The statue depicts Moses with horns on his head. This is believed to be because of a popular contemporary mistranslation of a passage in the Old Testament, in which Moses is actually described as having "rays of light" coming from his head.
The tomb of Julius II, a colossal structure that would have given Michelangelo the room he needed for his superhuman, tragic beings, became one of the great disappointments of Michelangelo's life when the pope, for unexplained reasons, interrupted the commission, possibly because funds had to be diverted for Bramante's rebuilding of St. Peter's. The original project called for a freestanding, two-story structure with some twenty-eight statues. After the pope's death in 1513, the scale of the project was reduced step by step until, in 1542, a final contract specified a simple wall tomb with fewer than one-third of the originally planned figures.
The spirit of the tomb may be summed up in the figure of Moses, which was completed during one of the sporadic resumptions of the work in 1513. Meant to be seen from below, and balanced with seven other massive forms related in spirit to it, the Moses now, in its comparatively paltry setting, can hardly have its full impact. The leader of Israel is shown seated, the tables of the Law under one arm, his other hand gripping the coils of his beard. We may imagine him pausing after the ecstasy of receiving the Law on Mount Sinai, while, in the valley below, the people of Israel give themselves up once more to idolatry. Here again, Michelangelo uses the turned head, which concentrates the expression of awful wrath that now begins to stir on the mighty frame and eyes.
One must study the work closely to appreciate Michelangelo's sense of the relevance of each detail of body and drapery in forcing up the psychic temperature. The muscles bulge, the veins swell, the great legs begin slowly to move. If this titan ever rose to his feet, says one writer, the world would fly apart. The holy rage of Moses mounts to the bursting point, yet must be contained, for the free release of energies in action is forbidden forever to Michelangelo's passion-stricken beings.