Michelangelo’s famous 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: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29, ESV). When the people saw Moses’ shining face, they were afraid to go near him (verse 30). So Moses covered his face with a veil (verse 33). There seems to be nothing in this passage to warrant the idea that Moses had horns, yet this is indeed 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 properly 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” (emphasis added). 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 Bible 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 indeed the correct meaning: “Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory” (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 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 and puzzlement.