Before anything else, Michelangelo was a sculptor, his finest achievements in painting and architecture also having a sculptural quality. Unlike his contemporaries who were inspired by ancient art to seek mathematical precision and harmony, Michelangelo was ruled solely by his artistic intuition.
In this detail of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses for the tomb of Pope Julius II, we can admire both his remarkable skill in the lifelike rendering of human form as well as his unique narrative style. The artist was known for imbuing his figures with terribilità, or the powerful drama that exists right before the high point of the action in a story. In this sculpture, we see that Moses has been absentmindedly playing with his beard when his face registers that the Israelites are worshipping the golden calf. In a moment he will get up and smash the tablets with the Ten Commandments that rest underneath his right arm.