Michelangelo’s paintings aren’t the only ones in the Sistine Chapel. A generation before he worked there the best painters in Italy decorated it, and most of their paintings are still there. Pope Sixtus put Sandro Botticelli in charge of the first project (1480) .
The theme of the new chapel was the Supremacy of the Papacy. Botticelli decided to fill the spaces between the windows with pictures of all the martyred Popes, and on the walls under them, scenes from the Old and New Testament. On one wall would be scenes from the life of Christ; on the other, the life of Moses. They would show the succession of God’s representatives. Botticelli probably used assistants to paint the figures of the Popes and he supervised while a group of artists completed the scenes on the walls, but he made the following three frescoes himself.
1 The Trials of Moses
It doesn’t represent a single scene but a narrative of episodes. A modern cartoonist would have ordered them in “frames”, one after the other, left to right, but Botticelli did away with the chronology. It wasn’t necessary. Everyone knew the Bible stories and could easily discover Moses’ adventures in the picture. To help them, Botticelli clothed the Prophet in a bright yellow robe. The little challenge of spotting him in the big fresco, remembering the episode, and seeing how Botticelli had imagined it, made the puzzle-painting very popular.
On the right, Moses kills the Egyptian that he has seen beating a Jewish boy, who runs off crying with his mother.
A little above that, Moses flees. How does one depict a guilty, fleeing man? Not easy. Botticelli’s idea to show him from behind, his head ducking, was right-on.
Just to the left, Moses drives off the shepherds who had kept Jethro’s daughters from using the well;
and, in the center, he fills the girls’ water jars for them.
The daughters are two of the most memorable creations of Botticelli; their poses, dress, and hairdos are typical of his idealizations. In Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, M. Swann thinks of this pretty face when he sees his love Odette.
The left side of the big fresco shows the encounter with Yahweh on Mount Sinai. Moses removes his shoes before approaching the holy place;
and then kneels before Yahweh and the Burning Bush.
Botticelli did not include the often-illustrated tablets with the Ten Commandments and many who have studied the painting must have missed them. But then they were again delighted to see Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.
2 The Punishment of Korah
Botticelli’s other fresco about the life of Moses shows an episode that is not so well known today.
The Book of Numbers, 16, treats of the sedition of Korah, a descendent of Levi, who became discouraged after the long years of wandering in the desert and questioned the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Finally he and two hundred of his followers challenged them. Moses appealed to Yahweh, asking Him to manifest his support. Botticelli first shows, on the right, the angry group of rebels with stones in their hands. One of them tries to restrain them while Moses speaks. The group includes many portraits of men from Botticelli’s time, unidentifiable now.
The Incense Test
Moses orders Korah, together with all his followers, to go to the temple with censers. They must make an offering as a test to see which party Yahweh favors. The priests perform the rite and the “glory of Yahweh” appears to the assembly. The smoke from Aaron’s incense rises to heaven; that of the rebels turns into flames that scorch them.
Yahweh then destroys all the rebels and their families. The earth opens and swallows them. Aaron’s two sons, miraculously untouched, watch in awe.
Behind the scene is Constantine’s Arch of Triumph in Rome.
Botticelli’s inscription means: “No one should assume honor unless he is called by God, such as Aaron is”. The tree that stands beside the Arch is a new shoot that has grown fast and tall from the deep roots of its severed old parent. It symbolizes Aaron, who succeeded Moses, but also Christianity that sprang from the fallen Roman Empire. It can also stand for Christ and his successors the Popes, who succeeded Moses as God’s chosen leaders.
3 The Purification of the Leper
Botticelli’s third fresco is part of the other cycle, on the opposite wall of the Chapel. Those paintings illustrate the Temptations of Christ, Moses’s successor in the Divine Plan.
Like the second Moses story, the purification of the leper is not well known today, though other illustrations of the New Testament narrative included in the painting are soon recognized.
At the top left, the Devil, clothed in a Franciscan robe, tempts Jesus who is weak from fasting. He challenges him to change the stones at their feet into bread. The Franciscan robe has puzzled many but was probably meant to represent the Devil’s astuteness.
In the center of the fresco, Jesus and the Devil stand at the top of the Temple of Jerusalem. Satan invites Jesus to throw himself off. “The angels will catch you,” he says. Jesus refuses, and then the Devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world: “These can all be yours.”
At the top on the right, the Devil is hurled into the abyss, and angels come to comfort Jesus and bring him food. At the left of the fresco, other angels accompany Christ on his way to the Temple for the purification of the leper He has cured. One would give a lot to hear their conversation. The garb on the angel in white is Botticelli’s classic angelwear.
The purification story is in St. Matthew, Chapter 8, 1-4. Christ cures a leper and tells him to go to the priests and make the offering as prescribed by Moses. Botticelli must not have read the rest of Jesus’ instructions to the leper: “Mind you, tell no one”. Or perhaps the leper (the boy in white) or the priests couldn’t keep the miraculous cure a secret.
More than forty men witness the purification rite, stipulated in Leviticus XIV, 1-32. Many are portraits of important personages of Botticelli’s time, though, as in the Moses picture, it is now impossible to identify them with certainty. The two young men standing on the left, in their impressive Renaissance outfits, are probably Botticelli and Filippino Lippi, a friend and fellow-painter.
Some scholars think this man is Sixtus’ nephew, Giuliano della Rovere, future Pope and Michelangelo’s famous patron, but he is not very convincing as the proud military commander that his enemies feared.
Another is possibly King Ferdinand of Spain, who also ruled Napoles at the time;
and, Gerolamo Riario , Pope Sixtus’ other nephew, the chief papal official.
Behind them is the Temple of Jerusalem, in fact, the Holy Spirit Hospital built in Rome at the time of the painting.
What else did Botticelli paint?
As is evident in many of the Sistine scenes, Sandro Botticelli was a master at portrait painting. This one of Simonetta Vespucci must have pleased her:
His most famous painting is probably The Birth of Venus:
After finishing the Sistine Chapel project, Botticelli went back to his native Florence and drew illustrations for a printed version (one of the first) of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He knew Michelangelo and they were friends. Botticelli was one of the best artists who preceded Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci.