? He was obviously obsessed with Moses and his last publication before WWII was Moses and Monotheism. Why before WWI did he want to remain hidden and not lift the disguise until 1924 

I was once asked to serve as an adjudicator on a York exhibition by graduating students of Fine Arts. Like Freud, I was not and remain a non-connoisseur of art even though I love going to galleries, have attended Art Basel in Florida a number of times, my eldest daughter, Shon, is an artist and we will be going to New York later this month to see a number of art shows and galleries, including one in which she is exhibiting. Like Freud, I am unable to really appreciate the techniques in creating art and pay much more attention to the effects, the affects and the meaning I get from observing the art. Thus, at the art show at York University many years ago, it was precisely on those three aspects of the students’ art pieces that I commented. Much to my surprise, the students appreciated that feedback, particularly the interpretive comments, because they said that they rarely got that since most of the feedback they received was about technique 

Freud in his paper, “The Moses of Michelangelo” notes that, perversely, he truly only gets pleasure from art when he can explicate why the piece of art affects him by interpreting the creative work. Further, he is often most intrigued by a work of art when the meaning remains a puzzle, when we are unable to say why the work of art affects us so strongly. Like an historian, Freud believes that the solution is not simply to stand in awe at the ineffability of the work of art, but to understand in the same way we understand the actions of an historical agent in the Dilthey-Collingwood tradition, discerning the intentions of the artist in the artist’s attempt to awaken in us, the viewers, “the same mental constellation as that which in him produced the impetus to create.”

I myself think that this effort at appreciating art by getting inside the artist’s head through close attention to the art object – as simply another version of a dream or a projection on the wall of Plato’s cave – is the grossest conceit, not only with respect to works of art but to the intentions of historical agents or the interpretation of the behaviour of a patient on a psychoanalytic couch. For the effort presumes that the interpreter is an unveiler of the masks and mysteries of life and can act sub specie internitatis like a powerful god who can open the bars to any prison in which the mind finds itself, whether the prison of the personal past, the collective past or the past as delivered in the present through a piece of art on exhibition. On this presumption, the objective of art or historical or psychotherapeutic interpretation is to presume the role of an omniscient god capable of travelling anywhere in the interior mental universe.

So, although like Freud, I approach art (and history) through interpretation, for me the act of interpretation is NOT one of getting inside the artist’s head (or the agent in history or the mixed up neurotic lying on a couch), to recreate the same mental considerations that led to the impetus to create or act in the first place, but to enter into a dialogue between what I experience and see when I look at a piece of art or read an historical account of an agent’s actions. Since I am not engaged in psychotherapy, I am not sure that is analogous, so I will leave that field aside. This major difference aside, Freud and I are akin in approaching art or actions through the interpretation of the objects produced by the artist or the actions initiated by the historical agent even though I do not believe that this is the best way to appreciate art.

Freud offers as his paradigmatic example his own psychoanalytic writing (remember, this essay was published anonymously) in interpreting Hamlet whose behaviour, according to Freud, had previously flummoxed all previous interpreters and left us in the dark as to why the play had such a powerful effect. Without going into the interpretation of Hamlet, I find Freud’s interpretation — in terms of his theory of the Oedipal complex — leaves me cold and throws no light on why I react so powerfully to the power of the play and Hamlet’s existential dithering.

But let us turn to Freud’s interpretation of the statue of Moses by Michelangelo which is the subject of his essay, a statue which I have not laid eyes on in person for almost half a century so I cannot recall how it affected me or what I thought at the time but, unlike Freud’s extravagant claim, I do not recall this statue as having made a stronger impression on me than any other work of art. I do know that, after seeing the film The Great Beauty by means of which I experienced the beauty of Roman statuary in a way I had never before, I resolved to return to Rome to see those statues once again with my own eyes, rather than through the eyes of a camera and a great director, to try to discern why the beauty was so much more apparent in the film than when I experienced it directly.

What does Freud see? He sees “the angry scorn of the hero’s glance”. Further, he sometimes identifies with the mob on whom the glance is fixed, “the mob which can hold fast to no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when its has regained its illusory idols.” I look at the statue – at least at the picture of it – and see nothing of the sort. Moses does not look angry. He looks struck dumb. He is not looking at me but away from me. There is neither scorn nor anger in his face. If anything, Moses is awestruck. Further, though he has the body of a warrior, he is not portrayed with any of the common and recognizable poses or characteristics of a hero. He is seated rather than standing. He carries a tablet under his arm, not a weapon or a fist. His torso leans backwards rather than forwards and even his beard is curled away from whomever he is looking at or forward to seeing or whomever he had seen. His left arm crosses his torso as if in a protective mode. Freud and I do not seem to be staring at the same statue.

Further, Freud goes on in a Platonic condescending mode to characterize the Hebrews as a mob, a mob easily led astray, a mob lacking in conviction and faith, a mob impatient with both Moses and his God, a mob entranced by illusory idols. Since the Israelites are not in the artistic composition but can only come from Freud’s interpretation of the biblical text, I not only do not see the Israelites as Freud suggests, but if they were implied, I would not characterize them as he did and then project that characterization onto the statue. Certainly, God did not see the Israelites as a fickle people; this is a centuries-old stereotype of Christians assumed by Freud. Rather, God described them as a stiffnecked and stubborn population, resistant to both Moses’ authoritarian leadership and submission to God’s ordinances and commandments. They were a people that had to be convinced, that had to be persuaded. And they had neither been intimidated by God’s wrath or Moses’ fit of temper when he first came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law. When Moses saw the Israelites cavorting nude and singing and dancing around a statue of a golden calf, Moses broke the tablets, then broke the idol and crushed it into powder and forced the idolaters to drink up the golden powder. The next day, he ordered his loyal Levites to kill men, women and children among the idolaters and 3,000 died in the slaughter.

The statue has nothing to do with all of this. For the tablets under Moses’ arm are blank. They are the tablets Moses was instructed to bring with him to receive the laws for a second time. That is the only time Moses carried blank tablets. The statute is about Moses’ second coming before God and not his first delivery of the tablets of law to the people. Freud ignored one of the clearest elements of the sculpture and got the historical context of the sculpture all wrong. Freud writes, “There is not the slightest doubt that it represents Moses [OK so far], the Law-giver of the Jews, holding the Tablets of the Ten Commandments.” If that were the case, why are the tablets blank? So when Freud writes, “The descriptions of the figure given by various writers are…curiously inapt. What has not been understood has been inaccurately perceived and reproduced.” I would subscribe to half that statement with respect to Freud – the statue as described by him has been inaccurately perceived.  

Let’s start with the face. Freud writes, “In my opinion we cannot better characterize the facial expression of Moses than in the words of Thode [1908, 205] who reads in it ‘a mixture of wrath, pain and contempt’, – ‘wrath in his threatening contracted brows, pain in his glance, and contempt in his protruded under-lip and in the down-drawn corners of his mouth’. Look at the face. Wrath! Hardly. Pain! Contempt! More like bewilderment. Freud goes on to offer a number of other contrasting descriptions with which he disagrees. An historical aside is necessary. In the latter half of the eighteenth century two new so-called scientific movements emerged, nephrology and physiognomy. In the first, the character of a person was discerned by mapping the bumps on the person’s skull. In the much more popular one, the personality characteristics of an individual could be read by noting a jutting chin (stubbornness), a large crooked nose (greed) or fleshy lips (sensuousness). Many universities had chairs in physiognomy and this became a popular device used by novelists of the nineteenth century.

Freud too believed that the face did not simply reveal the individual’s temperament at the moment but the individual’s underlying and constant character. He asked, “Did Michelangelo intend to create a ‘timeless study of character and mood’ in this Moses, or did he portray him at a particular moment of his life and, if so, at a highly significant one?” After surveying a number of various interpreters, all of whom position Moses in a time just before he rises up in wrath and breaks the tablets rather than in the period when he is waiting to meet God face to face and receive a second inscription on the blank tablets which he was instructed to bring with him, Freud rejects all interpretations that Michelangelo was depicting Moses at a specific moment and, instead, argues that, “Michelangelo has created, not a historical figure, but a character-type, embodying an inexhaustible inner force which tames the recalcitrant world.” In other words, Michelangelo was a neo-Platonist like Freud himself, disinterested in particularities and only fixated on the eternal Forms or universal essences. “This general character of the figure is further heightened by laying stress on the conflict which is bound to arise between such a reforming genius and the rest of mankind. Emotions of anger, contempt and pain are typified in him.” For Freud, psycho-analysis “is accustomed to divine secret and concealed things from despised or unnoticed features, from the rubbish-heap, as it were, of our observations.”  

Here is what Freud observes:

  1. The thumb of the right hand is concealed; the index finger alone is in contact with the beard pressed so hard that the soft masses of hair bulge out both above and below the finger;
  2. In contrast, the other three fingers bent at the upper joints have withdrawn from the beard;
  3. The distinct strands of hair themselves follow different particular courses, the large one at our extreme right coursing across the chest and under the index finger (with the hidden thumb on the other side) and over the next finger, the strand in the middle falling freely on the right and the strand on the left (Moses’ right) from the right side of Moses’ face falling and deformed in its fall by the right hand but cursing beneath it and emerging like a scroll towards the figure’s lap until it and the strand from the right are both caught by the figure’s left hand.

Freud then infers that the right hand had seized the left part of the beard and was retreating from its firm hold suggesting that Moses was startled by the clamour of the people and the spectacle of the Golden Calf, moved by wrath and indignation ready in his rage to punish and annihilate the wrongdoers. Freud then supplies a series of four sketches to retrace the movements of Moses to indicate that the right hand, which had been holding the tablets from beneath, shifted to hold the tablets by his arm as the hand went to grab the beard and then withdrew as the tablets started to slip and were about to crash on the floor and shatter to pieces.

There is much to be said for Freud’s claim that Michelangelo was intent on bringing out Moses’ universal character as historians of art have documented that Michelangelo was heavily influenced by the neo-Platonists of his time who were in turn immersed in Plotinus and his pupils and followers – Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus. “Renaissance Neoplatonism formally began with the founding of the Florentine Academy in 1462 by Cosimo di’ Medici” and the belief that the purpose of art was to express a “kinship with the universal Soul; then, to learn to see intelligible form, reflecting the light of Good, through the medium of physical beauty.” But before we can claim to see the universal we must accurately perceive the particular through which the universal is to shine forth. “What we see before us is not the inception of a violent action but the remains of a movement that has already taken place. In his first transport of fury, Moses desired to act, to spring up and take vengeance and forget the Tables; but he has overcome the temptation, and he will now remain seated and still, in his frozen wrath and in his pain mingled with contempt.” In this interpretation, Moses claimed that Michelangelo had no intention of being faithful to the biblical text. “Michelangelo has placed a different Moses on the tomb of the Pope, one superior to the historical or traditional Moses. He has modified the theme of the broken Tables; he does not let Moses break them in his wrath, but makes him be influenced by the danger that they will be broken and makes him calm that wrath.” In other words, Michelangelo did not depict a Moses out of control but a Moses who is able to contain and control his extreme anger, a universal persona “struggling against an inward passion for the sake of a cause to which he has devoted himself” as a projection of his own personal inner struggle and a warning to himself.

I might suggest, as Ernest Jones does in his biography of Freud, that Freud read into Michelangelo’s statue his own struggle to repress his wrath at the disloyalty of his followers, particularly Carl Jung, even though a reasonable and respectful reading of the statue was not to capture “the passage of a violent gust of passion visible in the signs left behind it in the ensuing calm” resulting from his disciplined self-control. Freud’s misreading, in spite of his detailed attention to some details in the painting, may have resulted from the same neo-Platonic tendency of Michelangelo to prioritize intuition over empirical forms of knowing and his Platonic conviction as embodied in his nude portrayal of David and of Adam to present the perfect male figure naked and unadorned with his perfection revealed to all. Moses, in contrast, was imperfect, but not in the way Freud suggests, but rather a nervous and fraught Moses having to come face to face after he had acted so out of control.

So why did Freud hide that he had authored the paper? Did he want to test the waters because he was unsure of his interpretation? Hardly given Freud’s huge ego. There is very little indication that he felt insecure about his convictions though he pays a nominal stipend at the end of the paper to express his modesty concerning his hypothesis. Or did he not want to reveal his own identification with the portrayal of Moses he read into the statue lest he place on the public stage his own feelings about the emerging conflict with Carl Jung? I have no idea and I have not presented nearly enough evidence to speculate on an approximate explanation. What I do know is that I am uninterested in finding universal heroic virtues in a character like Moses, an interest that both Freud and Michelangelo shared. Further, it is an interest displayed in many Haggadahs influenced by the Greeks not only in holding a symposium but in using the symposium to display the true and permanent virtues of man as embodied in Moses. I prefer to see and read about a Moses with all his flaws on display.

That brings us to the horns (karenim in Hebrew, the radiant beams given off by Moses’ face rather than Satanic horns on his head) on Michelangelo’s Moses which Freud ignores and the fact that the statue was intended to be set opposite to that of Paul who had declared Moses (and Jews who upheld the unnecessary continuing adherence to the law) to be veiled or horned indicating a failure to open themselves fully to accepting Jesus as their messiah and saviour. As the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible in English translates the passage, “And 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.” I prefer to read Moses neither through Christian contrasts nor through Greek projections but in terms of the words with which his actions are actually described with all the flaws of his character revealed, including those which Moses himself preferred to hide. Michelangelo may have been trying to portray a petrified arrested moment constricted in marble, though a very different moment than Freud supposed, a moment when the great actor and agent of Jewish history was frozen and awestruck before having to meet face to face with God and deal with God’s wrath that awaited him for his folly in breaking the original tablets, a seriously flawed man of action when contrasted with the much superior and visionary Paul. Or he may have been projecting onto Moses his own frustrations and fears in dealing with his off and on commission by Julius the Magnificent, the Warrior Pope, or as a comment on a Pope who saw himself as a Julius Caesar if not a god who wanted so badly to win the masses over with grand and majestic marvels that would inspire awe, reverence and even fear in his flock.

I have hanging in our hall a framed large drawing made by a former post-doc student of mine, Michael Kigel, who is now a Hasid working in Vienna, an envoy in the Lubavitcher religious army. The portrait depicts a ragged bearded rabbinic figure peering downward and inward, unlike Michelangelo’s Moses with his beautifully coiffed beard. Kigel’s figure is not seated erect, but crumpled and defeated. He occupies the lower half of the picture and the top half is an absence, again, unlike Michelangelo’s which, in pictures of the statue, fills most of the frame. For me, this picture of a Moses who wants to hide from himself let alone God is a far truer portrait of the Moses of Exodus that the one that Michelangelo created and certainly of the one Freud read into Michelangelo’s statue.    

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