Moses, a man by now, set out at this time to visit his countrymen, and he saw what a hard life they were having; and he saw an Egyptian strike a Hebrew, one of his countrymen. Looking round he saw no one in sight, so he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. On the following day he came back, and there were two Hebrews, fighting. He said to the man who was in the wrong, “What do you mean by hitting your fellow countryman?” “And who appointed you” the man retorted “to be prince over us, and judge?” Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened. “Clearly this business has come to light” he thought. When Pharaoh heard of the matter he would have killed Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and made for the land of Midian. And he sat down beside a well.
This passage from Exodus 2 : 11-15 is referred to in a panel titled “The Trials of Moses” on the South Wall of the Sistine Chapel. It was frescoed by Sandro Botticelli and assistants sometime in 1481, about sixty years before Michelangelo completed The Last Judgement Painting on the Chapel’s altar wall.
Botticelli’s portrayal of the Exodus account highlights Moses overpowering the “man who was in the wrong” while the other fighting Hebrew is depicted being comforted and led away by the female figure dressed in blue. Moses is also featured fleeing for the land of Midian.
The Hebrew held down by Moses represents Leonardo da Vinci. His identity is explained at this link: When Leonardo was ‘murdered’ by Moses (and Botticelli) in the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo picked up on the Leonardo association in Botticelli’s fresco and recycled some characteristics to include in his own portrayal of the polymath in The Last Judgment painting – the figure generally referred to as the Damned Man.
Although contemporaries, Leonardo and Michelangelo were far from being bosom pals. Michelangelo, apparently a more sensitive soul, reacted to any form of adverse criticism of his work, and Leonardo placed Michelangelo among the group of painters whose muscular figures he described as looking like a sack of walnuts or a bundle of radishes.
Seemingly, Michelangelo never forgot this slight against his work and some two decades later portrayed Leonardo as the Damned Man – inferring that misjudgment of others can lead to condemnation and downfall of oneself.
In their studies of anatomy both artists dissected corpses to further their knowledge about the workings of the human body. Leonardo is particularly noted for his meticulous anatomical drawings of body parts. Late in his life, Leonardo claimed he had dissected more than thirty corpses.
The flayed skin associated with the martyrdom of St Bartholomew shown in the Last Judgment fresco, features a distorted self-portrait of Michelangelo looking down on the Damned Man. The carcass represents an empty sack, devoid of body parts, a sack empty of walnuts and radishes. Michelangelo has translated these body parts into the figure of Leonardo and the three demons dragging him down to Hell, along with some of the features Botticelli incorporated in his depiction of Moses and the two Hebrew men at odds with each other.
For instance, the green serpent coiled around the upper legs of the Damned Man and biting into his left thigh muscle is akin to some of the snake-like features embedded in the green cloak wrapped around the two figures of Moses.
The horned demon weighing down the Damned Man is meant to mirror Botticelli’s version of the Hebrew on his back, his cloak shaped to represent a shell (see here for explanation of shell connection). The back of Michelangelo’s demon is also shell-shaped and its wrinkled surface represents the shell of a walnut.
The demon’s two horns mirror the horn-shape features protruding from the hair of the grounded Hebrew. The horns are also refer to the light that shone from the face of Moses (represented as horns) after he had received the Ten Commandments, most notable in the sculpture of Moses made by Michelangelo for the tomb of Pope Julius II and completed in 1545.
The Hebrew’s left foot and claw-shaped hands can be paired with the central demon’s extended leg and claw-shaped foot, coloured red to portray the toes as radishes.
The demon’s head looks down on the upended demon, as the head of Moses looks down on the upended Hebrew. However, the central demon’s arms are wrapped around the calves of the Damned Man in a similar way the figure of the woman wraps her arms around the upper body of the second Hebrew. Notice also how his left hand is raised to his head in a manner the Damned Man has raised his left hand – the difference being that the second Hebrew can see his opponent with both eyes while the Damned Man is portrayed seeing out of one eye only, perhaps indicating the limit he sets on judging the work of others.
Another incident between the two men also likely stayed with Michelangelo and probably explains the placing of the Damned Man figure in the Last Judgement painting. When Michelangelo had completed his famous giant sculpture of David, a committee was convened to decide on where the work should be placed. Several artists were part of the 30-man group, including Leonardo de Vinci and Sandro Botticelli.
In his book, The Flights of Mind, Charles Nicholl states:
“Leonardo’s opinion about the placing of David is recorded in the minutes of the meeting. ‘I say that it should be placed in the Loggia’ – the Loggia dei Lanzi, opposite the Palazzo Vecchio – ‘as Giuliano has said, behind the low wall where the soldiers line up. It should be put there, with suitable ornaments, in such a way that it does not interfere with the ceremonies of state.’ This opinion, shared by Giuliano da Sangallo but counter to the general view, already expresses an antagonism, a deliberate refusal to be impressed. Let this oversized statue be sidelined in a corner where it won’t get in the way. The true wish expressed is the sidelining of the sculptor himself: this awkward, intrusive genius. Further nuances of umbrage may have arisen in relation to that earlier Florentine David, sculpted by his master Verrocchio, for which the teenage Leonardo is said to have been the model: now, forty years on, this new David outmodes that image of his own youthful promise.”
The Damned Man is part of but set aside from a group of figures that represent the Seven Deadly Sins. In this group we can recognise the form of some of the angels striking down the deadly sinners in similar fashion to Botticelli’s Moses raising his sword and striking down the Hebrew “who was in the wrong”.
To the right of the Damned Man Michelangelo has portrayed a sinner with his back to the viewer akin to the figure of Moses fleeing to Midian after it became known he had murdered an Egyptian and attempted to cover up his crime by burying the corpse in sand.
So which deadly sin does the Damned Man represent? Most likely Envy, and perhaps even Sloth, as Leonardo had a reputation for not completing many of the works commissioned to him.
Both Botticelli and Michelangelo portray the two Hebrew men as two natures of man, or even Leonardo, as good and evil in conflict. Michelangelo’s Dammed Man is not shown beaten down by any heavenly angel as the sinners portrayed alongside, but instead is weighed down by a reflection of his misplaced judgement and envy of others.
More on this in a future post.