(b. ca. 1450, Cortona, d. 1523, Cortona)

Moses's Testament and Death

Fresco, 350 x 572 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican

The fresco is from the cycle of the life of Moses in the Sistine Chapel. It is located in the sixth compartment on the south wall.

The fresco depicts the last episodes in the life of Moses. On the right sits the hundred-and-twenty-year-old Moses on a rise, holding his staff and with golden rays circling his head. At Moses's feet stands the ark of the Covenant, opened to show the jar of manna inside and the two tables of the law. In the left half of the picture Joshua is appointed Moses's successor. Joshua kneels before Moses, who gives him his staff. In the centre of the background we see Moses being led by the angel of the Lord up Mount Nebo, from which he will be able to look across to the Promised Land that by the will of God he will never enter. At the foot of the mountain we see him again, turning toward the left. His death is depicted in the background, in the land of Moab, where the children of Israel mourned him for thirty days.

Signorelli must have been just over thirty, when he became involved in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel. Luca's name does not appear among the group of Tuscan and Umbrian artists (Cosimo Rosselli, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino) who, on 27 October 1481, signed the contract for the decoration of the side walls of the famous chapel, which were to be frescoed with Biblical scenes. But Vasari is absolutely certain of his involvement and his hand is evident in some details of the huge scene of Moses's Testament and Death. The painting, at any rate as it appears to us today, is for the most part the work of Bartolomeo della Gatta, reflecting his typical use of vibrant colour and subtle lighting. But, amidst the numerous figures that populate the scene, there are some whose anatomical description is full of energy and who convey powerful emotions: the young nude seated in the centre, for example, or the two clothed figures portrayed with their backs to the onlooker, or the man with the stick leaning against Moses's throne. Luca Signorelli's hand appears quite obvious in these details, and in others as well.