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The chapel's decoration began in 1481, just after the end of the hostilities between Rome and Florence that were set off by the Pazzi conspiracy. Lorenzo the Magnificent, who managed to avoid the plot to kill him, sent an exceptional quartet of painting masters to Rome: Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli, along with their excellent team of assistants. Each of the four was assigned a portion of the wall to the right of the altar, and had a year to finish its decoration; before the year had ended, Luca Signorelli substituted Perugino.

Before Michelangelo destroyed it to paint the Last Judgment, a different fresco by Perugino was in the center of the wall behind the altar: it depicted the Assumption, that is, the Madonna ascending to heaven. The ceiling had instead been decorated with a simple starry sky.

Above the lower band I mentioned with the fake curtains, the middle band shows the episodes of the Old Testament with Moses and his brother Aaron, and on the other side you can see the episodes of Christ's life. The similarities between the stories that face each other are explained by inscriptions in the upper bands.

Moses, the guide and legislator of the chosen people, and Aaron, a priest, both prefigure Christ who is both a guide, legislator, and priest: the law of Moses is completely fulfilled in the law of the gospel, while Christ transmits his power to St. Peter and the popes, his successors.

The key scene of the cycle is Perugino's fresco titled Delivery of the Keys, which shows Christ transmitting his powers to the popes, who are Saint Peter's successors. Opposite it you can see the fresco called The Punishment of the Rebels by Botticelli, which shows you how those who oppose the authority of the pontiffs are punished. To reinforce the visual connection between the two scenes, both painters have included images of classic arches in the frescoes.

Another Botticelli masterpiece is the fresco The Trials of Moses where you can see Moses, wearing a green and yellow gown, depicted seven times performing different actions, and everything appears coherent and organic. The Testament and Death of Moses painted by Luca Signorelli is equally complex and effective.


FUN FACT: the four painters worked side by side at the same time, following general criteria to have a similar style, dominant colors, and figure size. Do you know why there are so many golden finishes? Because they had to shine in the light of torches and candles. Imagine what an amazing effect it had!

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