When Leonardo was ‘murdered’ by Moses (and Botticelli) in the Sistine Chapel

Today marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. The milestone is being acknowledged by special events around the world.

A little further back in time, 37 years to be precise and 1482, Sandro Botticelli recorded the death of Leonardo in a novel way – by portraying him in two roles, both as an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave in a fresco painting on a wall in the Sistine Chapel. The panel depicts the Trials of Moses and was one of several commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV using Botticelli and other Florentine artists.

A section of the Trials of Moses, Sandro Botticelli, 1482, Sistine Chapel.

The section shows Leonardo as the model for the Egyptian slain by Moses, as recorded in Exodus (2 : 11-14). Leonardo is also depicted as the bloodied Hebrew making an exit from captivity in Egypt but in danger of being enslaved by a woman seemingly set on protecting him. The woman is Florentina, the symbol of Florence.

Here Botticelli is referring to Leonardo’s brush with the law when he was one of a group of four men accused of sodomy. The charges were eventually dropped, some say because one of the other men was connected to the powerful Medici family. Had the law been applied in full then the four men could have faced execution. Guilty or innocent, the risk of execution was probably one of the reasons why Leonardo eventually left Florence and moved to Milan.

So here Botticelli expresses Leonardo’s fear of the severity of Florentine law, applied justly or unjustly, as portrayed by Moses who was chosen to present God’s law written in stone but which he had earlier applied unjustly on his own account by killing the Egyptian and hiding his body.

The passage from Exodus also relates what happened after Moses had killed the Egyptian. The following day he came across two Hebrews fighting each other. He said to the man who was in the wrong, “What do you mean by hitting your fellow countryman?” The man retorted, “And who appointed you to be prince over us and judge? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

Moses became frightened when he realised his crime had been discovered and fled to the land of Midian. Was Botticelli using this analogy to compare the flight of Moses to the flight of Leonardo to Milan, referring to the fact his “crime” was also uncovered?

Another narrative is that Leonardo was perhaps at odds with himself, battling with his sexuality and experiencing his nature to be in conflict with the law that threatened not only his existence but also his way of life, hence the reason why Botticelli depicted Leonardo as both of the Hebrew men.

The self-conflict motif can also be read into the fighting group of Moses and the Egyptian. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration, Leonardo is painted in similar colours, green and yellow, to Moses in the Sistine Chapel frescos. But there are also other explanations for this match in the Adoration painting which I shall post on at another time.

The facial expression of the Hebrew on the ground is meant to relate to the screaming face of Leonardo that can be seen on the breastplate of Giuliano de’ Medici sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio. The cuirass is hollowed as a protective piece of armour, similar to a shell. This is why Botticelli has shaped Leonardo’s cloak as a shell. Leonardo collected and made study draiwngs of shells. However, Botticelli is also suggesting that the vunerable point of any creature carrying a shell on its back and hiding underneath it, is its underside and belly region. This point is also made with a similar motif in the Uffizi Adoration painting.

There is another feature that links the face of Leonardo on the breastplate to his face portrayed on the Egyptian, and which connects with Moses. When the prophet came down from Mount Sinai for the second time “the skin on his face was radiant”. Artists generally show this as “horns of light” or what became known as the “horns of Moses”, usually depicted as two horns projecting from his head. They are meant to represent enlightenment or knowledge, as in knowing God’s law. In the fresco, Moses has yet to receive God’s law written on stone tablets.

However, the face of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, has hair curled in the shape of horns. These are not only meant to represent the snakes associated with the image of the Gorgon Medusa and the pagan worship of the Egyptians of the time, but also suggest the brilliance of Leonardo, as gifted with knowledge and talents. The horns and the enlightened theme is also expressed on the breastpate, referring not only to Leonardo, but also the wearer Giuliano de’ Medici, considered a shining light and chivalrous knight of the Renaissance.

Giuliano de’ Medici by Andrea del Verrocchio, c 1475-78, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC