We should aim to be more like Moses than Michelangelo

The great artist’s and biblical hero’s approach to mortality show a revealing contrast


Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses

In 1536, the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo returned to Rome. It was a quarter of a century since he had been there completing his monumental painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, featuring numerous biblical characters and scenes.

Now in his sixties, he was back fulfilling a commission from the Pope himself to depict Christ’s second coming and God’s final judgment of humanity, on the altar wall of the Chapel.

The Last Judgment, like the ceiling, displayed a cast of hundreds. On the upper half the righteous rise to heaven, while below the wicked descend to hell. Some scholars believe that two Jews can be spotted among the faithful and that the overall shape of the huge fresco is reminiscent of the two tablets God gave Moses on Mount Sinai. Michelangelo’s progressive view that Jews could enter heaven clashed with Christian doctrine at the time but may have revealed his religious humanist beliefs.

This stunning fresco is the starting point of Michelangelo: The Last Decades, the current exhibition at the British Museum (until July 28), telling the story of his final years. While still fulfilling dozens of commissions, he turned to poetry in his late seventies. In one sonnet that caught my eye, he reflects on his mortality and moral fate:

“The voyage of my life at last has reached

across a stormy sea, in a fragile boat,

the common port all must pass through,

to give an accounting for every evil and pious deed.”

Then, to my surprise, he launches into a piercing critique of his life’s work:

“So now I recognise how laden with error

was the affectionate fantasy

that made art an idol and sovereign to me,

like all things men want in spite of their best interests.”

Though history rightly regards him as an artistic genius, nonetheless Michelangelo finally realises that he was worshipping his craft more than its subject. The man who sculpted the young David and horned Moses, both masterpieces, now turns to a spiritual accounting, and finds himself lacking. Was the honour he gave to God in all his works just a fantasy? Was he just serving his own artistic creativity? As he faces his end, and the possibility of resurrection, he asks himself:

“What will become of all my thoughts of love,

once gay and foolish, now that I’m nearing two deaths?

I’m certain of one, and the other looms over me.

Neither painting nor sculpture will be able any longer

to calm my soul, now turned towards that divine love…”

Standing before God at the end of his days, his soul now yearns for salvation, not worldly cares. Michelangelo’s focus and faith are inspiring, but I could not help but to contrast it with a lengthy midrash about the death of Moses I have always treasured.

The leader of the Israelites for 40 years, who delivered them from Egyptian slavery to the Revelation at Mount Sinai, and finally to the borders of the Promised Land, had no intention of exiting. He does not want to die and argues against it any way he can: opposing the Angel of Death, justifying all his actions, demanding to be allowed to continue to lead.

Here is a flavour of the midrash: “When Moses saw that the decree against him had been sealed, he resolved to fast, drew a small circle, and stood inside it. He said, ‘I will not move from here until You nullify that decree’… He wrapped himself with sackcloth, rolled in the dust and stood in devout prayer before the Holy One blessed be God, until the heavens and nature itself shook” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:5-10).

Moses fought to the end. He wanted to live longer. At first glance his desperation is disconcerting. Why could he not accept it was his time? Was he just a frightened old man making a final stand?

However, this is a misreading of the midrash. Moses refuses death because he feels his mission is incomplete. He wants to see the Israelites cross over the Jordan and settle the land. He aches to see the fulfilment of God’s promise to the forefathers. With his own eyes he needs to know that all the pain and struggle were worth it, and that there is a happy ending. Heaven holds no interest for him.

This is a particular characteristic of the Jewish tradition: the passion for existence, the zest for living. While we still breathe, we can make a difference. Only the grave is game over.

Unlike Michelangelo, Moses does not question his accomplishments, because they were for the betterment of his people and thus the service of God. In his old age the great artist disconnected from life, whereas Moses was invigorated by it. The Torah proudly states: “Moses was 120 years old when he died, his eye had not dimmed and is vigour had not diminished” (Deuteronomy 34:7).

The British Museum exhibition lovingly depicts Michelangelo’s frailty and spiritual angst while the Torah presents Moses as a spritely supercentenarian, on message until the end. The contrast teaches much about the human condition and how we might live out our final days.

Rabbi Zarum’s book, Questioning Belief, is out now

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