Last week saw the 500th anniversary of the unveiling of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frecoes marked by solemn vespers led by Pope Benedict XVI just as Julius II had done so 500 years before. It seems fitting that the work of art for reflection on this week’s Sunday gospel is by Michelangelo and contemporary with the ceiling. Pope Julius II commisioned his tomb from Michelangelo, and it was a project which Michelangelo worked on intermittently, between 1505 and 1545 in six different schemes, long after the Pope had died. Originally it was to be a large free standing tomb, with three tiers and sculpture of 40 over life sized figures running around the sides. In the end it was placed against the wall, and the scheme was much reduced.
The statue of Moses from 1513 is one of the few parts of the very grand second scheme to be executed. It had to be adapted to fit the final simplified tomb arrangement. It is greatly influenced by Michelangelo’s work on the just completed Sistine chapel ceiling, especially the depiction of the prophets Joel and Jeremiah. We often think that it was the reformers in the church who exclusively re-discovered the Word in the following century, but already in Michelangelo’s work of this time we see there is a new celebration and consciousness of the Word. We see this is the programme of the chapel frescoes developed by Michelangelo to tell the story of salvation from its first days in paint, adding to the salvation history on the walls: we see it in the depiction of the prophets and sibyls with their writings who are seated in array around the chapel: we see it in the celebration of the human form, made in the image and likeness of God, fallen and redeemed in Christ the Word made flesh and we see it in the daring depiction of God in human form, as Creator, whose image can be glimpsed in our likeness, creating with his Word.
This same celebration of the human form and celebration of the Word can be seen in the statue of Moses. Originally, the statue was to turn the right hand platform of the free-standing tomb, and the withdrawn position of the left leg draws one around. The companion piece was to be of St Paul, for they were both witnesses who had seen God. The horns are rays of light, for the face of Moses, which had seen God, was too bright for anyone to look at when he descended Mt Sinai. It should be seen from the left and below, for that was the original position it would have been seen from
The figure of Moses holds the two tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments firmly in hand at his side, but they are not displayed for us to see, as was to happen in many a church and chapel decoration in later times, for it is in the human person of Moses as portrayed that we see the Law internalised and lived out. We see it in the vision which gazes out. It is considered that the words of Pico della Mirandola may have influenced Michelangelo: ” With this vision Moses and Paul and many others among the elect saw the face of God, and this vision is the vision our theologians call intellectual or intuitive cognition”.
This is like Jesus in the Gospel passage today, for whom the Law is to be lived, remembered and embodied and can be summed up in a few words on love of God, others and self. In the middle of this encounter, truth is recognised and accepted. It is a remarkable moment in the Gospel where there is concurrence in an exchange with a scribe. It is a moment coming out of a human encounter, one with the person of Christ.