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

The Chastisement of Korah, Dathan and Abiram

The Chastisement of Korah, Dathan and Abiram

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) – Palazzo del Vaticano, Cappella Sistina – Rome.

On the way to Canaan, a serious rebellion once more broke out. This time it was led by Korah, son of Ishar, son of Kohath the Levite, and the men of the tribe of Reuben, Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab and On, son of Peleth. They rebelled against Moses and Aaron with two hundred and fifty Israelites. All were reputed men and leaders. They especially reproached Moses and Aaron to have set themselves higher than the others of the community. Moses threw himself on his face when he heard the accusations. He ordered one censer for each man to be filled with incense and put on fire before Yahweh. Yahweh then would choose who would be the consecrated men. Moses scolded the men to want to be priests and to mutter against Aaron. Dathan and Abiram reacted. They told that they had not seen much yet of the country flowing with milk and honey and they refused to come. Moses repeated to Korah, and also to Aaron as well as to the other men to come with their censers tomorrow, to confront Yahweh. Korah did so G38 .

Korah assembled the community before the Tent of Meeting. Yahweh spoke to Moses and he told Moses and Aaron to get away from the community of the Israelites for he was going to destroy them all. But Moses pleaded to God and threw himself on his face before Yahweh. God said, ‘Stand clear of Korah’s tent’. Moses stood up, went to Dathan and Abiram and all the elders of Israel followed him. Moses spoke to them and told them to stand away from Korah’s tent and to touch nothing that belonged to Korah, lest his sins be also upon them. Moses then said they would know the power of Yahweh if the earth should open its mouth and swallow Korah’s family with all their belongings and if they would go down alive to Sheve. Also Dathan and Abiram were standing at their tent doors, with their wives, sons and little children. As soon as Moses had stopped speaking, the ground split apart under their feet and swallowed them and they disappeared G38 .

Fire then shot out from Yahweh and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who had offered incense.

Moses ordered to gather the burned censers from the remains for the bronze censers were consecrated by Yahweh’s fire. He ordered to hammer the censers into sheets to cover over the altar as a reminder that no unauthorised person, no one not of Aaron’s line, should approach the altar and offer incense to Yahweh G38 .

The most marvellous series of frescoes on the theme of the life of Moses are in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican in Rome. Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere had the chapel built by Giovannino de’ Dolci supposedly on plans by Baccio Pontelli, to serve as the Palatine Chapel of the Vatican. Building started in 1475. The chapel is a rather simple hall, with the dimensions of the Temple of Salomon. There was no interior modelling by sculptures except for the marble screen that separated the chapel in two parts of unequal length and the balustrade of the tribune. These were made by Mino da Fiesole, helped by Andrea Bregno and Giovanni Dalmata. Interior decoration by painting imposed itself. In 1481 Sixtus called to Rome the best Florentine artists to decorate the walls. On both sides of the length of the chapel, two times forty metres, frescoes were painted. The chapel was approximately thirteen and a half metres broad, and twenty-one metres high, the dimensions of the Temple of Jerusalem. The artists painted scenes from the life of Jesus on one side and scenes from the life of Moses on the other. Moses had founded the monotheist religion and given the law of the Old Testament. Jesus had founded Christianism. The pictures represented the founders of the Roman Papacy, a subject that may have been the wish of the Pope himself for his private chapel. The walls of the chapel are high and Sixtus wanted to hang tapestries along them, so the frescoes were put relatively higher up, between the tapestries and the windows that were set almost against the ceiling. The frescoes formed a long frieze that ran the length of the walls, and on which religious history could be read in a long narrative. Between the windows Pope Sixtus wanted the portraits of the first thirty-one Popes.

Pope Sixtus lived from 1414 to 1484. He came from a relatively modest family. He was born near Savona and his real name was Francesco della Rovere. There would be another Rovere after him to become Pope, his nephew, the most notorious Giuliano della Rovere who took the name of Julius II and who ordered Michelangelo to continue the work of decoration of his uncle by painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sixtus first entered the Franciscan Order and became its General in 1467. He was elected Pope in 1471. Sixtus tried to halt and temper the influence of the Muslims in the Mediterranean but he also participated in wars in Italy. Sixtus founded the Apostolic Library and we have a fine picture by Melozzo da Forli that shows Pope Sixtus IV appointing Platina at the head of that library. Sixtus looks like a rather humble and quiet man, nice and well in flesh. He is shown not as a man of high ambitions but as a gentle father. Yet, Sixtus was in war with Florence from 1475 to 1480 and he was on Venice’s side in its wars with Ferrara from 1480 to 1484. When in 1481 he called Florence’s masters of art to Rome, he had just made peace with the Tuscan capital. Sixtus IV may well have called the Florentine artists to his court as much in an assertion of his supremacy as in a gesture of appeasement and recognition of Florence’s splendour. And Sixtus explicitly wanted the artists of the Sistine Chapel to emphasise the authority of the Roman Papacy.

Sixtus was another kind of man than the gentle Pope of Melozzo da Forli’s portrait. Jacob Burckhardt called him the terrible Pope. It was under Sixtus IV that the system of the ‘nipote’ or nepotism was introduced at the Papal court of Rome. Sixtus had family and courtiers who gravitated around him and on whose support he counted – for a price. With the help of the nepoti Sixtus destroyed the influence of the Roman noble families, the Colonna and the della Valle and the like. Sixtus employed hired war generals or condottieri and unscrupulously dropped these when they had become too powerful and thus dangerous. Most importantly of all, Sixtus engaged in Italian politics as a temporal ruler to expand the Papal States. With Sixtus, the Milanese Sforza dictators and the Spanish Kings of Naples he formed a trio source of constant ambition, of wars and battles in Italy. This was a Pope desperately seeking to realise his worldly expansion, a Pope needing to ascertain his power and divine institution. The frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were not the works of a Maecenas of the arts but of an ambitious leader, seeking power and authority over Italy. Whether he sincerely believed to be able to better realise his spiritual duties is an open question. As is the question to what extent the artists who came to paint in the Sistine Chapel were aware of this.

Pope Sixtus first called in Pietro Perugino. Perugino called in his aid Pinturicchio. Then came Cosimo Rosselli, helped by his student Piero di Cosimo. Sandro Botticelli arrived also and Domenico Ghirlandaio, finally also Luca Signorelli. These painters worked in the chapel from 1481 to 1484. Sixtus consecrated the chapel in 1483 and he died the year after. More than for any other feat, Sixtus is known for having built the Sistine Chapel, named after him, and for having commissioned the cycles of Moses and Jesus. After the paintings by Michelangelo of the Genesis on the ceiling and the Last Judgement on the wall of the altar, the Sistine Chapel became one of the most marvellous wonders of the universe. No other series of pictures can compare with the grace, force and spiritual enchantment than the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.

There are six scenes on Moses in the Sistine Chapel. The first scene by Pietro Perugino and Pinturicchio represents the ‘Travels of Moses in Egypt’. God called Moses back, away from his arcadian life with his wife Zipporah and his father-in-law Jethro. This picture starts Moses’ religious life. Sandro Botticelli painted first ‘Episodes from the Life of Moses’ and later, further along the wall, the ‘Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’. Cosimo Rosselli painted the ‘Passage of the Red Sea’. This same painter and his helper, Piero di Cosimo, made ‘God hands over the Tablets with the Law’. Finally, Luca Signorelli painted the ‘Testament and Death of Moses’. Two further frescoes of the life of Moses have disappeared. Four paintings on the walls of the entrance and of the altar were destroyed. Michelangelo painted his Last Judgement over the altar wall and the ones on the entrance wall were destroyed when those walls cracked. The frescoes on the life of Moses form a long frieze above the part of the wall where tapestries were to hang, and below the windows and the images of the first Popes. These full-length portraits were painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio and by Fra’ Diamante, maybe also by Cosimo Rosselli or even Sandro Botticelli.

When Sandro Botticelli made the ‘Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’ he was at the height of his mastership. His best works date from 1475 to just after his works in the Sistine Chapel. He was born in 1445 in Florence, so he was thirty-five years old when he came to Rome. His real name was Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi but his surname came from the nickname of his brother. Sandro lived with one of his brothers, who had a potbelly and was known therefore as ‘Little Barrel’ or Botticelli. The name stuck not just to the brother but also to poor Sandro. Hence Sandro Botticelli. We know he was a student of Filippo Lippi, with whom he tied a close relationship. He also studied with Andrea del Verrocchio and must have met there another student of Andrea, Leonardo da Vinci. Pietro Perugino also had been a student of this Verrocchio. In 1481 Lorenzo de Medici let Botticelli go to work for Pope Sixtus IV.

The frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, exception made for the works of Michelangelo, have a unity of style that is astonishing knowing that the frescoes were put on the walls by so many different artists. The painters worked to a common view, which was primarily narrative of scope. These frescoes now seem to epitomise the Renaissance. The figures form a procession that runs the entire length of the walls. The scenes show landscapes and rock formations on the sides of the panels, but the line of figures is uninterrupted. The frescoes represent Renaissance figures; the people are dressed as in the painters’ times and not as in the Old or New Testament periods. The scenes are lively, but the figures are shown in static poises full of dignity and elegance of court. Decoration and detail are sumptuous. The colours are bright and splendid and the hues remain the same over all the frescoes. The general impression one receives when looking at all the paintings in a glance is one of elevated beauty, of dignity, of sophisticated elegance and grace. These were the works of Tuscans and almost exclusively of painters that had been schooled in the workshops of Florence. So design and line are important above colour. There are no black contours to denote the surfaces, but all areas are well delineated by contrasting pure colours. The artists of course applied Chiaroscuro to give volume to the figures and to bring spatial effects in landscapes. They knew the rules of perspective after the studies of Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca and that shows in the way they treated their background architectures.

The frescoes of the Sistine Chapel are narration in the first place. Most of the frescoes therefore tell even various stories in one panel. Botticelli’s ‘The Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’ contains thus four different subscenes. To the right, Korah, Dathan and Abiram and the two hundred leaders accuse Moses. Moses has a long grey beard and he shows a movement of horror as he holds up one arm as if to hide his face. This scene was according to the title of the picture, written in Latin words above, ‘Rebellion against Moses the Law-giver’. The leaders of the rebellion push on him and some Levites have to hold back the thronging mass. In the centre of the picture Moses holds high his magic staff and the three leaders of the rebellion are struck by the wrath of God. They are taken by seizures and fall to the earth. Also their thurifers tumble to the ground. Moses is in movement in this scene, so Botticelli used an oblique poise for Moses. He brought equilibrium by flanking Moses with a Levite priest, who is holding the censer that will indicate the Levites as the rightful guards of the sanctuary. In the leftmost scene Moses continues to hold his arm high and he condemns Korah, Dathan and Abiram. The earth opens and the men fall into the opening cracks.

These are three different acts, but remark how Botticelli created unity by having Moses not only dressed in the same golden robe and green cloak, but also by giving him the same poises in the three subscenes. To the left Moses holds up his right arm and lowers his left hand. Such is the case also in the centre and right scenes. In the middle Moses dominates the whole picture with his majestic gesture, bringing his staff of judgement high over the three rebels. Moses orders to death but with his left hand he also blesses. Thus he exerts the two main powers of the Christian Popes. Moses commands in Botticelli’s panel like the leader with supernatural powers who can dispose of life and death. But the real power is of course the power of God and Jesus represents God. So, the full meaning of the scene that is from right to left, the meaning of rebellion, punishment and redemption leads to Jesus. Botticelli therefore painted Jesus on the extreme left, standing higher than the rest of the figures. We recognise him in his simple clothes of white robe and pure blue cloak, and these colours were always associated with purity and divinity.

Behind the centre Moses scene, Aaron, Moses’ brother, appears in another scene. Aaron was the high priest and he is dressed here with the tiara of the Papacy. He brandishes and gathers the censers that will be molten in the fire that burns already in the centre. This is the sacred fire that cleanses. In Botticelli’s picture of the ‘Temptation of Jesus and the Purification of the Lepers’ on the opposing wall in the Sistine Chapel, such a hearth of fire is also part of the centre image. This is the fire that cleans away sins, always a very moral symbol of the redemption by Jesus. The censers will be molten down and the bronze hammered into thin sheets to cover the sanctuary. God ordered that this was to be the sign that only Aaron, the priest, could serve God in the sanctuary. Nobody would be allowed to approach God’s sanctuary but Aaron and the Levites had to kill anyone who would try to come near.

Botticelli thus showed a clear statement of the divine instoration of the Papal authority. This statement is emphasised by the Roman triumphal arch behind the scene. In the front of the fresco, Moses as the agent of God condemns the ones that contest the supremacy of the Law. Behind this scene Aaron serves the sanctuary with a censer. Aaron wears now the tiara of the Popes and this is the triumph of the Papacy, indicated by a high triumphal arch that is Rome’s arch of Constantine. Emperor Constantine installed the Christian religion as the Roman state religion and he was the first emperor to convert to Christianism. This was the highest triumph of the Catholic Church in Rome and thus in the whole civilised world of antiquity. On the arch is written in Latin, ‘No one may claim the honour of high priesthood, unless called by God as Aaron was’. The pictorial program and message of Botticelli could not be clearer.

In the ‘Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’ the background is formed by architectural structures. To the right are the marvellous ruins of the Septizonium, which could still be seen in the late fifteenth century. In the centre is the Roman arch of Constantine and to the left is a Renaissance palace. Moses and Aaron are thus placed in a scene of history whereby classic antiquity is linked to the Renaissance reality. In the left landscape is a church, a spiritual symbol, whereas on the right stands a city and castle, signs of lay power. Centuries form the eternal background of the divine instoration of the Popes.

The qualities of Botticelli’s frescoes do not need to be lauded here. The picture has all the qualities one might expect of one of the greatest Florentine masters. There is strong structure of composition, symmetry and balance in the use of colour areas, love and patience of splendid detail, dignity and grace of content, vivid drama, and sophistication in colours. But Botticelli was after much more than a mere narrative or a splendour for the eye. As his other fresco in the Sistine Chapel on the life of Jesus, this artist brought profound meaning and communication of message in his painting. He brought in references to the Papacy and to Jesus in his picture on Moses. The message of Botticelli is one of the very moral ones of the Sistine Chapel series, both in his picture of Moses and in his picture of the life of Jesus. These are key images. Botticelli chose a story of accusation, of contestants, of putting into question the authority of Moses, that is of the religious Law, and of Aaron, by which he symbolised the position of the Popes. He showed the results of such a challenge. Moses here does not diminish or averts God’s wrath. The authority of Aaron is divinely installed and must not be challenged. The program of Botticelli'’ picture is therefore one of the most explicit of the whole series of the Sistine Chapel. There is only one Pope for Christianity and that Pope receives the justification of his function from God. The Pope is divinely appointed to lead the community. The authority is divine and unapproachable.

It is remarkable how a painter of the Renaissance, and maybe even its most resplendent one, an artist so imbedded in antique philosophies, a learned man accompanied by philosophers and humanists, was so devotedly dedicated to the Papacy. Botticelli explicited the Papal authority very obviously in his fresco. His ‘Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’ may be a picture of static dignity and Renaissance courtly splendour. But emotions are clear in the images and passionate dedication to the Pope is present. We do not believe such an expression to be the work merely of a skilled artist working with a rational intelligence, composing the images to an intellectual program. We believe Botticelli to have been really zealous and filled with a profound desire to assert his religious convictions. We see in his painting and in the choice of his subject the core of a convinced believer in Catholic religion and dogma. Botticelli’s biography learns us how affected he was subsequently to his work in the Sistine Chapel by the teachings of Girolamo Savonarola in Florence. More than any other painter of his generation, the two frescoes of the Sistine Chapel let us perceive something of Botticelli’s spiritual character. We feel the solemnity with which he worked in the chapel. The duality, of on the one hand the longing and expression of classical beauty and on the other the sincere religious devotion to the Catholic Church symbolised by the subservience to the Popes, pervaded the Renaissance artists who worked in the Sistine Chapel.

This devotion was of course needed for the program of Sixtus IV. For Catholic dogma and the supremacy of the Popes of Rome was being challenged as well in Florence as in Germany.

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.