97. Botticelli’s Facing Frescoes in the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo dominates the Sistine Chapel, but the chapel’s walls feature twelve frescoes by the previous generation of great Florentine artists. We look at two by Botticelli as an introduction to all twelve.
As we have already seen, there’s more than just one great artist whose work is on display in the Sistine Chapel. In the beginning of the 16th century, Pope Julius II coerced Michelangelo into painting the ceiling of the chapel in fresco, and the artist became justly famous for his achievement. Two decades earlier, Julius’s uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, had already summoned the greatest fresco artists from Florence to Rome to paint the walls of his then brand-new chapel. These 15th century artists included Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Botticelli. If you detach your gaze from Michelangelo’s ceiling to consider their work, I think you will be impressed. It will help us to appreciate all twelve frescoes on the side walls if we spend twenty minutes together with a focus on two of those done by Botticelli.
Chart of Frescoes on Side Walls of Sistine Chapel
(Unofficial but Descriptive Titles)
Left Side (South) Right Side (North)
Moses’ Journey through Egypt (Perugino) The Baptism of Jesus (Perugino)
Tentatio of Moses in 7 scenes (Botticelli) The Temptation of Jesus (Botticelli)
Crossing the Red Sea (Rosselli and d’Antonio) The Calling of the First Disciples (Ghirlandaio)
Moses with the Tables of the Law (Rosselli) The Sermon on the Mount (Rosselli)
The Punishment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Botticelli) The Handing over of the Keys to Peter (Perugino)
Moses’ Last Acts and Death (attributed to Luca Signorelli). The Last Supper (Rosselli).
It is more difficult to appreciate the frescoes on the side walls than those by Michelangelo, partly because they are so complex, and partly because most of us don’t know the Bible as well as the original audience of the paintings did. Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” has over 300 figures in dynamic and unique poses, so it’s hardly a simple work, and to identify the martyrs among them, for example, we need to know the symbols of their martyrdom. This is no great challenge, however, and even the most basic guidebook can carry it out. In this vast fresco, the muscular nudes are themselves the main story, and precise references to the Bible or Church history are relatively few.
Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In contrast to this large fresco devoted to a single main subject—that is, the dramatic punishment of sinners and the gift of life to the blessed—the frescoes on the side walls are smaller but contain more numerous and more complicated scenes. The hundreds of figures they show us refer to tens of different passages from the Bible and even to familiar stories from outside of the Bible, many or even most of which are unknown to today’s visitors to the chapel, myself very much included. I could not on my own have figured out to what stories the two Botticelli frescoes I’m focusing on refer to, and even now that I’ve gotten help from scholars, I’m still uncertain on several points. Still, when we encounter something impressive we don’t understand, it make sense to try.
The first clue is to recognize that the six frescoes on the right or south wall of the Sistine Chapel are devoted to episodes from the life of Christ; the six on the left treat the life of Moses. Both series usually move chronologically, beginning from the front of the chapel, and there is usually some sort of comparison being made between the frescoes that look at one another across the width of the chapel. The easiest example of this is in the fourth frescoes from the front: on the left, Moses is shown handing down the Ten Commandments, and on the right Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount. The subject of the Sermon is Christ’s new moral teaching and its relationship the Ten Commandments, so it makes perfect sense that these two facing frescoes are meant to be considered together and in conjunction with this subject.
I’ll focus on a different pair of facing frescoes, however, the pair that is second in order from the front. Both are by Sandro Botticelli, the great Florentine artist born almost a generation before Michelangelo. I choose Botticelli because most of us have seen his beautiful “Birth of Venus” and his “Primavera,” so his excellence is widely appreciated. Further, this pair of frescoes is especially complicated, so I want to get to know them better.
At least on my first look, neither of the two facing Botticelli frescoes made much sense. Both are colorful and filled with people in various dispositions and such other elements as buildings, hills or mountains, trees, and bodies of water; and it’s not easy to know who’s who or what’s going on. Still, let’s see if we can make a little progress. It will help if you take a peek at these facing frescoes in a book or online. I’ll put links on my website, or you can search “Botticelli Sistine Chapel walls.”
Notice first that the frescoes have titles written in large letters at the top. The one on the left reads, “The Temptatio of Moses, the bringer of the written law.” The title on the right reads, “The Temptatio of Jesus Christ, the bringer of the evangelical law.” Temptatio certainly sounds as though it should be translated “temptation,” but its meaning in Latin is broader: it can also mean a trial or challenge, as if extreme difficulties tempt us into despair or other forms of weakness.
These balanced titles indicate that our frescoes are meant to be compared and that they represent the trials that these two bringers of law had to face. They also suggest that the law differs in the two cases. How, they ask, is the written law of Moses like and unlike the evangelical law of Christ? And what trials did these two lawgivers face? It is a striking sign of the importance of law in the chapel that ten of the twelve side wall frescoes have either “law” or “lawmaker” in their titles. Of course, law in this context means especially moral law.
If our first aid is the titles, a second is to observe that a single important figure, identifiable by the kind and color of his clothing and by his facial features, is present in several different parts of each painting. In Botticelli’s fresco on the left wall, one man is represented seven different times, always with a yellowish cloak on, and usually with a green mantle over one shoulder. His bearded face is always the same. On the opposing wall, a single figure appears four times, always with a red cloak covered by a blue mantle over one shoulder. He also has a halo and gold fringe on his mantle. We should be able to make these observations without the help of experts, and they are crucial, for they indicate that the paintings are divided up into different scenes occurring at different times, like a comic strip, although the scenes are not divided by explicit borders. Even if no one of the scenes is familiar to us, we would be right to suspect that the two main characters are Christ and Moses, who are referred to in the painted titles.
Michelangelo, section of the Sistine Ceiling with architectural divisions, Public Domain Wikimedia
Rather than a comic strip, a more apt contrast is with Michelangelo’s ceiling. It is divided into nine main rectangular panels running down the central axis of the chapel, and these are surrounded by eight spandrels, four pendentives, and twelve lunettes. If these terms mean nothing to you, be patient, and think of carefully arranged rectangles and triangles. Consult a reproduction of the Sistine ceiling, and you will easily note how carefully Michelangelo divided it into various geometric shapes and thereby separated the subjects that fill them. To keep the subjects separate, he painted architectural borders between them: heavy beams, pilasters, and capitals keep the scenes apart, so it is impossible not to see how organized his vast ceiling fresco is. The frescoes on the side walls make us do this organizational work for ourselves.
One more quick note before we sort out the various scenes shown in each fresco. Color matters. Both of Botticelli’s frescoes feature attractive women wearing white or white and blue garments. The word for sky-blue in Italian is celeste, like our “celestial,” and it suggests things heavenly, as white suggests purity. Botticelli’s shadier-looking characters are often dressed in earthtones. It’s likely that other colors also convey certain suggestions.
Now let’s learn or relearn the Bible stories on which these frescoes are based. I begin with the scenes based on the Old Testament, which represent seven episodes in the life of Moses. They read in an undulating path starting from the lower right. Reading right to left makes sense if you remember that time in the wall frescoes generally flows from the altar wall in front toward the back of the chapel—birth up front, death in the back—so it makes sense that on the left wall, time moves from right to left.
Botticelli Tentatio of Moses in seven distinct scenes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The fresco first represents Moses killing an Egyptian, as reported in Exodus 2.11-14. The Egyptian had been beating one of Moses’ fellow Hebrews, and I presume that the beaten Hebrew is the man being tended to by the woman in blue to the right. But since Pharaoh learns of Moses’ deed, the latter fears reprisal and flees in the second scene to the land of Midian, where he encounters a group of young women being harassed as they try to water their flock. Botticelli’s Moses has given up his sword in favor of a club, which he uses to protect the girls in scene three. He then does their watering work for them in the fourth scene. Though not indicated in the fresco, at least as far as I can see, Moses ends up marrying one the young women.
Sandro Botticelli, Woman at the well with Moses, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the best-known scene, the sixth in the fresco, Moses kneels on a mountain while God speaks to him from a burning bush. This is described in Exodus 3.11-17. God first tells Moses to remove his sandals, for the ground is holy, which we see him do in the scene at the top center. Then Moses approaches the bush and learns that God intends to end the suffering of the Hebrews in Egypt and to bring them to a spacious land flowing with milk and honey. To accomplish this, God has chosen Moses, whom he commands to go to Pharaoh and bring the Jews out of Egypt, for which achievement Machiavelli would later honor him as one of history’s four great founders. In the Biblical account, Moses admits to God that he does not think he is up to this arduous task. But God assures Moses that He will help him, and the procession of men, women, and children we see in the final scene below represents his success at least in beginning the Hebrew exodus from Egypt.
In hindsight, the basic meaning of the fresco is not so impossibly difficult. The tricks are to notice that it reports seven different events and to know or find the Bible passages on which it is based. This basic summary still leaves open important interpretive questions. Note, for example, that Moses carries a sword in the first scene, then a club, then a staff like a shepherd might carry, and finally a staff that appears to be symbol of authority, like a scepter. Do these changes mean to commend him for abandoning the use of force, or is the point that leadership often must begin with force, even if it can later dispense with it? Or, is it that Moses’s own force, represented by the sword, can be put away once God steps in and proves ready to use His own greater force? I don’t see that the fresco answers these questions, but it does raise them, and they help make a contrast with Christ, who is not shown with either a sword or a club.
There are also other details in the painting that would deserve comment in longer study. Here’s one: the colors of God’s clothes are the same as those of Christ’s in the facing fresco, to which we now turn.
The most familiar biblical references in this fresco concern the temptation of Christ. As the title suggests, Christ is being tempted, and we see the devil represented left, center, and right across the top one third of the fresco. The stories of the three temptations are told in just a few sentences at the beginning of Matthew 4 and Luke 4. (They were also dramatically retold and interpreted by Dostoevsky’s Ivan in “the Great Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov.) The gist of the Bible story is that the devil tempted Christ to make it plain to all that he was truly the son of God. He first proposed that Jesus turn stones into bread, then that he jump unharmed from the top of the temple, and then that he accept the rule of all the kingdoms of world, but of course Christ rejected each proposal in succession, and chose to spread his message in a different way. Botticelli reminds us of the Bible’s account by having the devil point to stones on the left, point down from the top of the temple in the center, and be on a mountain from which he and Christ can see the prosperous kingdoms of the world in the right background.
Sandro Botticelli Sistine Chapel Temptation of Jesus, Wikimedia Pubic Domain
The point of the devil’s temptations would seem to be that they offer ways Jesus could win popular favor: turn stones to bread, for example, and give it to people. As Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor puts it, “Dost Thou see these stones in the desolate and glaring wilderness? Command that these stones be made bread—and mankind will run after Thee, obedient and grateful like a herd of cattle.” But Christ insists that man does not live by bread alone, and he acts in accord with the more hopeful view that we mortals are led by a deeper hunger.
Botticelli’s version, which was presumably guided by a papal theologian or by the pope himself, has the devil carrying rosary beads and wearing a medieval robe, perhaps that of a Franciscan friar, so Pope Sixtus IV, a Franciscan, was willing to have the fresco add the message that not everyone wearing religious garb is worthy of it. Botticelli departs from the Gospel account also in having the devil’s true identity mostly hidden until it is revealed on the upper right, where a gesture by Christ seems to drive the devil off the side of the mountain as his cloak flies off, and we see him in all his ugliness, with a tail and talons for toes; but even when he was in his religious robes, his bat-like wings gave him away.
This much fits the fresco’s title and is clear enough, but it’s only the top third of the fresco. The most dominant scene is lower down, with the temple from which the devil tempted Jesus standing tall as a backdrop for the events in the foreground. By my rough count, this scene involves about fifty of the sixty characters in the entire fresco. Christ does not appear in this scene, and I see no obvious connection between it and the temptations above. Like some authors, Botticelli did not mind leaving his viewers with something to puzzle over. It’s also a multicultural puzzle, for the dress of the central figures seems to be drawn from various times and places.
The central activity of the foreground is that a Jewish high priest is offering a sacrifice with the help of a young acolyte. The religious service attracts the attention of many onlookers. I say the high priest is Jewish because Exodus 39, verses 1-30, describes an elaborate priestly garment that God commanded Moses to make for Aaron: Botticelli appears to have reproduced it here. And the altar is not a Christian altar, which would be inside of a church, but an altar on which offerings could be burned, as they were in the Old Testament.
Sandro Botticelli, The Temptation of Christ, Detail with Woman and Baby with snake and grapes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Numerous other details cry out for attention, but let me make what seems to me to be the most important point. In addition to his three appearances with the devil, Christ appears in the painting a fourth time. He is on the left side speaking with a group of three or possibly four angels. He and the angels are in a register above the central scene, and it appears that he is here commenting to the angels about the events below. Thus, I infer, Christ is considering the nature of the Jewish sacrifice and how it is different from that of the Christians. The key element of the Christian sacrifice is, of course, Christ himself, who died on the cross to save mankind from the full effects of its sins. This suggestion may receive some support from the fact that in the lower right foreground is a baby holding a bunch of grapes and stepping on a serpent. Christ is the mortal enemy of the serpent and best defense against the temptation he represents. If the grapes are to remind of the communion wine that is or stands for the blood drawn by Christ’s sacrifice, then we have a further reminder that in Christianity, it is God and His son who make the supreme sacrifice. The conspicuous presence of the Roman Catholic Cardinal would also indicate that the Christian alternative is kept in mind at this Jewish service.
The experts are ready with all sorts of additional suggestions. They note that in the crowd are representations of members of the Pope’s family, that the temple is based on an actual building built in Rome by Sixtus IV, the Santo Spirito Hospital, which is still present but much expanded. And many conclude that this sacrifice is the one described in Leviticus 14.1-32. These and other such suggestions help to support my main point, which is that the paintings on the side walls are complicated, but this should not discourage us from making a little effort to figure them out.
 The episodes earliest in the lives of these two great religious leaders used to be on the front or altar wall of the chapel, but they were removed to make room for Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.”