In this podcast Prof. Breda Ennis discusses the Botticelli masterpiece depicting the rebellion against Moses on the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

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Breda Catherine Ennis is Professor of Fine Arts at the American University of Rome.


source – Vatican Museums

‘Punishment of Korah’ – Botticelli

This fresco by Botticelli is on the South Wall of the Sistine Chapel. It depicts an episode in the life of Moses (Numbers 16:1-35) when Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebelled against Moses and Aaron.

Stories of Moses – South Wall

The Stories of Moses, which originally included eight panels, each presented by a title in the upper frieze, began from the altar wall with the Birth and Finding of Moses by Perugino, a fresco that was lost when Michelangelo painted the Last Judgement.

Thus today the Old Testament cycle starts from the Journey of Moses in Egypt, in which his farewell to his father-in-law Jethro (Exodus 4:18-20), his Return to Egypt with his family (Exodus 4:18-20) and the Circumcision of his second-born (Exodus 4:24-26) all appear in one picture.

The second panel describes some Events in the life of Moses: the killing of the Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-15), the struggle with the shepherds to defend the daughters of Jethro (Exodus 2:16-22) and the sight of the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-12).

The third fresco illustrates the Crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:5-31),which is followed by the Handing over of the Tablets of the Law. This simultaneously narrates Moses’ Climbing of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:12-17; 31:18 ) to receive the Tablets of the Law, the Worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-20), the Punishment of the idolatrous Jews (Exodus 32:25-35) and the return of the Prophet with the new Tablets of the Law (Exodus 34:1-4).

The next panel illustrates a rather rare episode, that is to say the Punishment of Korah, Dathan e Abiram (Numbers 16:1-35), Jewish priests who denied Moses and Aaron civil and religious authority over the chosen people. They were for this swallowed up by the earth and consumed by an invisible fire together with their families.

The last fresco shows the Legacy and death of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:34) when he is already within sight of the Promised Land. The cycle ends on the entrance wall with the Dispute over the body of Moses (Letter of Jude, 9).

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (pontiff from 1471 to 1484) who had the old Cappella Magna restored between 1477 and 1480. The 15th century decoration of the walls includes: the false drapes, the Stories of Moses (south and entrance walls) and of Christ (north and entrance walls) and the portraits of the Popes (north and south and entrance walls).

It was executed by a team of painters made up initially of Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, assisted by their respective shops and by some closer assistants among whom Biagio di Antonio, Bartolomeo della Gatta and Luca Signorelli stand out. On the Ceiling Pier Matteo d’Amelia painted a starry sky.

The work on the frescoes began in 1481 and was concluded in 1482. This is also the date of the following works in marble: the screen, the choir stalls (where the choristers took their places), and the pontifical coat of arms over the entrance door. On 15 August 1483, Sixtus IV consecrated the new chapel dedicating it to Our Lady of the Assumption.


Julius II della Rovere (pontiff from 1503 to 1513), nephew of Sixtus IV, decided to partly alter the decoration, entrusting the work in 1508 to Michelangelo, who painted the Ceiling and, on the upper part of the walls, the lunettes. Originally on the Ceiling Pier Matteo dAmelia had painted a starry sky.

The work was finished in October 1512 and on the Feast of All Saints (1 November), Julius II inaugurated the Sistine Chapel with a solemn Mass. The nine central panels show the Stories of Genesis, from the Creation to the Fall of man, to the Flood and the subsequent rebirth of mankind with the family of Noah.