In this podcast listen to Art Historian Elizabeth Lev discuss the painting of the Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli in the Sistine Chapel.

[display_podcast] This podcast made available from Vatican Radio

Elizabeth Lev teaches art history at Duquesne University’s Italian campus, including a survey of Christian art in Rome, a course of her own design. She also writes for Inside the Vatican and is a regular contributor to Zenit news agency.


‘Sermon on the Mount’ – Cosimo Rosselli (Sistine Chapel)

Sistine Chapel

source – Vatican Museums

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. 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.

Stories of Christ (north and entrance walls)

The stories of Christ were originally distributed over eight panels, each one presented by a title in the upper frieze. They began with the Nativity painted by Perugino on the altar wall, subsequently destroyed to make room for Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.

Thus, today, the events of the life of Christ are

  1. Baptism (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34),
  2. Temptations of Christ (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1-13)
  3. Cleansing of the Leper (Matthew 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16). The third shows in the foreground the Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, while the call of James and John is shown in the background (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11).
  4. Sermon on the Mount (Matthew Ch. 5-7; Luke 6:12-49) and the curing of the leper (Matthew 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16),
  5. Handing over of the keys (Matthew 16:13-20), that is to say the transfer of power from Christ to Peter, his vicar, as well as the two episodes of the Payment of the tribute (Matthew 17:24-27) and of the Attempted stoning of Christ (John 8:31-59;10:31-39) in the background.
  6. The Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23; John 13:21-30) ends the series on this wall ends which, beyond the windows we can see three episodes of the Passion: the Agony in the garden (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46), the Arrest of Jesus (Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:1-11), the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:32-50; Mark 15:22-39; Luke 23:33-46; John 19:17-30).
  7. The Resurrection of Christ (Matthew 28,1-8) on the entrance wall ends the cycle.

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 d’Amelia 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.