Leonardo or St Sebastian?

In a post I wrote last month titled Leonardo’s Judge and Jury, I pointed out that Leonardo da Vinci is featured in four places in the Sistine Chapel fresco, Testament and Death of Moses, the most prominent as a naked man sitting on a tree stump. The scene is a reference to Leonardo’s interrogation before the SIgnoria, Florence’s governing authority, and some members of the Medici family, after an anonymous charge of sodomy was made against him and four other males in April 1476. The fresco, painted in 1482-83, is attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta.

Detail of the Testimony and Death of Moses fresco in the Sistine Chapel

The naked figure is reminiscent of a rediscovered drawing of St Sebastian said to be by Leonardo and which was scheduled to be sold at auction last month, June 19. However, for some reason the auction didn’t take place and it has been suggested the auction house Tajan was instead negotiating a private sale.

Drawing of St Sebastian attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy of Tajan, Paris.

Carmen C. Bambach, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art considers the drawing was made between 1482 and 1485. This dating aligns to the period when the Sistine Chapel fresco was completed.

It’s likely that Signorelli was responsible for painting the naked man in the fresco, so did he have sight of Leonardo’s drawing sometime earlier? And is the drawing also a reference to his own public exposure and interrogation? That Leonardo felt severely wounded by the scandal and possible betrayal by one of his own kind – another artist – is referenced in other paintings, his own and by contemporaries.

The charge against Leonardo was dismissed, supposedly for the reason that the denunciation had been made anonymously. However, one of the other accused men, Leonardo Tornabuoini, was connected to the Medici family and this may also have influened the outcome. Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano were sons of Lucrezia Tornabuoni.

Lucrezia’s possible intervention runs parallel to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian usually depicted in paintings as being tied to a tree and his body punctured by arrows. He was left for dead by the archers, but when the widow Irene of Rome set out to bury Sebastian she discovered he was still alive and nursed him back to health.

Lucrezia features in the fresco in two ways – as the wife of Lot who turned her head to look back on Sodom, and as Lucrezia turning her gaze towards the appealing look of Leonardo. Was it on her word that Leonardo was set free and his reputation restored?

Detail of the Testimony and Death of Moses fresco in the Sistine Chapel

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