Botticelli had been receiving more and more commissions from clients outside Florence since the end of the 1470s; the most renowned of these was Pope Sixtus IV, upon whose orders Botticelli was summoned to Rome in 1481. Together with his Florentine colleagues Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli and the Perugian Pietro del Perugino, Botticelli was to decorate the walls of the papal electoral chapel - called the "Sistine Chapel" after its builder, Sixtus IV - with frescoes. However, it was not until the later work on it by Michelangelo, who executed the frescoes on the ceiling and the altar wall between 1508 and 1512 under Julius II, that the chapel would achieve its greatest fame.
The painting of the walls took place over an astonishingly short period of time, barely eleven months, from July, 1481 to May, 1482. The painters were each required first to execute a sample fresco; these were to be officially examined and evaluated in January, 1482. However, it was so evident at such an early stage that the frescoes would be satisfactory that by October 1481, the artists were given the commission to execute the remaining ten stories.
The pictorial programme for the chapel was comprised a cycle each from the Old and New Testament of scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ. The narratives began at the altar wall - the frescoes painted there yielding to Michelangelo's Last Judgment a mere thirty year later - continued along the long walls of the chapel, and ended at the entrance wall. A gallery of papal portraits was painted above these depictions, and the latter were completed underneath by representations of painted curtains. The individual scenes from the two cycles contain typological references to one another. The Old and New Testament are understood as constituting a whole, with Moses appearing as the prefiguration of Christ.
The typological positioning of the Moses and Christ cycles has a political dimension going beyond a mere illustrating of the correspondences between Old and New Testament. Sixtus IV was employing a precisely conceived programme to illustrate through the entire cycle the legitimacy of his papal authority, running from Moses, via Christ, to Peter, whose ultimate authority, conferred by Christ, finds its continuation in the Popes. The portraits of the latter above the narrative depictions served emphatically to illustrate the ancestral line of their God-given authority.
The two most important scenes from the fresco cycle Perugino's Christ Gives the Keys to Peter and Botticelli's The Punishment of Korah, both reveal in the background the triumphal arch of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, who gave the Pope temporal power over the Roman western world. The triumphal arch serves here as a prominent allusion to the power of the Pope, granted him by the Emperor. Sixtus IV was thereby not only illustrating his position in a line of succession starting in the Old Testament and continuing through the New Testament up to contemporary times, but was simultaneously declaring his view of himself as the legitimate successor to the Roman emperorship.
Botticelli painted three scenes within the short period of eleven months: Scenes from the Life of Moses, The Temptation of Christ and The Punishment of Korah. He also painted, with much help from his workshop, in the niches above the biblical scenes, some portraits of popes which have been considerably painted over. In all these works his painting appears relatively weak.
Scenes on the left wall
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
St Sixtus II
Fresco, 210 x 80 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
|Summary of works by Botticelli
|| early paintings | late paintings |
|religious paintings | page 1 | page 2 |
|| Cappella Sistina | San Barnaba | San Marco |
|| allegories | Nastagio | scenic stories | portraits |
|| drawings | illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy |