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Sistine Chapel holds symbols

PROVO — BYU law professor John W. Welch astonished many of the scholars at the International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Rome recently.

Welch pointed out to his learned audience that the frescoes on the side walls of the Sistine Chapel all show numerous typological, or symbolic, parallel stories of Christ's ministry and the life of Moses, something none of them had considered before.

"Astonishment describes the reaction of many to it," Welch said in a lecture delivered at BYU on Feb. 18 in the Museum of Art auditorium.

"Art historians don't know the Bible and Patristic literature well enough, and the biblical scholars don't know their art history well enough to see (the full extent and significance of) these parallels."

The Mormon scholar said when he told his audience his topic, men who studied the Bible regularly said they had never noticed anything on the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Welch said if a person looks at the panels — painted in the early 15th century by a team of Renaissance artists that included Botticelli, Rosselli, Perugino, Signorelli and Ghirlandaio — in the sequence dictated by their position, it's easy to see the foreshadowing of Jesus' ministry through Moses' life.

"These paintings were meant to be read. They're full of details and multiple stories," he said, showing the audience how Moses and Christ appear several times in each panel and how often there are visual pairings such as the Red Sea in one versus the Sea of Galilee in the other.

He pointed out that the Latin titles over the panels very nearly say the same thing when the literal meanings of the words are considered, such as the labels on the Last Testament of Moses (Replicatio Legis Scriptam A Moise) and the Last Supper (Replicatio Legis Evangelicae a Christo).

"You cannot overstate the importance of these Latin labels," he said. "The most important factor is that these typological parallels should be given more attention."

Welch said the painters involved obviously worked together and made deliberate choices as to what they would portray in the panels.

"This was a team effort. I have no doubt the artists sat down and talked about it," Welch said.

He said six pairs of frescoes still exist that relate strongly to one another. Others have been painted over or are missing but showed similar patterns.

He went through the panels showing the relationship markers and matching elements, including Christ's birth and the birth of Moses that used to be on the chapel's front wall.

He lined up Moses' test in Midian with Christ's temptations, the sons of Moses' circumcision with Christ's baptism as a rebirth and regeneration, the gathering and forming of a people with the crossing of the Red Sea and the calling of the first apostles, the Sermon on the Mount with Moses' law given at Mount Sinai, the Last Testament of Moses and Christ's Last Supper.

Taking off one's sandals in one panel represents a refusal to take too comfortable an approach in life. Christ's refusing to change stones into bread in another symbolically matches that thinking, he said.

In another, Jesus is the principal element or the pillar that is the central piece in the Moses panel.

"The typology runs through all of these paintings," Welch said.

He said the guidebooks to the chapel scarcely mention or relate the two lives, and the paintings are not lined up with each other, so it's hard to see the parallels.

"These brilliant paintings reflect the truth. It's hidden right before our tourist eyes."

Welch's lecture at BYU accompanies the current exhibit "Type and Shadows: Intimations of Divinity" on display in the museum, an exhibit designed to help viewers see beyond the obvious and familiar.