The Quattrocento Decoration in the Sistine Chapel

Given the monumentality of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s achievement in decorating the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, it is often easy for the modern visitor to cast their eyes directly upwards. While contemplating the 16th-century masterpiece is no doubt a pleasing pursuit, the quattrocento decoration on the walls provides an unparalleled experience of the best of Florentine painting in Rome. Furthermore, Pope Sixtus IV’s decoration of the walls of the chapel provides a fascinating case study in the use of visual imagery to support papal authority. 

Sent to the service of Sixtus IV by Lorenzo de Medici as a peace offering following the tension caused by the Pazzi conspiracy (1478), Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Roselli and Luca Signorelli worked alongside each other to produce a series of paintings which visualised the power of the pope. The frescoes stretch the length of the walls with one side depicting scenes from the life of Moses, the other scenes from the life of Christ. The pairing of these two subjects, while giving a tangible sense of continuity from the Old Testament to the New and into the modern age, also reinforces the idea of the papacy as part of this lineage of church fathers and divinely ordained spiritual leaders.

Frescoes appearing opposite each other are generally taken to contain complementary themes and messages. Botticelli’s Punishment of Korah and Perugino’s Handing of the Keys to St. Peter are such a pair, and both images seek to secure the authority of the pope by evoking Biblical sentiments. Botticelli’s complex work situates Moses in an imagined Rome, a gilded Arch of Constantine in the background and the Palatine Hill’s ancient Septizodium off to the right. Here, Moses and Aaron, God’s appointed leaders of the Israelites, are challenged by a rebellion led by Korah. The tripartite narrative culminates on the left with the rebels being swallowed up by the earth, warning against opposition to God’s chosen rulers; it is no coincidence that Aaron, behind the altar swinging a threatening thurible, wears the papal tiara. 

Perugino’s work is just as suggestive of the pope’s divine right to rule. St. Peter receiving the keys to heaven from Christ was a popular piece of visual rhetoric employed by popes, St. Peter being commonly considered as the first pope. Perugino’s scheme is in dialogue with Botticelli’s as the scene also takes place in a fictionalized Rome. The inclusion of triumphal arches suited contemporary tastes for religious rhetoric all’antica, while the idealised urban space underlined the concept of papal Rome as representing a new world order, the pristine buildings providing a counterpoint to the crumbling ruins in Botticelli’s piece opposite. Furthermore, after the humanist Lorenzo Valla had proven that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery four decades earlier, the passing of papal power from St. Peter was even more important. 

While the message of papal supremacy is difficult to escape in the wall frescoes, Sixtus’ own personal touch is conspicuously absent. In 1535, Pope Clement VII ordered Perugino’s Assumption of the Virgin altarpiece to be destroyed to make way for Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. This not only eradicated Sixtus’ own likeness, kneeling at the Virgin’s feet, but also the pontiff’s subtle allusion to his past as a Franciscan friar. The Franciscans were known for their fierce defence of Mary’s immaculacy, and Sixtus was the first pope to make declarations regarding the controversial cult of the Immaculate Conception. While an explicit dedication to the latter would prove too problematic for the Sistine Chapel, the subject of Mary’s Assumption would adequately imply this as Franciscan theologians believed the Assumption was proof Mary’s freedom from original sin. Thus, despite the forceful rhetoric of Sixtus’ commission, the more personal message of the pontiff who wore his Franciscan robes under his papal garments is lost. As Marciari points out, though: “There was a kind of poetic justice in Clement’s having wiped the image of Sixtus from his own chapel”, as Clement VII was the son of Giuliano de Medici, who was killed in the Pazzi conspiracy supported by Sixtus. 

Reference: Rona Goffen,  “Friar Sixtus IV and the Sistine Chapel,“ Renaissance Quarterly 39, no. 2 (Summer, 1986):  218-262.   


Sistine Chapel, reconstruction of the interior quattrocento decoration, 1481-82, Vatican, Rome.

Sandro Botticelli, Punishment of Korah, c.1482, fresco, Vatican, Rome.

Pietro Perugino, Handing of the Keys to St. Peter, c.1482, fresco, Vatican, Rome.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Last Judgement, 1436-41, fresco, Vatican, Rome.

Circle of Perugino, Drawing after original Assumption of the Virgin altarpiece, c.1482.

Reference: John Marciari, Art of Renaissance Rome: Artists and Patrons in the Eternal City, London: Laurence King Publishing, 2017.

(Images: Web Gallery of Art)


Further Reading: John Marciari, Art of Renaissance Rome: Artists and Patrons in the Eternal City. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2017.

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