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The Sistine Chapel Walls and the Roman Liturgy.

Carol F. Lewine's monograph is an iconographic study of the Quattrocento fresco cycle dedicated to the lives of Christ and Moses in the Sistine Chapel. Her interpretation is based on the assumption that the chapel's program was informed by standard liturgical texts and themes, particularly those associated with the Lenten season. Lewine acknowledges that this is not a completely new idea. Several previous authors have already noted a broad thematic coincidence between the Christ cycle and the Gospel lessons read between Christmas and Easter, and between the Moses cycle and specific Old Testament passages sung or recited during this same period. What is new is Lewine's contention that the late medieval and early Renaissance Lenten liturgy played a central role in the selection of certain incidents and the formulation of specific motifs in the chapel.

She considers the surviving frescoes, in chronological order, beginning at the altar wall and proceeding in facing pairs down the length of the chapel. According to Lewine, this sequence reflects a thematic unfolding of the Lenten liturgy from Septuagesima Sunday (the seventh Sunday after Epiphany) through Holy Saturday. Although she acknowledges the traditional and typological parallels drawn between the Christological and Mosaic scenes, parallels which are directly explicated in the chapel by accompanying tituli, Lewine finds in each mural quartet of two Christological and two Mosaic scenes additional ties which derive from common Lenten concerns such as penance and salvation, and from liturgical motifs and lessons associated with specific two-week segments of the Lenten season. This Lenten cycle is bracketed by the altar and entrance wall narratives, which refer to the periods of Christmas through Epiphany, and Easter through Pentecost, respectively.

Lewine's interpretation divides the wall narratives into three groups of two, a scheme which runs counter to the arrangement of two groups of three posited by most previous commentators. The traditional division of the walls into triplets is suggested visually by the colors of the fictive tapestries painted below the istorie and by the position of the original cancellata. Although Lewine questions the significance of the tapestries (because they have been heavily repainted), she does not offer any explanation as to why or when their colors might have been altered to emphasize the second and fifth fields, nor does she adequately address the issue of the effect on the program of the bifurcation of the chapel by the chancel rail.

Lewine notes that in the early period of the Church catechumens were initiated during Lent. Their final preparation began during the first two weeks of the Lenten season and culminated on Holy Saturday, when they were baptized and then received communion. Though the particular rituals might have been altered, the process was still reflected in the texts read during Lent in the late medieval and early modern periods. According to Lewine, these initiation rituals are also reflected in the chapel decorations through an emphasis on baptism and communion, the transmission and repetition of the Apostolic Creed and Pater Noster, and the supersession of the Old Testament by the New. Baptism, for example, is alluded to not only through the representation of the baptism of Jesus, the Finding of Moses, and the Crossing of the Red Sea, but also in much subtler ways, such as the division of the Christological and Mosaic narratives into eight panels each (eight being one of the numerological symbols of baptism); the prominence given to Moses' encounter with his future wife, Zipporah, by the well, an incident interpreted as an Old Testament prefiguration of the sacrament; the conspicuous placement of vessels used to wash the apostles' feet in the foreground of The Last Supper; and, by a somewhat circuitous system of associations, several quotations of the classical figure known as the Spinario. The thorn which the young man plucks from his foot is a symbol of sin which may be removed from the soul through the sacrament of baptism. Lewine also proposes a number of other interpretive insights, including a new identification of the highly enigmatic sacrificial scene in the foreground of the Temptations of Christ as Nehemiah's purification of the Temple after the Babylonian Captivity.

It is essential to her reading of the chapel's program that one accept that it was designed for a very sophisticated patron, Sixtus IV della Rovere, and was intended to appeal to an elite, erudite audience which would have appreciated its purported complex and polysemous structure. Unfortunately, some of the iconographic connections which Lewine proposes are so extraordinarily subtle that even the learned pope and his court might have had difficulty navigating the associative labyrinth which she purports to discern. Although her assertion that liturgical concerns played a significant role in the design of the Sistine Chapel program is convincing, and the specific ties between Gospel lections and images which she has uncovered are certainly more than coincidental, the web of allusive references and symbols which she finds in almost every field is often contrived, an aspect of the work which unfortunately weakens the force of her larger argument.

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Author:Rosenberg, Charles M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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