What do you see? A sculpture of a muscular, naked man sitting on a rock. The man is in deep thought and uses his whole body to think. His head is bent forward and leans on his right hand. His wrinkled face, knitted eyebrows, swollen nostrils, compressed lips, and absent-minded gaze reinforce the idea that the man is deep in his thoughts and is completely unaware of the world around him. The man is struggling with his thoughts with every part of his body. Almost no part of his body is relaxed. Most muscles are tense, which is clear by looking at the clenched fist, the arched back, the legs below his body, and the squeezed toes. The statue is over six feet tall making the figure larger than life. It was the intention of Rodin to put the independent sculpture on top of a pedestal such that it would make a colossal impression on the viewers.
Backstory: In 1880, Rodin received a large commission from the Directorate of Fine Arts in France to create the entrance doors for a new museum that was to be built (but never opened in the end). He was given the freedom to choose his own theme and decided on creating a scene from Dante’s book Inferno. Rodin was supposed to finish the project in five years but continued to work on the project for 37 years until his death in 1917. The doors – named The Gates of Hell – would eventually include a total of 180 different figures, and they would form the basis for many of Rodin’s most famous statues. He originally created all figures in plaster, and the doors were then to be cast in bronze. The central and the most important part Rodin created for these doors was the statue of The Thinker (Le Penseur in French) who sits right above the two doors with all the characters from the Inferno behind him. The statue was about 27 inches (70 cm) high. In 1888, Rodin created the first standalone version of this statue. As this version was successfully received, Rodin decided to create more and bigger versions of the statue.
Multiple versions: The statue of The Thinker can be found all around the world. Rodin created the first version of this statue in plaster in 1881. In 1903, he completed the first monumental-size version of this statue. He considered it to be a remarkable piece and wrote to the client of his first bronze casting that he would ensure that only a few copies of the statue would ever be made. However, he did not keep his word. During Rodin’s life, already more than 20 versions were produced. And after his death, the right for reproduction was turned over to the Republic of France. Nowadays, more than 70 bronze and plaster versions exist and are on display in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America.
Interpretation: There are various interpretations of what and who The Thinker represents. When initially creating this statue as part of The Gates of Hell, Rodin meant the figure to represent Dante pondering about the fate of the damned people entering through the Gates of Hell. This interpretation is based on Dante’s book Inferno, the first part of his trilogy known as The Divine Comedy. However, when Rodin started to create independent versions, he started to consider different interpretations. Overall, he considered the statue to represent the struggle of the human mind. But he also started to see hope in it. The thoughts slowly become clear, and the man turns from a thinker, into a dreamer, and finally into a creator. Over time, other interpretations have also been given. Some consider the statue to represent Rodin himself. Others interpret the figure as Adam contemplating the sin he committed in Paradise.
Who is Rodin? François Auguste René Rodin was born in 1840 in Paris, where he died 77 years later in 1917. He was rejected three times by the leading art school in Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts. It forced him to educate himself differently and this has contributed to his unique style. He was inspired by some of the great Renaissance sculptors like Donatello and Michelangelo. Most of his famous sculptures were originally intended for his commission of The Gates of Hell. Over time, he realized that he could turn many elements of The Gates of Hell into separate statues and some of these statues have achieved world fame. Among them are The Three Shades and The Kiss. Many of Rodin’s statues have been cast multiple times in bronze which means that his statues have spread across the world.
Why a bronze statue? Bronze is a combination of different metals. It consists primarily of copper (typically 85-90%) and tin (typically 10-15%), but can also contain minor quantities of other metals or nonmetals. It is an attractive material for sculptors for the following reasons. First, it is very durable. Second, it is difficult to break and allows the artist to sculpt different pieces of the sculpture separately and combine them afterward (for example, Rodin always separately sculpted the arms if they were not positioned along the body). Third, the sculptor can choose between different textures, ranging from very smooth to rough. Finally, the inclusion of minor quantities of lead, silver, or zinc can affect the color of the bronze providing artistic freedom to the sculptor.
Fun fact: While The Thinker is one of the most famous statues in the world, Rodin initially named this statue “the poet.” Later it was renamed based on suggestions by foundry workers that the sculpture was quite similar to a sculpture by Michelangelo on Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. This sculpture was more popularly known as “Il Penseroso” (The Thinker), and this name was also given to Rodin’s statue. The Thinker also shows some resemblance to Ugolino and His Sons which was created by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux in the 1860s.
Where? Room of the Aldobrandini Wedding in the Vatican Museums
When? The first century B.C.
What do you see? The painting is divided into three scenes taking place in three separate areas divided by walls. The group in the middle shows two women sitting on a bed. The woman on the left is probably the Greek goddess Aphrodite. She comforts the woman sitting on the bed wearing an off-white dress and veil. She is the bride, and she is anxious about the upcoming intercourse with her husband – the god Hymen wearing a garland – sitting to their right (from the viewers’ perspective). To their left is another goddess pouring fragrances in a shell. On the right side of the fresco is a group of three women performing a sacrificing ritual. They are grouped around a thymiaterion (an incense burner). The woman on the left holds a bowl and the woman on the right holds a lyre. On the left is another group of three women (although the gender of the figure in the background is subject to debate) standing around a basin. The woman on the right tests the temperature of the water and holds a fan. At the bottom of the basin stands a tablet.
Alternative interpretations: The meaning of this fresco is subject to a lot of debate and there is serious doubt on whether this is indeed a wedding scene as its title suggests. One alternative interpretation put forward by Frank Müller in 1994 is that the fresco shows a scene from Hippolytus Stephanephoros, a tragedy written by Euripides around 428 B.C. According to this interpretation, the woman dressed in white is Phaedra, a princess from Crete. She was in love with Hippolytus, the man to the right of her. Phaedra is full of guilt as she is married to Theseus (who is the father of Hippolytus). Aphrodite comforts Phaedra. To the left of Aphrodite is her daughter Peitho. On the left is a tablet standing against a pillar containing a love declaration from Phaedra. The two people on the left perform magic spells to win over Hippolytus for Phaedra as Hippolytus is not interested in her yet. On the right is Artemis, who protects Hippolytus, surrounded by two of her nymphs. This interpretation is not without problems, but one argument in favor of it is that other frescos created around the same time often show mythological stories of tragic wives.
Backstory: This fresco is from the first century B.C. It is part of a larger fresco, probably a frieze near the ceiling in a retiring room in an Ancient Roman house. The fresco was discovered around 1601 in the remains of an ancient house on the Esquiline Hill (one of the seven hills on which Rome is built). Cardinal Cinzio Passeri Aldobrandini (1551-1610) came in possession of this fresco, explaining the name of the fresco, and it stayed within his family until 1818. In that year, Pope Pius VII bought the fresco from the Aldobrandini family and in 1838 it was placed on display on its current spot in the Vatican Museums.
Replicas: Before the 19th century, this was one of the few Ancient Roman frescos that were rediscovered. This fresco inspired many artists to copy it, including Poussin, Rubens, Van Dyck. In 1674, Pietro Santi Bartoli created a beautiful watercolor replica of the Aldobrandini Wedding. The fresco is also featured in Giovanni Paolo Panini’s painting Ancient Rome which is on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.
Fun fact: The discussion about what this painting represents is still ongoing. The traditional interpretation that this fresco shows a wedding scene has been countered by various mythological interpretations. These interpretations look carefully at each attribute in the painting to understand who the different figures represent. However, one simple argument against interpreting this fresco as a wedding is that none of the people looks even remotely happy. Especially the supposed wedding couple looks far from happy. While one may argue that the preparations for a wedding are stressful, that would still leave the question why someone would like to have a wedding scene with such serious and concerned faces on his or her wall.
Where? On the North wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Pope Sixtus IV
What do you see? This fresco illustrates four different scenes:
The baptism of Christ: The baptism of Christ is described in Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-23. John the Baptist was baptizing people with water in the Jordan River. Jesus arrived there and asked John to baptize him as well. While John refused at first, Jesus convinced him that this was what God wanted. After Jesus was baptized, he came out of the water, and the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove. The dove said to Jesus: “You are my Son, the one I love. I am very pleased with you.” After that, the Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the desert for 40 days to prepare him for his public life. In John 1:29:34, John the Baptist also tells that he witnessed the Holy Spirit coming down on Jesus in the form of a dove.
Backstory: This is the only work in the Sistine Chapel that is signed. Due to the large size of the fresco, and because Perugino was commissioned at least five other frescos in the Sistine Chapel (but only three survived), he used various assistants to help him . The best-known assistant was a young Pinturicchio, who continued to develop a successful career as a painter. Pinturicchio probably painted the landscape, and the scenes on the middle left and right.
Surrounding frescos: The Baptism of Christ is the first out of seven frescos describing the life of Jesus. It is located on the right side of the North wall, directly next to The Last Judgment by Michelangelo. To the left is the second painting about the life of Jesus, which is Temptations of Christ by Botticelli. On the opposite wall are the seven frescos about the life of Moses. Some scenes from the life of Moses can be paired directly with scenes from the life of Jesus. In this case, the circumcision of the son of Moses in the right bottom of Moses Leaving to Egypt by Perugino is directly related to the baptism of Christ. Whereas in the Old Testament, circumcision of kids was the way to create a bond between God and the child, this was replaced by baptism in the New Testament.
Who is Perugino? Pietro Vannucci, better known as Pietro Perugino, was born around 1450 and died in 1523. Perugino was an apprentice of Del Verrocchio around the same time as painters like Leonardo da Vinci and Filippino Lippi. Perugino was also the master of Raphael. He was one of the first Italian painters to use oil painting, a technique that was developed earlier that century by Jan van Eyck. In 1480, he was called to Rome by Pope Sixtus IV to paint several works in the Sistine Chapel. The most famous of his works is probably the Delivery of the Keys, which is also in the Sistine Chapel.
Fun fact: Perugino created six frescos in the Sistine Chapel. However, three of them have been removed to make place for The Last Judgment which Michelangelo painted between 1536 and 1541. It must not have been difficult for Michelangelo to remove the frescos of Perugino as Michelangelo was not a big fan of Perugino’s work. The legend goes that Michelangelo told Perugino in his face that he was an amateur painter. Indeed, at the end of the 15th century, the career of Perugino went downhill, and he mainly repeated some of the compositions he had used earlier in his life.
Interested in a Copy for Yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room VIII of the Galleria Borghese
When? Around 1610
What do you see? David holds the head of Goliath after he defeated Goliath in a one-to-one battle. The painting is full of contrasts. David is depicted in the light as a young, strong, and lively man. He wears a wrinkled white cloth that is tucked into his beige pants. He is clean-shaven. He holds the sword of Goliath in his right hand and the head of Goliath in his left hand. He looks at the head of Goliath with a calm but somewhat sad expression. Most of the composition is dedicated to David. In contrast, only the lower right of the composition is dedicated to Goliath who is depicted as an ugly, old, and defeated man. You can see the blood on his forehead, which is the place where David hit him with a stone. His eyes are still knitted, showing his reaction when he saw the stone flying towards his forehead. He has a large beard and an open mouth with rotten teeth. His head is already decaying, and a large amount of blood is dripping out of the bottom. On top of the blade of the sword is an inscription reading ‘H-AS OS.’ This refers to the Latin for ‘humilitas occidit superbiam,’ which means ‘humility kills pride.’
Backstory: Caravaggio probably painted this work while he was in Naples and this may have been the last work that he completed during his life. However, there is some doubt about the exact date of this painting. Some people think that it could have been painted as early as 1605. However, popular belief is that this is indeed the last painting by Caravaggio (which makes this painting more special). Francesco Boneri (also known as Cecco del Caravaggio, but no family of Caravaggio) is probably the model for David. He was a servant and pupil of Caravaggio and a moderately talented painter himself. However, some people believe that David is based on a self-portrait of a younger Caravaggio.
Other versions by Caravaggio: Caravaggio painted David with the Head of Goliath a total of three times. In 1600, he painted his first version which is on display in the Prado Museum in Madrid. In this version, David is tying the hair of Goliath with a rope after he cut off his head. In 1607, Caravaggio painted his second version which is on display in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. This second version is most similar to his final version. The main differences are the age of of Goliath and the way in which David holds his sword.
David and Goliath: 1 Samuel 17 describes the story of David and Goliath. Israel was at war with the Philistines. The Philistines had a hero called Goliath who was over 9 feet (2.75 meters) tall. Goliath proposed every day to the Israelites that instead of letting the armies fight each other, they should send one man to fight him. If Goliath would win the fight, the Israelites would become slaves of the Philistines, and if Goliath would lose, the Philistines would become slaves of the Israelites. David convinced King Saul that he should fight Goliath. He went out of the army camp to meet Goliath, wearing no armor but bringing a walking stick, a sling, and a bag with five smooth stones. He put a stone in his sling and threw it at Goliath, hitting him between his eyes. Goliath fell, and David took Goliath’s sword to kill him by cutting off his head. He took the head of Goliath back to Jerusalem but kept his sword and spear for himself.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Caravaggio near Milan, Italy. Caravaggio lived a turbulent life, and in 1606 he killed a man (though it is not clear whether that was intentional). To avoid a conviction, he fled and lived until 1610 in Naples, Malta, and Sicily. In 1610, he had hopes that he would be pardoned for his crime and he returned by boat to Rome with several of his paintings. When the ship arrives near Rome, Caravaggio gets arrested, and the ship leaves with his belonging for Porto Ercole. Caravaggio pays a bond to get out of jail and starts to follow the ship on foot to recover his belongings. However, he gets ill on the way and dies from a fever in Porto Ercole on July 18, 1610. While he died young, Caravaggio leaves many popular paintings, including his The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew from 1606-1607 in the Cleveland Museum of Art and Sleeping Cupid from 1608 in the Palazzo Pitti.
Fun fact: Caravaggio probably used his own face as the model for Goliath in this painting. There are different explanations for why he did this. The conventional explanation is that he used himself as the model for Goliath to ask forgiveness from the Pope for the crimes he committed while he was in Rome. However, an alternative explanation is that Caravaggio was just a rebel at heart and this was another way in which he expressed his rebellious nature. If one also believes that David is modeled after a younger Caravaggio, it would provide a more bizarre explanation for this painting. Specifically, it would mean that the young Caravaggio (through his wild behavior) has destroyed the life of the older Caravaggio. He used himself as a model in multiple paintings during his career, including Young Sick Bacchus in the Galleria Borghese and Medusa in the Uffizi Museum.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room VIII of the Galleria Borghese
Commissioned by? Unknown; he probably used this painting to market himself for commissions.
What do you see? A self-portrait of Caravaggio. He poses as the Roman god Bacchus, the god of grape harvest, wine, and intoxication. He is half-naked, wearing a white robe, and the ribbon around his robe lies on the table. We can see his muscular shoulder and arm. However, Bacchus does not look healthy. His skin is yellow and the white part of his eyes as well. Also, he has bluish lips. He wears a crown of ivy leaves on his head. He folds his hands and holds a bunch of white/yellow grapes between them. Bacchus sits at a stone table with on top a bunch of healthy black grapes, two peaches which have a similar color as Bacchus’ skin, and some vine leaves.
Backstory: This painting is also known as ‘Sick Bacchus’ or ‘Self-Portrait as Bacchus.’ Caravaggio used a mirror to paint this work as he did more often later in his career. He probably painted it between 1593 and 1594. In 1607, the painting was confiscated by the Pope because of tax evasion by its owner, Giuseppe Cesari. The Pope gave the painting to his nephew, Scipione Caffarelli-Borghese. The painting was still reported to be in the Borghese collection in 1693. As the painting does not have a signature of Caravaggio, over the next centuries, it was attributed to several other painters. In 1927, it was attributed to Caravaggio again, and the large majority of people believes that this is a real Caravaggio.
Who is Bacchus? Known in Greek mythology as Dionysus, Bacchus was the son of Zeus and Semele. He was the god of ecstasy, fertility, grape harvest, wine, and winemaking. He was a popular subject for artists as it allowed them to depict earthly pleasures. Around 1595, Caravaggio painted another painting of Bacchus which is in the Uffizi Museum. In contrast to his first painting, Bacchus looks quite healthy in that painting. Another example of an artist who has used Bacchus as the subject of his art is Diego Velázquez. He painted The Triumph of Bacchus in the Prado Museum.
Symbolism: The crown of ivy leaves is a symbol of Bacchus. Ivy was a sacred plant for Bacchus as it was thought to possess the power of preventing intoxication. The bunch of grapes also contains some rotten grapes. This is a symbol of death which is always looming and must have been in the mind of Caravaggio when he was in the hospital for a long time before he created this painting. At the same time, he holds the bunch of grapes close to his mouth suggesting that he is available for some intimacy. This suggestion is also emphasized by the ribbon of his robe, which is explicitly shown on the table and is ready to be opened. Moreover, the two peaches on the table symbolize a desire to be together with someone else.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Caravaggio near Milan, Italy. In 1592, he fled to Rome due to some trouble with the police. He arrived in Rome with almost no money and no place to live. Moreover, he got seriously ill and spent six months in the hospital. However, luckily, he was a very talented painter. During his recovery, he painted Young Sick Bacchus. At the beginning of his career, he focused on naturally and realistically depicting human subjects and other elements in his paintings. This was very uncommon and makes the work of Caravaggio unique. To emphasize the imperfections of life, Caravaggio would get the models for his paintings from the streets (like beggars and prostitutes) and would buy some fruit on the market, accepting the fact that the fruit did not look perfect. Early in his career, Caravaggio also painted The Fortune Teller in the Louvre and the Capitoline Museums, and The Musicians in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Caravaggio was recovering from a serious illness when he painted this work. There are several theories on why he was in the hospital, ranging from a serious kick of a horse to malaria. However, during his recovery, there were still signs of sickness as we can see in this painting. He has jaundice, which leads to a yellowing of the skin and the white part of your eyes. It makes sense that Caravaggio used himself as the model for this painting. He was very poor in the beginning of his career (and also not rich during the rest of his life), and Caravaggio himself was the cheapest model he could find for this painting (as he would have to pay other people to sit as a model).
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? The Octagonal Court of the Museo Pio Clementino in the Vatican Museums
When? Uncertain, but estimates range from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD.
By who? Unclear, but probably this is a Roman copy of an ancient Greek original in bronze. Some people suggest that it was made by the three Greek sculptors Hagesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus.
What do you see? This life-size statue is made of seven different blocks of marble and shows Laocoön and his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, being attacked by two sea serpents. Laocoön sits on an altar and is sculpted as a very muscular man. He strains every muscle that he has to escape from the serpents. The oldest son on the right seems to break free from the serpents and looks at his brother and father. Laocoön and the youngest son on the left are in big trouble, and their faces express their struggle. The youngest son seems to cast a last glance at his father, but he looks to be (almost) dead already. Notice that the serpents are trying to kill Laocoön and his sons both by constricting and biting them. You can see the head of one of the serpents next to the left hand of Laocoön. You can also see that a few pieces are missing from this sculpture. First, substantial parts of the serpents are missing. Second, the right hand of Laocoön is missing. Third, part of the right arm of the younger son and the right hand of the older son are missing.
Backstory: This statue is also referred to as the Laocoön group. On January 14, 1506, the statue of Laocoön and His Sons was discovered on the Esquiline Hill (one of the Seven Hills of Rome). It was found in an underground room of a vineyard of Felice de Fredis. The underground room was later identified as part of the Baths of Trajan (53-117 AD). Michelangelo was one of the first people to see the statue and was very impressed with it. Two months after its discovery, the owner of the vineyard sold the statue to Pope Julius II, who displayed it in the Octagonal Court of the Vatican Museum, where it now has a place close to the famous Apollo Belvedere statue. The statue was already discussed by Pliny the Elder, a Roman author from the first century AD. He had seen a sculpture of Laocoön and his sons in the palace of Titus before he would become the Roman emperor from 79-81 AD. However, it is unclear if this was the same statue as Pliny the Elder mentioned that the version he saw was made from a single block of marble.
Who is Laocoön? According to Greek mythology, Laocoön was a Trojan priest. There are various accounts of his story. Virgil describes the most popular version in the second book of the Aeneid. According to him, when the Greeks left Troy, they left as a gift a very large wooden horse in front of the gates of Troy. Laocoön suspected that this horse was a trick of the Greeks and tried to convince the people of Troy not to accept the gift. To prove that the horse was a trick, he struck the horse with his spear to show that it was hollow. Poseidon and Athena then punished him for his interference and Laocoön and his two sons were attacked and killed by two sea serpents named Porces and Chariboea. The Trojans interpreted this event as a sign that the horse was not a trick and they took the horse into their city walls after which the Greek came out of the horse during the night and defeated the Trojans.
Copies: Many copies of this statue have been made and can be found across the world. A well-known copy is the marble version by Baccio Bandinelli in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. Another bronze version made by Francesco Primaticcio for King François I of France is in the Louvre. Jean Baptiste Tuby made a copy for the Park of the Château de Versailles in France. The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, has a terracotta version of this sculpture by Stefano Maderno. Some other places that have a copy of this statue are the Mannheim Palace in Germany, the Archeological Museum of Odessa in Ukraine, Houghton Hall in England, and the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes in Greece. This statue has also inspired many other artists to depict the story of Laocoön. For example, El Greco created a painting of Laocoön that is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Several parodies of this sculpture have also been made over time. For example, Niccolò Boldrini made a woodcut around 1540 for which he copied a drawing of Titian in which monkeys replace Laocoön and his sons.
Fun fact: The statue misses a few limbs and parts of the serpents. Over time, the missing parts were added to the sculpture and sculptors, including Antonio Canova did various restorations. The right arm of Laocoön was already added in the 16th century, but there was quite some discussion on whether the arm would be straight up or bent back over the shoulder (which Michelangelo suggested). The experts chose that the arm would be straight up and you can see in the picture how the statue looked before 1960. In 1906, an archeologist found a right arm of a sculpture which he thought could be the missing right arm of the Laocoön sculpture. He donated the arm to the Vatican Museums, but only 54 years later the museum verified that it was indeed the missing arm of Laocoön, and it was added to the sculpture. The missing right arm was bent over the shoulder as Michelangelo supposed (this also means that the replicas of this sculpture from before 1960 are incorrect). In the 1980s all non-original additions to the sculpture were removed, and the sculpture became like we can see it today.
Where? On the south wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Pope Sixtus IV
What do you see? The punishment of Corah (also spelled Korah), Dathan, and Abiram, because they opposed the leadership of Moses. There are three different scenes:
Backstory: This painting is part of a series of frescos on the stories of Moses on the south wall of the Sistine Chapel. This series includes another fresco of Botticelli, which is Youth of Moses. The fresco on the Punishments of the Sons of Corah is based on three different stories from the Bible. The first one is the attempt to Stone Moses, described in Numbers 14:10. The Israelites were unhappy that they would have to fight against an enemy to conquer their promised land and were afraid to die in that fight. The second scene is a combination of two stories. The first story is in Leviticus 10 and describes the killing of the sons of Aaron after they do not use sacred fire to burn their incense. The second story is based on Numbers 16:7, in which Moses asks Corah, Dathan, and Abiram to burn their incense in a special pan for God. The third scene is based on Numbers 16. Corah, Dathan, and Abiram sinned against God, and God decided that they would have to die differently than normal people. The earth opened and swallowed these three men, their families, and everything they owned.
What is the Arch of Constantine? It is the largest triumphal arch in Rome. It was built to commemorate the victory in 312 AD of Roman Emperor Constantine I over another Roman Emperor, Maxentius, during a time in which there were multiple emperors in the Roman Empire. The arch is located next to the Colosseum. The arch is 21 meters (23 yards) high and has three entrances as you can see in this painting. Roman Emperors walked under this arch when they entered the city after a victory. The Arch of Constantine is also depicted twice in the Delivery of the Keys by Perugino which is on the north wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums.
Symbolism: This fresco illustrates the claim of power of the Catholic Church and the papacy. It shows that only priests can perform holy duties and that God will punish people if they do not obey him. It also shows that God saves the people who obey Him. The Arch of Constantine is included to symbolize the victory of Christianity over paganism. The inscription from Hebrews 5:4 shows the holiness of the Pope as he was chosen by God.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli was born in Florence in 1445 under the name Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi. His father apprenticed Sandro to a goldsmith such that he could soon start making money for the family. As there was a close connection between goldsmiths and painters, Botticelli was able to become familiar with painting and discovered that this was his passion. He became an apprentice of Fra Filippo Lippi, one of the greatest painters of that time. Botticelli is best known for his famous paintings of The Birth of Venus and La Primavera, which are both in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: Note that in all three scenes, Moses has light rays coming out of his head, which he got after meeting God on Mount Sinai. The rays signify the grace of God. There are ten rays of light in each beam, which is equal to the Ten Commandments that Moses received from God. In many other depictions of Moses, he has horns on top of his head, but this seems to be a mistake due to an incorrect transcription of Exodus 34:29-30. The reason is that the Hebrew word for ‘qaran’ or ‘keren’ can be translated both by ‘horn’ or ‘ray of light’ and in some of the 15th-century translations the word horn was used. For example, look at the horns on the statue of Moses by Michelangelo in the San Pietro in Vincoli church in Rome.
Where? On the west wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Originally Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint a fresco about the resurrection, but after the death of Clement VII, Pope Paul III changed the topic of the fresco into the Last Judgment.
What do you see? The painting can be divided into two scenes which are interconnected. On the top half is a scene with Jesus in the middle and on the bottom half is a scene where it is decided whether people go to Heaven or Hell.
The scene surrounding Jesus: Jesus is the central figure in the top middle of the fresco. He stands on a cloud against the background of a golden aureole. He raises his right arm to condemn the people on the right of painting to Hell, and he puts his left hand forward to draw the blessed people on the right of the painting towards him. His figure has been modeled after the Apollo Belvedere which is also in the Vatican Museums. He is surrounded in the top half of the painting by all sorts of saints and Biblical figures. While many of these figures cannot be precisely identified, some important ones stand out. To Jesus’ immediate left (from our perspective) is Mary with a red dress and a bright blue cloak. She looks to the blessed people on the left of the painting. She has a passive attitude as her role to intervene between the people who pray to her and God is no longer relevant. John the Baptist is the large person to the left of Jesus. He is wearing a camel-skin robe and looks at Jesus. In between Mary and Saint John is Saint Andrew holding a diagonal cross. Saint Peter is the large person to the right of Jesus. He has a white beard and holds the keys of Heaven (one silver and a gold one). Saint Bartholomew is the large figure right below Jesus. He sits on a cloud, has a long grey beard, and holds his own skin in his right hand (in which Michelangelo painted his self-portrait) and a knife in his left hand. To his left is Saint Lawrence sitting on a cloud holding a ladder.
The scene at the bottom: In the bottom left, people arise from their graves. In the scene above this one, some of these people are rising through the help of angels or clouds. These are the people that are saved. In the bottom middle, above the cross of Jesus, there is a group of wingless angels who are blowing trumpets to awake the dead. They carry two books that contain the names of the people who are going to Heaven and Hell. The bigger book on the right contains the people that go to Hell. On the bottom right, there is a boat full of people who are going to Hell. Charon is standing on the left side of the boat and aggressively forces the people out of the boat. Minos is standing in the right bottom corner of the painting with a snake wrapped around him (and the snake bites his genitals). He is standing in front of the entrance to Hell. Charon and Minos are two figures described in Dante’s poem Inferno, and they are depicted exactly as Dante describes them. Interestingly, there is no clear figure of a devil present in this painting, though several devil-like figures can be seen on the right side of the painting. They can be recognized by the horns on their head, and they are pulling people down to go to Hell. On the left of this group is a person who is referred to as the damned man as his expression convincingly includes both the disbelief and the realization that he will go to Hell forever. Michelangelo decided not to depict Hell itself and leaves it to our imagination.
Backstory: Michelangelo initially discussed the content of a large fresco in the Sistine Chapel with Pope Clemente VII in 1533. However, he only started to work on the actual fresco in 1536 under Pope Paul III. Before Michelangelo started his work on The Last Judgment (sometimes spelled The Last Judgement), the wall was covered by three frescos from Perugino. Michelangelo decided that the wall should be rebuilt using high-quality brick stones and slope slightly inwards such that the wall could not collect dust. The goal of his fresco is to remember viewers of the upcoming day of the Last Judgment, where everyone, including the viewers, will be judged by God on whether they will go to Heaven or Hell. The painting caused quite some controversy when it was revealed. Controversial elements were the inclusion of mythological figures and the wingless angels in the fresco. Another important debate was about all the nudity in the fresco on the wall of a chapel. Originally the genitalia of many people in this fresco were visible. Around 1564, probably right after the death of Michelangelo, Danielle Da Volterra was ordered to cover some of these obscenities in this fresco.
Symbolism: This fresco contains lots of symbolism, and almost every attribute in the painting has a symbolic meaning. Below are a few examples. On the top left of the painting, a large cross can be seen, as well as the Crown of Thorns, and the nails used for the cross. On the top right is the Column of Flagellation, as well as the ladder, the spear, and the sponge dipped in vinegar. All of these symbols refer to the Passion of Christ. You can also still see the wounds of the crucifixion in the hands and feet of Jesus. The keys of Saint Peter are the keys to Heaven. The skin that Saint Bartholomew is holding is a symbol of martyrdom. The ladder of Saint Lawrence symbolizes his martyrdom. In the scene on the bottom right, where people are dragged down by devils and pushed down by angels, different people represent different sins. For example, the man with the bag of money and keys represents the sin of greediness.
The Last Judgment according to the Bible: The Last Judgment of all people who lived on Earth is an important aspect of the Christian religion. It is described as a moment in which all people will come to life again, and the good people will be rewarded by going to Heaven, and the evil people will go to Hell. There is a large number of references in the Bible to the Last Judgment (see here for a complete list). The most important and direct reference is in Revelations 20:11-15 in which the judgment day is described in a vision to John the Apostle. Another good source is Matthew 25: 31-46 in which Jesus explains the Last Judgment as the day when he will return to Earth with all his angels. Several main elements in this fresco can be linked to the Biblical stories. For example, the scene at the bottom left on the opening of the graves is based on Ezekiel 37:1-14. However, many aspects of this painting also differ from the Biblical description. Moreover, some elements are also inspired by non-Biblical sources, such as Dante’s Inferno.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was born in Caprese in the Republic of Florence. He lived most of his adult life in either Florence or Rome. From 1534 till his death he lived in Rome where he not only worked on this fresco in the Sistine Chapel, but he was also appointed lead architect of St. Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo was an architect, painter, poet, and sculptor and he is remembered most for his paintings and sculptures. Only a few paintings of him have survived, including the Doni Tondo in the Uffizi Museum. However, he is better known for his amazing frescos such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which includes the famous scene of The Creation of Adam. His sculptures are also considered to be among the best in the world. A couple of examples are his statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia and his Genius of Victory in the Palazzo Vecchio.
Fun fact: Michelangelo included about 400 figures in this fresco and has included these people in a large number of different positions. This required very extensive knowledge of the human body which is something that Michelangelo possessed. From a young age, he participated in the dissection of the bodies of convicted criminals, something that the Pope allowed. The only condition was that the bodies of the criminals would be properly buried afterward. These dissections provided Michelangelo with very valuable knowledge of the human body, which was important for the realism of his sculptures and paintings. Michelangelo was not the only artists that dissected dead bodies. Multiple artists did this during that period, including Leonardo da Vinci, as the art moved away from unrealistic religious painting during the Middle Ages to more realistic and idealized human bodies during the Renaissance.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? The Octagonal Court of the Museo Pio Clementino in the Vatican Museums
When? Probably between 117 and 138 AD
What do you see? A marble statue of 88 inches (2.24 meters) of a beardless, athletic Apollo. The surface of the statue is very smooth. Apollo’s face shows a neutral expression. He steps forward a bit with his right leg and throws back his cloak over his left shoulder to show his fully naked body. He looks to his left and has his left arm stretched out to support his cloak. Apollo has beautiful curly hair. His hair is tied on the top with a band and his curls hang down his neck. Around his torso, he is wearing a quiver to hold his arrows. He is also wearing sandals. On the left side (for the viewer), the statue is supported by a tree trunk, and you can see a snake carved on the left side of the tree. It is not entirely clear what mythological story is depicted in this statue, though it is suggested that Apollo originally was carrying a bow and arrow. This pose may represent Apollo who has just released an arrow with the bow that he was holding in his left hand. Some people suggest that this statue represents the moment that Apollo has just killed the serpent (which is a dragon) Python. The snake on the left, which may be a python, may serve as additional evidence to support this story.
Backstory: This statue has been discovered in the 15th century and is also known as the Pythian Apollo. It was probably found around 1485 in Anzio, which is about 35 miles south of Rome. This statue is a Roman copy of an ancient Greek bronze statue. It is unknown who sculpted the current version of the statue. Leochares may have sculpted the original bronze statue in the 4th century BC. Originally, his right forearm and his left hand were missing, but they have been restored around 1532 by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (a pupil of Michelangelo). Near the end of the 15th century, the statue has been acquired by Giuliano della Rovere, a great art collector, who became later Pope Julius II. The statue has been named after the Belvedere Court in the Vatican Museums where the statue was placed in 1511. It has stayed there since then, except for a period of almost 20 years when Napoleon took it and displayed in Paris. Thanks to the efforts of, among others, Antonio Canova, the statue returned to its original location.
The Octagonal Court: The Octagonal Court is currently part of the Vatican Museums. The court has been designated by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) to display antique classical statues. It is an open-air court containing several famous statues from antiquity. Its name is derived from the octagonal shape of the court and was given by Pope Clement XIV in 1772. Shortly after that, the court was incorporated in the Vatican Museums and opened to the public. The Apollo Belvedere and the statue of Laocoön and His Sons are the most famous statues in this court, and both have been there from the beginning.
Who is Apollo? Apollo is the god of, among others, archery, art, music, and poetry. He is the son of Zeus and Leto and the twin sister of Artemis. In Greek mythology, he is considered to be the most beautiful man that can be imagined. A bow and arrows are his most important attributes to represent his role as the god of archery. He received these attributes from Hephaestus, the blacksmith for the gods. However, in this statue, there are no bow and arrows, though he is wearing a quiver that usually contains arrows. He probably held the bow in his left hand. You can still see a small part of the bow in his hand, but the rest of the bow was lost before the statue was discovered.
Copies and inspiration: The Apollo Belvedere has for a long time been considered as the ideal depiction of male beauty. It has been copied many times and has served as an inspiration for many future artists. For example, artists such as Michelangelo and Dürer have used it as an inspiration for their sketches and sculptures. This statue also had a big influence on the neoclassical sculptors, such as Antonio Canova. For example, his statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa has been directly inspired by the Apollo Belvedere. The head of the Apollo Belvedere has also been used for the emblem of the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission in 1972, which has been the last moon landing mission to date.
Fun fact: JJohann Winckelmann is a famous art historian, and in his book History of Ancient Art, he poetically describes ancient art. His book also contains a description of the Apollo Belvedere. He classified the Apollo Belvedere as “the highest ideal of art” among all classic works that have survived. He classifies this statue as a beauty that transcends the beauty that we can find in this world. He admits that his words can never describe the beauty of this sculpture and looking at the statue transfers his mind to an earthly paradise.
Where? On the North wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Pope Sixtus IV
What do you see? Five different scenes.
Surrounding frescos: The scenes on the North wall of the Sistine Chapel illustrate the life of Christ. These scenes are ordered chronologically. When you face the North wall, the first scene is depicted on the right (immediately next to The Last Judgment by Michelangelo). It illustrates the Baptism of Christ, as described in Matthew 3, and is painted by Perugino. This scene took place right before the temptations of Christ as painted by Botticelli. The third scene illustrates the Vocation of the Apostles by Ghirlandaio. This is what Jesus does right after he resisted the temptations by the Devil and this story is described in Matthew 4.
Symbolism: The scene on the top left takes place in front of a forest with oak trees, which were the symbol of the Della Rovere family to which Pope Sixtus IV belonged. The top window in the Temple refers to the Virgin Mary, who, according to contemporary beliefs, would save people from being seduced by the Devil. The table with wine and bread on the top right refers to the Last Supper of Jesus.
Who is Botticelli? Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (1445-1510), better known as Sandro Botticelli, was born in Florence. He painted mainly religious subjects, but also some portraits and mythological subjects. Some of his best-known works include The Birth of Venus and La Primavera, which are both in the Uffizi Museum. In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV asked Botticelli to come to Rome to create some frescos for the Sistine Chapel. Over the next two years, Botticelli painted three frescos in the Sistine Chapel among which the current one, Punishments of the Sons of Corah, and Youth of Moses.
Fun fact: This fresco by Botticelli closely follows the Biblical story as described in the Gospel of Matthew. However, Botticelli made some changes to the story to please the commissioner. For example, the scene on the top left takes place in the desert according to the Bible. Botticelli, however, depicted the first temptation of Christ in front of a forest with oak trees, as the oak tree was the symbol of the Della Rovere family to which Pope Sixtus IV belonged. Another clear deviation from the Biblical story is the depiction of the Temple. The large building in the middle of this painting is probably a copy of the old St Peter’s Basilica. It serves both as the backdrop to the scene in the middle foreground, where it is supposed to represent the Church, and the scene on the top middle, where it should represent the Temple.
Other fun facts: Don’t forget to notice the young boy in the right foreground. He has a bunch of grapes in his hand and tries to keep it away from the small snake that is behind him. Also, to the left of the altar is a woman with a basket with two cocks or hens on top of her head, which are to be sacrificed.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? The Octagonal Court of the Museo Pio Clementino in the Vatican Museums and Room 548 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
When? When? The version in the Vatican Museums was made between 1800 and 1801 and the version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1804 and 1806
Commissioned by? The original version in the Vatican Museums was commissioned by tribune Onorato Duveyriez and the replica in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Polish countess Valeria Tarnowska
What do you see? This marble statue shows the Greek demigod Perseus holding the head of Medusa. Perseus is standing in a triumphant pose as he has just beheaded Medusa. He holds the head of Medusa in his left hand by grabbing the venomous snakes on her head. The face of Medusa expresses horror as it has just been cut off. However, you can also still see the beauty of her face. Interestingly, Perseus is looking at her face, even though that should turn him into stone according to the myth (but the irony may be that this actually happened in this statue). Perseus is wearing the sandals of the Roman messenger god Mercury (Hermes in Greek) which allowed Perseus to fly. These sandals were made of gold by the god Vulcan (Hephaestus in Greek). Perseus also wears the cap of Hades, which could make him invisible. In his right hand, he is holding a harpe sword, which is a sword with a sickle-like extension on one side of the blade. The sword was owned by Zeus, the father of Perseus. A robe hangs loosely over his arm. Notice that his left foot is standing in the front, while the heel of his right foot is lifted. In this way, Canova creates the sense that Perseus is moving forward.
Backstory: Antonio Canova made this statue twice. The first version is on display in the Vatican Museums and is also known as Perseus Triumphant. A replica by Canova is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The head of Medusa in this statue has been inspired by the Medusa Rondanini, a marble sculpture that is in the Glyptothek in Munich. The rest of the statue has been heavily inspired by the Apollo Belvedere, a famous statue from antiquity, which is also in the Octagonal Court of the Vatican Museums. In fact, the first version of the statue of Perseus and Medusa was acquired by Pope Pius VII to replace the Apollo Belvedere which Napoleon Bonaparte had confiscated and shipped to the Louvre in Paris. When the Apollo Belvedere returned to Rome, they kept the statue of Canova as it was such a great piece of work. When the second version of this statue first arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the sword was missing. They took a cast from the version in the Vatican Museums and added a newly carved marble sword to the statue.
The story of Perseus and Medusa: In Greek mythology, Perseus is the son of Jupiter (Zeus in Greek), who was the king of the gods, and Danaë. Polydectes, the King of Seriphos, ordered Perseus to provide him with the head of Medusa as a wedding gift for him. Medusa was one of three sisters (Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa) who were often referred to as Gorgons. Both Stheno and Euryale were immortal, but Medusa was not. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful young woman. However, after Poseidon (the god of the sea) made love to her in Athena’s temple, Athena (the goddess of wisdom and war) changed her beautiful locks into living, venomous snakes (in other mythological stories the three sisters were already born with snakes on their heads). Medusa had a horrific facial expression that could turn people (or according to some, only men) who looked at her into stone. Perseus used a shiny shield that he got from Athena to avoid looking at Medusa directly and succeeded to cut off her head. When Perseus returned to King Polydectes, he showed him the head of Medusa, which still retained its power, which turned Polydectes into stone. This was the purpose of Perseus as he discovered that Polydectes had abused his mother.
Perseus and Medusa in art? Perseus and Medusa have been a popular subject in art. Famous artists have used their story as the inspiration for their artwork. Leonardo da Vinci created two version of the head of Medusa, but neither of them has survived. Caravaggio has painted the head of Medusa on a shield which is in the Uffizi Museum. Rubens also created two versions of the Head of Medusa, of which one is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Various sculptures of Perseus and Medusa have also been made, such as by Benvenuto Cellini.
Who is Canova? Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822) was born in Possagno, a village about an hour’s drive from Venice. His father and grandfather were also respected sculptors. He learned the art of sculpting from his grandfather Pasino Canova, as his father died when Antonio was three years old. His work was inspired by both the classical sculptures and the Baroque art, which resulted in a style that we call today neoclassic art. In his work, Canova was always searching the perfect balance between representing reality and the taste for the ideal beauty of the ancient Greeks and Romans. He was a perfectionist in his work and was renowned for the refinement of the surfaces of his sculptures, which looked like real flesh. Another beautiful statue by Canova is Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss in the Louvre. Together with Jacques-Louis David, he has become one of the main representatives of the neo-classical era.
What is neoclassicism? Around 1760, neoclassicism started in Rome in opposition to the then-popular Baroque and Rococo styles. The neoclassic style quickly spread through Europe and become especially popular in France, with artists such as Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Neoclassic art is inspired by the old Roman and Greek art and focuses on simplicity and symmetry. The paintings, sculptures, and architecture in this style did not show much emotion, were more ordered and down-to-earth compared to the Baroque style and were less playful compared to the Rococo style.
Fun fact: When making a statue of marble, the artist needs to be aware of the center of gravity. In this sculpture, the stretched arm of Perseus and the head of Medusa naturally shift the center of gravity. Canova included two tricks to keep the sculpture stable and decrease the chances that it gets severely damaged by movement or that the head would simply break off. First, the robe has been included in the sculpture to provide additional support for the arm of Perseus and the head of Medusa. The somewhat unnatural shape of the robe helps to keep the statue balanced. Second, the head has been made hollow to reduce the weight of the head. You can see that from below. Canova created two versions of the head of Medusa for the sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The hollow marble head that you see here and a head in plaster (which is much lighter in weight). The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns both heads. Canova suggested the commissioner that she could put a candle in the hollow head for some amusement.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster (Amazon link).
Where? Middle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
When? Around 1512
Commissioned by? Pope Julius II
What do you see? Adam is on the left and God is on the right. God is flying in the air with his beard and hair floating in the wind. He stretches out his right arm to touch the left hand of Adam who is laying on the earth. Their hands are almost touching as God is giving life to Adam. God and Adam are both depicted as muscular figures with the difference that God is dressed in a white mantle and Adam is naked. The muscular figure of Adam shows clear similarities to the famous statue of David by Michelangelo. God creates Adam as a mirror of his own image according to the biblical story in Genesis, and we can see that similarity in this fresco (for example, look at the right leg of Adam and God). Adam seems already alive given that his eyes are open. However, Adam is still has a somewhat passive expression, and his arm is not fully stretched yet. So, it seems that the gift of life is given through a spark without God physically touching Adam. God is surrounded by twelve figures against the background of, what some suppose, a red robe.
The figures surrounding God: God is surrounded by twelve figures, which are identified as angels. However, the figure under the left arm of God stands out as she seems to be different. It is actually a woman and it is not clear who she is. Some have suggested that this is a female angel, others suggest that this is Eva, and even others suggest that she is the bride of God. The left hand of God also touches one of the angels. This angel has been suggested to starkly resemble Baby Jesus in the Doni Tondo (in the Uffizi Museum), and may thus be God’s idea for the creation of Jesus. If this is true, then this painting also symbolizes the future coming of Jesus to reconcile the sins of Adam and his descendants.
Backstory: This painting is based on the biblical story in Genesis 1:26-27: “And God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.” When reading this story in the Bible, many people have this image of Michelangelo in their minds. Michelangelo painted this fresco near the end of his work on the ceiling, which contains, among other things, nine scenes from the book of Genesis. However, the Creation of Adam has become the most memorable part of the series of frescos on the ceiling.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was born in Caprese in the Republic of Florence. He was a painter, sculptor, poet, and architect and he has had an enormous influence on the development of art. Some consider him the greatest artist ever, but he is certainly considered to be one of the four most important artists of the Renaissance, together with Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael. During his life, he was considered to be the best artist on earth and earned the nickname Il Divino (the divine one). During his time in Rome with Pope Julius II, he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel all by himself. It took him four years (1508-1512) to complete this ceiling, which is now considered to be one of the best frescos ever created. He also created The Last Judgment on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, which is also a very famous fresco.
Fun fact: In 1990, Frank Meshberger, a gynecologist, wrote a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association claiming that the red background behind God and his entourage represents an anatomically correct image of the brain. This interpretation implies that this painting shows not only the gift of life by God but also the gift of intellect. He describes that Adam is already alive in this fresco and the real effort of God to touch Adam would be to give him a brain with intellect. While many people are not completely convinced by this interpretation, it is not entirely unlikely. Michelangelo often dissected corpses to get a better understanding of human anatomy and he would thus have known how a human brain would look like. In addition, some of the sonnets that Michelangelo wrote also discuss the important role of the intellect of human beings. Another interpretation of the red background that gained some traction is that it is a depiction of a uterus and that this fresco symbolizes fertility.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas (Amazon links).
Where? Room 12 of the Pinacoteca in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? The Vittrici (or Vittrice) family, probably Gerolamo Vittrici or his son Alessandro Vittrici.
What do you see? This painting shows five people in the middle of the night and the lifeless body of Jesus. Notice that the body of Jesus is clean and there is no blood, although you can see a wound in his side. The chest and arm of Jesus are pale indicating that he had died. The people are standing on top of a big stone at the entrance of the tomb where Jesus would be lowered down and buried. The person on the right in the brown robe is Nicodemus. He is holding the knees of Jesus and looks into the direction where the body of Jesus would be placed. On the other side, a young Saint John, who can be identified by his red cloth, is putting an arm under the shoulders of Jesus. Behind Nicodemus are three women who express their emotions in different ways. One raises her hands in the air (it is not clear which Mary this is), the other is crying and drying her tears (this may be Mary Magdalene), and the third is the old Virgin Mary who is looking sadly at the body of Jesus. Above the head of Jesus, you can see the hand of the Virgin Mary. In the left foreground, you can see a great mullein plant, which is a symbol of driving away evil spirits. Finally, notice that Caravaggio chose for a black background without any landscape or architecture, which makes us focus completely on the figures in the foreground.
Backstory: This painting served as an altarpiece in one of the Chapels (the Cappella della Pietà) in the Santa Maria in Vallicella church (also known as the Chiesa Nuova) in Rome. In 1797, this painting was removed from the church by Napoleon, but around 1816 it returned to Rome to hang in the Vatican Museums. Several well-known artists, including Cézanne, Gericault, and Rubens, have used this painting as an example for their own work, often with some modifications. A replica of this painting is in the Chiesa Nuova. A version of Rubens is quite similar to the original by Caravaggio. This painting is now in the National Gallery of Canada. However, there are some differences between the two paintings, such as Saint John already stepping down with one foot into the grave. Another difference is that Rubens has replaced Nicodemus by Joseph of Arimathea.
The Santa Maria in Vallicella church: This church is also called the Chiesa Nuova. It is located in Rome next to the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. This is the main church for the Oratorians. This is a community of secular priests recognized by the Pope and the members of the community are not bound by vows but bound by a voluntary bond of charity. The church is richly decorated with gold, frescos, paintings, and altarpieces. The church got into serious disrepair during the 19th century, but in 2006 a major restoration was completed. Nowadays, the church is still in active use.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Milan and grew up in Caravaggio (which is where his name comes from). He was a brilliant painter, but he led a troubled life. After some incidents with the police, he fled Milan in 1592 and moved to Rome. Typical for his work is that he incorporated a realistic depiction of the physical and emotional state of his subjects. He painted a variety of different works, including religious paintings, mythological paintings, still lifes, and self-portraits. Besides the painting on the entombment, Death of the Virgin in the Louvre is another example of a great religious work by Caravaggio. An example of a great mythological painting is his work of Bacchus in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: The painting is quite dark. While this was the intention of Caravaggio and may partly be due to the exposure to light over time, Caravaggio often took the place where the painting would be placed into account when choosing the colors he used for that painting. He considered both how the light would fall on the painting and the height at which the painting would be placed. So, when removing his paintings from their intended location, the quality of his works sometimes seems to be worse than if it would have stayed in its intended place. To fully appreciate this painting, one should attend the mass in the Chiesa Nuova where a replica of this painting hangs on its original location. The painting hangs about five feet above the altar step, which is at eye-level for the priest when the body of Christ is remembered during the mass. The attendees to the mass would look up to this painting.
Where? On the south wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Pope Sixtus IV
What do you see? Seven scenes from the early life of Moses. In each scene, Moses is dressed in a yellow dress, and in five of them, he also wears a green cloak on top of it. The scenes illustrate the phases of Moses’ early life and how he became ready to become the leader of the Israelites. On the bottom right, Moses is killing an Egyptian man with his sword as the Egyptian was beating a young Israelite. To the right of this scene, you can see that a woman in blue comforts the young Israelite while leading him away. On the middle right, Moses flees Egypt as the Pharaoh wanted to kill him. To the left of this scene, Moses is driving away two men, dressed in red and orange, who were preventing the daughters of Reuel to get water for their sheep. In the scene below that one, he helps the girls to get water for their sheep. Moses is getting the water from the water well and pours it into a trough. On the top middle, Moses takes off his sandals as God is telling him that he is standing on holy ground. To the left of this scene, on the top right, Moses is speaking to God who is standing in a burning bush. On the bottom left, Moses is standing in front of the Israelites to lead them out of Egypt to their promised land.
Backstory: This fresco is also known as The Trials of Moses. It is part of a series of frescos on the south wall of the Sistine Chapel in which the life of Moses in depicted. The stories on this wall have many aspects that are related to the stories on the North Wall which depicts the life of Jesus. Specifically, the fresco of the Youth of Moses has various links with the fresco of the Temptations of Christ which is also painted by Botticelli. The idea behind linking the life of Moses to the life of Jesus was to show the continuity between the Old and New Testament.
The Biblical story: This fresco is based on the biblical stories as told in the book of Exodus. In Exodus 2:12, Moses kills an Egyptian man who was beating a Hebrew man. In Exodus 2:15, Moses decides to flee to Midian as the Pharaoh planned to kill him for his deed. In Exodus 2:16, Moses chases the men that were preventing the daughters of Reuel (also known as Jethro) to get water for their sheep and he helped them to give water to their sheep. In Exodus 3:5, God asks Moses to take off his sandals. In Exodus 3, Moses sees God in a burning bush, and God speaks to him and tells him that he should lead the Israelites out of Egypt. In Exodus 13:17, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt.
Symbolism: This painting contains many symbols of which some are discussed below. In the scene where Moses flees from Egypt to Midian, you can see a tall tree without any leaves in front of him. This tree signifies the Tree of Knowledge to indicate that Moses will transform himself into a better person when he moves to Midian. In the scene where Moses helps the daughters of Reuel to provide water to their sheep, the woman on the left is Zipporah who Moses will marry later. She has a myrtle leave in her hair which symbolizes the conversion of a non-Jewish person to Christian faith. She also holds a spindle in her right hand (a device to spin wool into a thread), which is a reminder of the Virgin Mary. The water that Moses pours into the trough is a symbol of Baptism and the sheep symbolize the Church. In the scene on the top left, Moses has suddenly a golden rod in his hand which he received from God to lead the Israelites.
Who is Botticelli? Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli, was born around 1445 in Florence where he also died in 1510. He spent most of his life in Florence, except between 1481 and 1482 when he painted three frescos in Rome, and an earlier period in which he spent some months in Pisa. He was an apprentice of Fra Filippo Lippi who taught him how to draw, paint, and how to create frescos. He completed various frescos during his life, but several of his Florentine frescos have been lost over time. He is probably most known for his paintings, including The Birth of Venus and La Primavera, which are both in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: In the scene where Moses helps the daughters of Reuel, only two daughters are present, while the Bible mentions that there are seven daughters. The left of the two daughters is Zipporah, who Moses will marry later on. The fresco to the right of this one by Botticelli is made by Perugino and depicts Moses leaving from Midian to Egypt. In the scene on the right of this fresco, Moses is asked to circumcise his son Eliezer, who he got with his wife, Zipporah. So, while the frescos on this wall should be chronologically over time from right to left, occasionally the chronology is incorrect.
Where? Stanza della Segnatura (one of the four Raphael Rooms) in the Vatican Museums
When? Between 1508 and 1511
Commissioned by? Pope Julius II
What do you see? 58 different philosophers are gathered on a sunny day in a beautiful palace-like building. The philosophers are busy with a variety of activities such as reading, writing, listening, arguing, explaining, etc. In the center of the fresco, under the arch, you can see two of the most famous philosophers both holding a book: Plato (with the red robe) is on the left and Aristotle (with the blue robe) is on the right. These two philosophers had different philosophical views. Besides them, two rows of philosophers are following their conversation. Several figures to the left of Plato, you can see a figure in a completely green robe. This figure is Socrates. You can see four to five people who are listening to his story. In front of Aristotle, you can see Diogenes, a half-naked man dressed in blue sitting on the stairs. In the right foreground, a group of nine philosophers is busy with geometry and astronomy. Five people are looking at a geometrical problem and Euclid or Archimedes (art historians are not sure who of the two it is) is using a compass to explain the problem on the board on the floor. Four others are talking about astronomy. Ptolemy is holding a scale model of the earth, and Zoroaster is holding a scale model of the stars in the sky. In the left foreground, you can see a group of philosophers with Pythagoras in the middle. Pythagoras is writing in a book, and someone else is holding a board in front of him with a drawing of Pythagorean harmonics (which is a combination of music and arithmetic). Somewhat to the right of this group is a man sitting by himself writing some notes. This man is Heraclitus and his position is in line with the lonely life he lived. The person in the blue robe writing in a book on the left in the foreground is Epicurus.
Statues: There are two large statues in the fresco. The one on the top left is Apollo. You can recognize him by the lyre he is holding in his role as the god of music. The goddess on the top right is Athena. In her role as the goddess of war, she is holding a very long spear in her right hand, and she is holding a shield with the head of Medusa in her left hand.
Backstory: The Stanza della Segnatura was designed to be the library of Pope Julius II. The idea was to organize the books of the pope in four categories: law, philosophy, poetry, and theology. The fresco of the School of Athens is full of ancient philosophers and thus represents the philosophy theme. The philosophers come from different time periods, and several of them have never met each other. For example, Pythagoras lived in the 6th century B.C., Socrates in the 5th century B.C., and Aristotle in the 4th century B.C. The philosophers are also not all from Athens, but in fact from quite some different countries. For example, the man with the turban and the green robe who is leaning over Pythagoras is Averroes. He is an Islamic philosopher who was born in Spain in the 12 century A.D.What is the Stanza della Segnatura? The Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Signatura) is one of the four Raphael Rooms. This room was the library of Pope Julius II. Raphael painted everything in this room. When standing with your face towards the School of Athens, the wall on the left displays a fresco named The Parnassus (which represents poetry). The wall on the right displays Cardinal and Theological Values (representing justice). The wall opposite the School of Athens displays the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (representing theology). On the arched ceiling, you can see four circular frescos of a female on a throne. The female above the School of Athens represents Dame Philosophy, and she was used in the Middle Ages as an allegory to philosophy.
Who are Plato and Aristotle? Plato and Aristotle are two of the most influential philosophers the world has known. Plato was a student of Socrates and Aristotle was a student of Plato. In the fresco of Raphael, Plato is holding a book entitled Timaeus (which describes the origins of the world), and Aristotle is holding a book entitled Ethics. Plato believed in an ultimate reality that was beyond what we observe in this world, and that is why you can see him pointing upwards to the sky. In contrast, Aristotle believed that the world in which we live and what we observe is the ultimate reality and he is, therefore, pointing forward into the world.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), better known as Raphael, was one of the three great painters of his time (the others being Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo). In 1508, Pope Julius II invited him to Rome where he lived until his death. In 1508 he was asked to paint the Stanza della Signatura for Pope Julius II. This was the biggest commission so far in his career, and after he completed this room, he was asked also to paint three other rooms (which are now collectively known as the Raphael Rooms).
Fun fact: On the right foreground, Raphael also depicted himself. We can just see his young face and he is wearing a black cap. He is looking directly at the viewer. Raphael also used other contemporaries as models for the philosophers in this fresco. For example, Leonardo da Vinci served as a model for Plato and the architect Bramante is used as a model for Euclid. There is also speculation that Michelangelo served as the model for Heraclitus in the foreground.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 8 of the Pinacoteca in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Archbishop Giulio de’ Medici (who later became Pope Clement VII) for a chapel in the Narbonne Cathedral in Narbonne, France.
What do you see? Two unrelated biblical events. On top is the story of the transfiguration of Christ. At the bottom is the story of a young man who is possessed by a demon.
Top Half: Jesus is shown on top of Mount Tabor in a gleaming snow-white robe with next to him the prophets Moses (on the right) and Elijah (on the left). The clouds behind Jesus are illuminated. Jesus raises his arms and looks up towards God. Below Jesus are three of his disciples, from left to right, James, Peter, and John. They cover their faces with their hands as the sky is too bright for their eyes. The two figures on the left are probably Justus and Pastor. They are two Christian martyrs to whom the church, in which the painting was initially intended to be placed, is dedicated.
Bottom Half: The nine disciples of Jesus who did not climb the mountain are on the left side. They try to heal a young man who is possessed by an evil spirit. The figure in the blue robe on the bottom left is probably Matthew. He consults a book but cannot find the solution to cure the young man. The young disciple in the yellow robe is Philip. To Philip's right, in the red robe, is Andrew. The man behind Andrew, pointing to the sick boy, is Judas Thaddeus, and the older man to his left is Simon. The man on the far left is probably Judas Iscariot. The disciples, however, are unable to heal the young man. This may explain why the disciple in red is pointing towards Jesus on top of the mountain. The sick young man on the right has a blue cloth wrapped around his middle and looks very pale while making a wild gesture. You can see that his eyes are looking in different directions. The man behind him in the green robe is his father who is holding him, and he looks at the disciples with hope and fear at the same time. In front of the young man, two women look at the disciples while pointing at the young man.
Backstory: This is the last work of Raphael, and he died before he could finish it (his student Giulio Romano finished the last parts). It was originally intended for the Narbonne Cathedral in Narbonne, France, together with The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo (for which Michelangelo provided the drawing) in the National Gallery in London. However, after Raphael died, it was decided to keep this painting in Rome because the painting was too good. In 1523, the painting was placed in the San Pietro in Montorio Church in Rome. Over the centuries, numerous artists and art experts considered this to be the best painting ever.
Biblical stories: The story on top is the transfiguration and on the bottom is The Healing of the Lunatic Boy. Both stories are described in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9. The biblical story describes how Jesus is transfigured in radiant glory when praying with three of his disciples on a mountain. Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah and also hears the voice of God. The Feast of the Transfiguration is still celebrated in many churches, either on August 6 or August 19. The story of the demon-possessed boy occurs at the same time as the transfiguration. When Jesus and his three disciples came down from the mountain, the father of the boy kneels down in front of Jesus and asks him to heal his son as the disciples were unable to do that. In 1605, Peter Paul Rubens painted a variation of the Transfiguration.
Symbolism: The transfiguration shows the connection that Jesus provides between Heaven and Earth and that people should follow the lessons provided by the Son of God. To emphasize this, Jesus is looking upwards to the sky to remind us that he provides the connection between the people on earth and God in Heaven. The three disciples on the mountain represent faith, hope, and love. The scene at the bottom half of the painting symbolizes the inability of people to do miracles without the trust in God's abilities.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was a very productive painter. Despite his short life, he completed many works. Together with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, he is considered to be the most influential painter of his time. The Transfiguration is considered to be one of Raphael's best works, only surpassed according to many by his fresco of the School of Athens, which is also in the Vatican Museums. The Transfiguration was ahead of its time. It contains some elements of both the Mannerism and Baroque style of painting, and it has had a big influence on the development of both styles. With such a masterpiece, it was a pity that Raphael died on Good Friday 1520. The painting of the Transfiguration was exposed next to the body of Raphael in the days after his death, and it was initially placed above his tomb in the Pantheon.
Fun fact: The story behind this painting has been debated for centuries as it was not clear why Raphael combined two such different biblical stories in a single painting. There are many explanations, but no consensus. A first explanation is that Raphael was competing with Del Piombo who was commissioned a painting for the same church. After he saw the completed painting of Del Piombo, Raphael decided to add additional figures to the painting to outshine the painting of Del Piombo (a protégé of Michelangelo, Raphael’s biggest rival). A second interpretation is given by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who wrote that the painting was clearly an integrated piece. At the bottom are the people who are suffering and need the help of Jesus (emphasized by the more chaotic and dark scene) and on the top is the power of Jesus which the people at the bottom need (emphasized by the serene and bright scene). A third interpretation is that Raphael combined these two scenes because of the meaning of his name. Raphael means ‘God heals’ in Hebrew. This would explain that the disciples at the bottom could not heal the young man, but that Jesus, through the power of God, could heal him. You can pick the interpretation that you prefer.
Where? Room 10 of the Pinacoteca in the Vatican Museums
When? Around 1580
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Saint Helena has a vision of the location of the True Cross (the cross on which Jesus was crucified on Golgotha). Helena is peacefully dreaming about the wooden cross of Jesus which is held in this painting by the winged cherub on the right. The naked cherub stands with his back toward the viewer. Helena sits on a chair within a palace-like building (indicated by the two big columns, the gold statue in between them, and the large patterned curtain behind her). She has her eyes closed and supports her head with her left hand. She wears an expensive 16th-century silk dress with beautifully-painted folds. On top of the dress is a red cloak which is fastened by a big golden brooch. In the middle of the brooch is a carved image of a cupid. She has a transparent veil on her head and a crown filled with jewels on top of it, indicating that she is the Empress of the Roman Empire (as she was the mother of Emperor Constantine).
Backstory: This painting is also referred to as Vision of St. Helen. In 1565, Veronese painted another version of The Vision of Saint Helena (also called The Dream of Saint Helena). That painting has the same theme as the current painting and is in the National Gallery in London. The style of both versions differs substantially, which is a testament to the versatility of Veronese’s painting style.
Who is Saint Helena? She was born in 250 AD, probably in a low-standing family. She became the partner of Constantius Chlorus who would become the Roman Emperor in 293. However, Constantius divorced her in 289 to find a wife with a status that would better match his future role as the Emperor. Before the divorce, they got a child, Constantine. He would become Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD), also known as Constantine the Great. Helena is known for the big influence she had on her son. She was an important reason that Constantine became the first Christian Emperor and he subsequently promoted Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. During a trip to Jerusalem, she allegedly discovered the True Cross.
What is the True Cross? The cross on which Jesus was crucified. After the crucifixion, the cross of Jesus and the crosses of the two people who were crucified with him got lost. There are several accounts of how Saint Helena discovered the cross, and they all differ from each other. According to some, in 326-328, Saint Helena traveled to Palestine, and she found the three crosses in Jerusalem. One of the crosses carried the name of Jesus. However, real evidence came when a miracle occurred. A very sick woman arrived at the crosses. She touched the first two crosses and nothing happened, but when she touched the cross of Jesus, she got cured immediately. Nowadays, many Catholic and Orthodox churches claim to have a small fragment of the True Cross.
Who is Veronese? Paolo Caliari (1528-1588) was born in Verona which explains that he is better known under the name Paolo Veronese. He spent most of his adult life in Venice. He is considered to be one of the three masters of the Venetian School of Painting, together with Tintoretto and Titian. Veronese usually created colorful paintings, full of drama, often with beautiful architectural elements. The people in his paintings are often painted quite realistically, elegant, and dressed in luxurious clothes. Veronese is most famous for some of his larger paintings, such as The Wedding at Cana in the Louvre and The Feast in the House of Levi in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
Fun fact: This painting shows a calm and peaceful scene. However, most of the work by Veronese shows a considerable amount of drama. One typical aspect of Veronese’s style that is present is the use of vibrant colors, especially for the clothes of Saint Helena. The dress mainly contains gold, blue, and white and the large folds of the dress and the way the light falls on it, really make it stand out. The combination with the red cloak makes this a very warm, yet vibrant, painting. The clothes of Saint Helena seem to confirm the claim by the French poet Gautier that Veronese was the greatest colorist who ever lived.