115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reverence: Projection and Sublimation in Freud’s Moses des Michelangelos

Shemuelle Dado, University of Illinois at Chicago

Despite being a lifelong atheist, Sigmund Freud curiously chose Michelangelo’s Moses statue as the object upon which he could project his own enlightened ideals. Through a close reading of Freud’s Der Moses des Michelangelos, I explore this analyst’s complex relationship with his object of analysis, Reason, and Religion.


In Der Moses des Michelangelo (The Moses of Michelangelo) (1914), the statue of Moses becomes a canvas upon which Freud projects his own Enlightenment ideals.  For Freud, reverence towards God is not the primary motivation for Moses’s actions during the pregnant moment depicted in the statue; rather, it is his deep devotion for the Law that drives him.  Instead of the familiar religious and spiritual figure, Freud perceives a Moses who has become an embodiment of Reason, one that had the rare capacity to sublimate chaotic emotion for the sake of order.  In scrutinizing the minute details of the statue, Freud constructs and provides his own version of the events leading up to the moment in which Moses is frozen, drawing evidence for the apparent emotional sublimation from these imagined actions and from the visible remnants thereof.  However, replicating this method of reading the Moses statue did not lead to the same conclusions.  In fact, the experiment revealed a small flaw in his analysis and resulted in what I hope to be a convincing counter reading to Freud’s vision of Moses – one that might provide supporting evidence for a Moses who has not necessarily sacrificed his human emotions.  This project mainly concerns itself with the possible reasoning(s) behind Freud’s unconventional interpretation of this well-known figure, drawing from knowledge about his past and his complicated relationship with his parents.  Ryan LaMothe’s work on projective identification informs my hypothesis on Freud’s susceptibility to potentially misinterpreting this specific work of art and provides crucial insights about the nature of his relationship with it.  Additionally, the paper briefly comments on Michelangelo’s relationship with this particular work of art in the hopes of strengthening the proposed counter reading.