Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

Christ in the Desert

The Temptation of Christ and the Purification of the Lepers.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). The Sistine Chapel – The Vatican. 1481-1482.

The Sistine Chapel of the Vatican was built close to Saint Peter’s cathedral for Pope Sixtus IV. It was to be the Pope’s own chapel and also to be used by the Sacred College of Cardinals in conclave for the election of a new Pope. The chapel is a rectangular brick building, quite common on the outside but richly decorated within. The architect was Giovanni dei Dolci and he worked after a design of Baccio Pontelli. The construction started in 1475. The chapel was decorated in three distinct periods. First, in 1481, rectangular frescoes were painted that ran along the walls as a large frieze. The fresco paintings formed two cycles, representing scenes from the life of Moses and from the life of Jesus. It may have been Sixtus IV who had the idea to join the Old and New Testament on opposite walls. This idea was continued by the subsequent painters as the central theme of the whole chapel. The two first cycles faced each other in six frescoes. The work was given originally to Pietro Perugino, but this painter called in other artists to help. The chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and thus inaugurated the 15th of August of 1483, on the Holy Day of Mary’s Assumption.

The episodes of the life of Moses started with ‘The Voyage of Moses in Egypt’ by Pietro Perugino and Pinturicchio, and ‘Episodes of the Life of Moses’ by Sandro Botticelli. Further scenes were ‘The Passage through the Red Sea’ by Cosimo Rosselli, ‘The Tables of the Law’ by Cosimo Rosselli and Piero di Cosimo, ‘The Chastisement of Coreus, Dathan and Abiron’ by Botticelli and finally ‘The Testament and Death of Moses’ painted by Luca Signorelli.

The episodes of the life of Jesus on the opposite wall are ‘Christ’s Baptism’ by Pietro Perugino and Pinturicchio. Next scenes are ‘The Calling of the First Apostles’ by Domenico Ghirlandaio, ‘The Preaching on the Mountain’ by Cosimo Rosselli and Piero di Cosimo, ‘Peter receives the Keys’ by Il Perugino again and finally ‘The Last Supper’ by Cosimo Rosselli. Each fresco presents a religious scene with utmost respect, dignity, Florentine harmony of design and sublime spirituality. Each of these scenes is a masterpiece made by some of the greatest artists of the century.

Four other panels of this period covered the wall behind the altar. These were destroyed however and lost. They were partly the victim of cracks in the wall and partly covered by Michelangelo when he painted his ‘Last Judgement’ over them. During the first period of decoration the ceiling represented the blue firmament studded with gilded wooden stars, as made by Pier Matteo d’Amelia. On top of the large frieze of the lives of Moses and Christ was painted a gallery of the thirty-one first Popes. It is difficult to state now who painted the series of Popes. It may have been Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli, Sandro Botticelli or even Fra Diamante. Michelangelo likewise later covered the portraits of the Popes on the wall of the altar for his own large fresco.

In the second period, dating from 1508 to 1511, Michelangelo painted the ceiling on commission of Pope Julius II della Rovere. This titanic work consisted of nine central scenes of the Genesis. Michelangelo added prophets and Sibyls and various other smaller scenes of the Bible, the Old Testament. After this period, from 1515 to 1519 tapestries were woven in Brussels according to designs of Raphael. These tapestries would cover for the great ceremonies the lower part of the walls under the frieze of frescoes.

During the third period, lasting from 1536 to 1541, Michelangelo painted the ‘Last Judgement’ on the wall of the altar, as commissioned first by Pope Clemens VII and then again by Pope Paul III Farnese.

The Sistine Chapel thus covers about sixty years of pictorial arts, which were among the most fertile for the splendid art of the Italian Renaissance. One of the frescoes of the earliest frieze is the ‘Temptation of Christ and Purification of the Leper’ by Sandro Botticelli.

Filled by the Holy Spirit after his Baptism, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert, for forty days being put to the test by the devil.
During that time he ate nothing and at the end he was hungry. Then the devil said to him: “If you are Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf.” But Jesus replied: “Scripture says: Human beings live not on bread alone.”
Then leading him to a height, the devil showed him in a moment of time all the kingdoms of the world and said to him: “I will give you all this power and their splendour, for it has been handed over to me, for me to give it to anyone I choose. Do homage then to me, and it shall all be yours.” But Jesus answered him, “Scripture says: You must do homage to the Lord your God, him alone you must serve.”
Then he led him to Jerusalem and set him on the parapet of the Temple. “If you are Son of God”, he said to him, “throw yourself down from here, for scripture says: He has given his angels orders about you, to guard you. And again: They will carry you in their arms in case you trip over a stone.” But Jesus answered him: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Having exhausted every way of putting Jesus to the test, the devil left him until the opportune moment G38 .

As Jesus was in one of the towns a man appeared to him covered with a virulent skin disease. Seeing Jesus, the man fell on his face and implored to cure him. Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him saying, “I am willing to cure you. Be cleansed”. The skin disease left the man. Jesus ordered him to tell no one but to go and show himself to the Priest and make an offering for the cleansing just as Moses had prescribed, as evidence to the priests. But the news of the man kept spreading and large crowds would gather to hear Jesus and to have their illnesses cured. But Jesus would go off to some deserted place and pray G38 .

Sandro Botticelli blended these two tales together in a painting with many figures. The narrative element of several figures in one picture is a characteristic of most of the friezes of the Sistine chapels. Crowds were shown in the frescoes to testify that the words of Jesus had been for everybody and that priests, monks, doctors, common folk and nobles were present around Christ. The people who would participate in the Holy Mass of the Pope in the Sistine Chapel thus were surrounded by the presence of many painted figures that gave direct testimony of the acts of Jesus. For medieval man, the events of the Gospels were very tangible and the devote men and women shown on the walls of the Sistine Chapel were as present as the devoted people of flesh and blood that were standing in the chapel.

Since the ‘Temptation in the Desert’ was a lonely act, this scene would have been an exception among the other episodes painted by Botticelli’s colleagues.

The painting shows the Temple of Jerusalem. Botticelli drew the Hospital of the Spirito Sancto in Rome as the Temple. On top of the Temple, to the left and right are the Temptation scenes. To the left a devil with thorny wings but dressed in disguise as a monk asks Jesus to turn stones to bread. On the Temple itself, the same devil asks Jesus to accept the wealth of the world, that is the Renaissance town and the seaport added by Botticelli in the background. To the right the devil has thrown off his disguise, his monk’s habits, and he flies down the abyss tempting Jesus to follow him. At the same time Jesus condemns the devil and the satyr flees in fear and despair. Jesus has won and angels have come to wait on him again. Behind Jesus is a scene referring to the Last Supper and the Eucharist.

Under these scenes the cured leper, dressed in white robes of the penitent, presents an offering to the priest. The priest will burn the offer in the flames of a heathen altar. Purification is by fire, not by water. The fire brings us back to hell and to the devil, so Botticelli links the two scenes of the same picture. The sacrifice may bring the disease back to the devil. This is a symbol of the power of Jesus to drive out demons and the illnesses they bring to humans. It reminds us that ugliness, disorder, and corruption do not come from God but from the Bad. A crowd has gathered as told by Luke. Christ also is being led from the left to the crowds by the angels of the last Temptation episode. Thus, there is continuity in the tale of Botticelli.

The crowds represent all the classes of society. We can discern a prince, a Catholic priest, a woman with a basket filled with chicken, an elder merchant, a soldier, a judge, a hunter, and many more. To the extreme right is a head that looks at the coming of Christ on the right. This portrait resembles an auto-portrait of Botticelli in the ‘Adoration of the Kings’, a painting that is now in the Uffizi Museum of Florence.

There is something strange in the crowds though. The elder men of substance are standing to the right, which is not the traditional side of prominence. On this side we see the monk and the judge. A goddess comes along wearing cut old tree branches. One thinks of the goddess Ceres here, who is usually depicted like this wearing a corn-sheaf as the personification of the earth’s abundance. A cornucopia is usually also close to this lady and indeed, just before her is a putto with such a horn. But this goddess does not wear a corn-sheaf; she wears branches of cut trees. Botticelli has transformed this goddess of abundance into a symbol of the power of the establishment that is going to be changed. Jesus himself has used the image of the cut trees. Luke reported the words of Jesus that “Any tree failing to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire”. This idea was used also by Filippo Lippi, the teacher of Botticelli, in several images of the Virgin Mary with Jesus and the young John the Baptist called ‘Adoration in the Forest’. The dignitaries on the right are the class of people, the generation that does not produce good fruit anymore. As a symbol of these, Botticelli used the putto bearing the horn of cornucopia of Fortune and the fat grapes. These bystanders of the right were in Jesus’ eyes the people who would have it most difficult to enter the dwellings of God. The politicians, the corrupt, the powerful and the wealthy that could not bring forth love, compassion, empathy and tolerance would be cut down. This wood would be thrown into the fire. The fire of the altar, representing hell, is close by.

On the other side of the fresco however stand the pure of heart. Here are the young, the rightful and the poor woman wearing a basket on her head, all rushing by and pushing. Only these talk of the new good message. Indeed, only on the extreme left side do we see youths discussing and obviously spreading the news, as in the story of Jesus.

In this fresco, once more, we find a two-faced Botticelli. On the one hand the dandy, the Florentine court painter filled with the grace of refined living and learning, presenting a scene that is a marvel of elegance to the viewer. On the other end, Sandro Botticelli was very much an extremely sophisticated thinker and constructor of images. Here was an intelligent man, moralising on society and the true message of Jesus in the middle of the Sistine Chapel. Sandro Botticelli was not yet forty years old, but he was already the kind of painter, recognised as a genius, who was allowed to moralise in this holy palace that was the Sistine Chapel. More than the other painters he was interrogating the messages and stories of the Bible. Much later Botticelli would become a zealot follower of the monk Savonarola and destroy the paintings he had made before and still had in his possession. Some of Botticelli’s questioning can be found in his pictures in the Sistine Chapel.

Botticelli pointed out to all dignitaries, also of the Church hierarchy, that worldly power was not what Jesus had preached. Jesus refused the devil and the temptations of the material world. Jesus had no patience for the corrupt. They would be burned in eternal fire. It was not necessary for Botticelli to show the truths so obviously. However, the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel had to be painted to the real message of Jesus and to the real convictions of the artist. We do not believe that Botticelli was merely a slick court painter. He was a person that sincerely believed in Jesus’ teachings. He had thought out or himself the moral message he needed to express in the Sistine Chapel, as he had done in other pictures. In the Sistine Chapel only honesty could work.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.