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

Wall to wall artists

Painters and patrons… a section from the Sistine Chapel frescoe, The Temptation of Christ, painted by Sandro Botticelli.

Shown above is detail from The Temptation of Christ, one of the frescoes that line the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This particular panel was painted by Sandro Botticelli. The frescoes were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV. Botticelli shared the work with three other artists, Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino. The three are depicted in the back line while the front row shows Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio and Guasparre dal Lama.

A similar line-up is featured in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi shown in the clip below: (left to right) Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio, Guasparre dal Lama, Cosimo Rosselli, Pietro Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio.

A similar line-up of painters and patrons from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi)

Verrocchio’s workshop trained many artists and skilled craftsmen (including Leonardo de Vinci) and was possibly a liaison link between the artists commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, while Guasparre was the man said to have commissioned Botticelli to paint the the Adoration of the Magi.

But why would Botticelli have placed Guasparre in a frescoe he had no apparent connection with, and in such a prominent position?

On the trail of Leonardo

Leonardo painted by Pollaiuolo as the Angel Raphael, and mirrored in Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration

I recently pointed out the face of Leonardo da Vinci as one of several references to him made by Botticelli in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi.

Botticelli, in fact, had mirrored one of the figures in Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s version of Tobias and the Angel (1460). The model for the angel Raphael was Leonardo. You can see Botticelli’s figure of Leonardo points to the ‘wing’ of the man next to him. He has also placed a ‘red-wing’ on Leonardo’s shoulder to reference the ‘red kite’. Then there is the ‘fluted’ folds on the shoulders of the two men standing behind Leonardo to echo the ‘fluted’ wing of the stooped figure on the opposite side of the picture, also meant to represent Leonardo from behind. So we have two depictions of Leonardo – from the front and from behind.

This points to another image produced by Pollaiuolo, an engraving known as the Battle of the Naked Men (c 1370-80). Its two central figures are likely front and back versions of Leonardo da Vinci.

Top left: Antonio del Pollaiulo’s Hercules and Antaeus.
Top right: Possibly Leonardo depicted in Pollaiulo’s engraving of the Battle of the Naked Men.
Above left: Central figures in the same engraving.
Above right: Leonardo depicted on Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici

Pollaiuolo may have also featured Leonardo in other works depicting combat between naked men: the panel painting showing Hercules crushing Antaeus (1470-75) and, perhaps, the bronze sculpture he made on the same theme (1470s). Both items are housed at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. As to which figure portrays Leonardo, if any, Botticelli may have simply been pointing to the idea that Leonardo not only modelled for Pollaiuolo but also shared Antonio’s interest in disecting bodies to study and portray the human form, particularly of men.

Andrea del Verrocchio noted this interest and connection, hence his portrayal of the screaming angel, aka Leonardo da Vinci, depicted by Pollaiuolo as the angel Raphael and also the screaming and crushed figure of Antaeus.

There is another interpretation that can be applied to the ‘screaming angel’ on Giuliano’s protective breastplate. If we suppose that the portrait does depict Leonardo in distress, then perhaps it was Giuliano who gave his support when he was anonymously acused with four other men of sodomy. The men had to report to the courts two months later and the charges were then dropped. Some historians have speculated it was because of one of the men’s family links to the Medici. Could the Medici ‘saviour’ have been Giuliano?

Shortly after Pollaiuolo had painted Tobias and the Angel, Andrea del Verrocchio produced a similar version. The Raphael figures differ slightly – the angel’s right arm, for instance. Verrocchio’s angel is comparable to the upright figure of Leonardo in Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration. The right arm is placed across the chest; the left hand holds up his cloak; and the head is inclined slightly and turns to one side with eyes cast downward.

Another feature is the linking of arms, similar in both Pollaiuolo and Verrocchio versions. This is carried through in Botticelli’s painting. Below the chin of the stooped man with the white cap (aka Leonardo and Jacopo Saltarelli) is a pair of hands. First impression is that both hands belong to Giuliano de’Medici. The hand underneath does, but the hand placed on the back belongs to the stooped man. This relationship points to Verrochio’s version of The Angel and Tobias in which, according to Leonardo expert Martin Kemp, Leonardo may have had a hand in some of the work, particularly in painting the fish, and possibly another reason why Verrocchio chose to depict Leonardo with an open mouth on Giuliano’s protective cuirass. Hooked and presented on a breastplate.

The breastplate acting a protective shield is also mirrored by the stooped man’s cap. It represents the discarded shield of Pollaiuolo’s naked man (seen from the back).

Two for the price of one…

Giuliano de’ Medici by Andrea del Verrocchio, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

This terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici is thought to have been made sometime between 1475 and 1478 by Andrea del Verrocchio, the Florentine, goldsmith, sculptor and painter. The bust is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Giuliano is wearing a protective cuirass emblazoned on the front with what first appears to be a depiction of the mythological Medusa. Described as a guardian or protectress, the winged Medusa had snakes coming out of her head instead of hair.

But this motif, in fact, represents the head of an angel – a guardian angel with wings enfolded to signify protection.

I doubt if the National Gallery realises it owns a two-for-the price-of-one work of art, for not only does it depict Giuliano de’ Medici but the breastplate portrait is of the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci.

Giorgio’s Vasari’s Life of Leonardo da Vinci reveals that among Leonardo’s early works was a painting of the head of Medusa, although this is doubted by some art historians, and if the painting did ever exist, it is now lost.

However, Verrocchio’s bust of Giuliano de’ Medici also points to a connection between Medusa and Leonardo, as does Botticelli in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. So perhaps Varari’s report on Leonardo’s Medusa may have some merit after all.

A couple of decades later, the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna picked up on this when he painted Parnassus for Isabella d’Este – a pastiche on Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration. He depicted Piero de’ Medici, eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, as wearing the breastplate and Botticelli as the ‘Medusa’ motif.

More on this in my next post.