(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)

Punishment of Haman

Fresco, 585 x 985 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican

The scenes painted in the pendentives at the sides of prophet Jonah are characterized by the use of pronounced foreshortening. This is the case with the tangled group of Israelites who, in the scene of the Brazen Serpent, writhe in the throes of death, and, above all, with the crucified figure of Haman in the Punishment of Haman.

In the irregular field of the pendentive on the left is the story opf Esther, Ahasueras, and Haman. On the right of the pendentive, the king sends Haman to provide royal apparel for Mordecai, who is sitting at the king's door. On the left Esther reveals Haman's plot to Ahasueras. The whole fresco is dramatically dominated, in the central scene, by the punishment of Haman. The daring foreshortening of the body, which literally cuts through the picture plane, is reinforced by by that of the white frame of the door leading into Ahasueras' room.

The Old Testament book of Esther describes how a young Jewess interceded with a Persian king to prevent the massacre of her people. For this deed she is still commemorated in the Jewish festival of Purim, when the story is read aloud in the synagogue. It tells of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) of Persia who reigned in the 5th centurt B.C. Having dismissed his queen, Vashti, because she had offended him the king chose Esther to replace her, not knowing that she was Jewish. Esther, an orphan, was 'fair and beautiful' and had been brought up by her cousin, Mordecai. The king's chief minister, Haman, an enemy of the Jews and the personal foe of Mordecai, decreed that all the Jews in the Persian empire should be massacred. Mordecai asked Esther to intercede with the king. To enter the king's presence without being summoned was forbidden on pain of death, even to the queen, but Esther, having dressed in her finest robes, took her courage in both hands and entered the royal chamber. Ahasuerus held out his golden sceptre to signify that he would receive her and Esther swooned with relief. She led up to the matter by first inviting the king to a banquet where, in due course, her intercession on behalf of her people succeeded. Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

Esther in the act of pleading with the king was regarded by the Church as a prefiguration of the Virgin in her role of intercessor on the Day of Judgment. This became established early on as the central episode of the Esther narrative in Christian art. The more secular theme of the 'Toilet of Esther' gained popularity with artists of the Renaissance and later.

Michelangelo's fresco depicts three episodes of the story in the centre with the crucifixion of Haman (instead of the Biblical hanging).