The Moses

  • Nathan CarlinEmail author


In this essay, the author engages the Moses, a sculpture by Michelangelo, as a transformational object. He does so in light of psychoanalytic interpretations of the statue, including Sigmund Freud’s (who referred to his essay on the Moses as “a joke”), as well as three psychoanalytic interpretations after Freud. While drawing on and combining features of all of these psychoanalytic interpretations, the author makes particular use of Moshe Halevi Spero’s interpretation to affirm a reading of the Moses as representing a paternal figure who not only gives up his anger (and power to castrate) but also actively nourishes his children like a nursing mother. The author also understands Freud’s essay on the Moses to be a form of teasing, which, in part, is why it has been a transformational object for him.


Michelangelo Sigmund Freud Christopher Bollas Transformational object Humor 



I would like to thank the Group for New Directions in Pastoral Theology, as well as the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics, for feedback on this essay. The peer reviewers also were of great help. Although I am not able to credit them directly because they are anonymous, I did incorporate many of their thoughtful suggestions in revising this essay. I also would like to thank William Howze for securing permissions for the use of the images in this essay.

Compliance with ethical standards


All of the works of art in this article are in the public domain. The Moses is a sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti, completed in 1545, Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. The source of this image is Prasenbergen. It was transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User: Leoboudv using CommonsHelper. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. The close-up of the Moses is by Jörg Bittner Unna, also licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. TheNursing Madonna (Madonna Lactans) is by an unknown master of Bruges, 16th century, Museu de Aveiro, Portugal. The source is Alvesgaspar. La Madonna che Allatta il Figlio is a drawing by Michelangelo Buonarroti, about 1525, Casa Buonarroti, Florence.


  1. Blum, H. (1991). Freud and the figure of Moses: The Moses of Freud. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39(2), 513–535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bollas, C. (1987). Shadow of the object: Psychoanalysis of the unthought known. London: Free Association Books.Google Scholar
  3. Bollas, C. (1993). The aesthetic moment and the search for transformation. In P. Rudnytsky (Ed.), Transitional objects and potential spaces: Literary uses of D. W. Winnicott (pp. 40–49). New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bremer, R. (1976). Freud and Michelangelo's Moses. American Imago, 33(1), 60–75.Google Scholar
  5. Capps, D. (1995). The child’s song: The religious abuse of children. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.Google Scholar
  6. Capps, D. (1997). Shame, melancholy, and the introspective method in the psychology of religion. In J. Belzen & O. Wikstrom (Eds.), Taking a step back: Assessments of the psychology of religion (pp. 37–54). Psychologia et Sociologia Religionum 13. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis.Google Scholar
  7. Capps, D. (2005). A time to laugh: The religion of humor. New York: Continuum.Google Scholar
  8. Capps, D. (2015). Erik H. Erikson’s psychoanalytic portrait of Martin Luther. Pastoral Psychology, 64, 345–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Capps, D., & Carlin, N. (2010). Living in limbo: Life in the midst of uncertainty. Eugene: Cascade Books.Google Scholar
  10. Carlin, N. (2009). The hospital room as uncanny: Psychoanalytic observations and recommendations for pastors and chaplains. Pastoral Psychology, 58, 27–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Carlin, N. (2014). Religious mourning: Reversals and restorations in psychological portraits of religious leaders. Eugene: Wipf & Stock.Google Scholar
  12. Carlin, N. (2018). Reflections for clinical pastoral education students in psychiatric settings. Journal of Religion and Health, 57, 523–537.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cooper-White, P. (2018). Old and dirty gods: Religion, anti-Semitism, and the origins of psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Dittes, J. (1977). The investigator as an instrument of investigation: Some exploratory observations on the compleat researcher. In D. Capps, W. Capps, & M. Bradford (Eds.), Encounter with Erikson: Historical interpretation and religious biography (pp. 347–373). American Academy of Religion and the University of California Institute of Religious Studies. Joint Series on Formative Contemporary Thinkers Number 2. Missoula: Scholars Press.Google Scholar
  15. Dykstra, R. (2018). Finding ourselves lost: Ministry in the age of overwhelm. Eugene: Cascade Books.Google Scholar
  16. Erikson, E. H. (1958). Young man Luther: A study in psychoanalysis and history. New York: W. W. Norton.Google Scholar
  17. Freud, S. (2001a). The Moses of Michelangelo. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 13; pp. 209–238). London: Vintage. (Original work published 1914).Google Scholar
  18. Freud, S. (2001b). On humor. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 21; pp. 159–166). London: Vintage. (Original work published 1927).Google Scholar
  19. Gayford, M. (2017). Michelangelo: His epic life. London: Penguin Books UK.Google Scholar
  20. Homans, P. (1979). Jung in context: Modernity and the making of a psychology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  21. Jones, E. (1955). The life and work of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 2). New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  22. Jonte-Pace, D. (2001). Speaking the unspeakable: Religion, misogyny, and the uncanny mother in Freud’s cultural texts. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kavka, J. (1980). Michelangelo’s Moses: “Madonna androgyna” (a meaning of the artist’s use of the forefinger). The Annual of Psychoanalysis, 8, 291–315.Google Scholar
  24. Liebert, R. (1977). Michelangelo’s dying slave: A psychoanalytic study in iconography. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 32, 505–543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Liebert, R. (1979). Michelangelo’s early works: A psychoanalytic study in iconography. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 34, 463–525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Liebert, R. (1983). Michelangelo: A psychoanalytic study of his life and images. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Mahony, P. (2006). The Moses of Michelangelo: A matter of solutions. Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis, 14, 11–43.Google Scholar
  28. Oremland, J. (1978). Michelangelo’s Pietà. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 33, 563–559.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Oremland, J. (1985). Michelangelo’s Ignudi, hermaphrodism, and creativity. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 40, 399–433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Reynolds, L. C., Duncan, M. M., Smith, G. C., Mathur, A., Neil, J., Inder, T., & Pineda, R. G. (2013). Parental presence and holding in the neonatal intensive care unit and associations with early neurobehavior. Journal of Perinatology, 33(8), 636–641.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Spero, M. (2010). Moses lactans: Evidence in support of the latent mythic value of Freud’s 1914 “Moses of Michelangelo.” American Imago, 67(2), 183–242.Google Scholar
  32. Spruiell, V. (1985). The joke in the “the Moses of Michelangelo”: Imagination and creativity. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 40(1), 473–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Terjesen, A. (2007). What are you laughing at (and why)? Exploring the humor of Family Guy. In J. Wisnewski (Ed.), Family guy and philosophy: A cure for the petarded (pp. 128–138). Malden: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  34. Tillich, P. (1973). Systematic theology (Vol. 1). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  35. Tillich, P. (1975). Systematic theology (Vol. 2). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  36. Tillich, P. (1976). Systematic theology (Vol. 3). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  37. Wallace, W. (2015). Michelangelo: The artist, the man, and his times. Cambridge, England: University of Cambridge.Google Scholar
  38. Watkins, J. (1951). Concerning Freud’s paper on “The Moses of Michelangelo.” American Imago, 8(1), 61–63.Google Scholar
  39. Wisnewski, J. (2007). Family guy and philosophy: A cure for the petarded. Malden: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  40. Zöllner, F., & Thoenes, C. (2017). Michelangelo: The complete paintings, sculptures and architecture. Cologne, Germany: Taschen.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics, McGovern Medical School – JJL 410HoustonUSA

Personalised recommendations