Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Other Guy

In 1482, Pope Sixtus IV called upon artists Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Cosimo Rosselli to begin work on decorating the Sistine Chapel. Rosselli, who died January 7, 1507, seemed an odd choice at the time, ranking far below the other painters called to work on the prestigious project. Even today, poor Cosimo seems the odd man out. His three murals, including The Crossing of the Red Sea (above, from 1482), depicting Moses leading his people through the parted Red Sea, literally are overlooked next to the grand works of Michelangelo and the other bigger names. As Father Pfieffer’s recent work, The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, demonstrated (reviewed earlier here), Rosselli’s work fits in with the theology of all those more famous works beautifully. How the artist himself fits in remains a question.

I honestly have no recollection of Rosselli’s works from my time in the Sistine Chapel. I was too busy taking in the ceiling and The Last Judgment for the side wall frescoes to even register, even though I knew Botticelli had painted some of them. Rosselli’s The Last Supper (above, from 1482) hangs on the North wall as part of the cycle of scenes from the life of Christ across from the cycle covering the life of Moses. Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Painters wrote of Rosselli’s life and praised this work: “[H]e made an octagonal table drawn in perspective, with the ceiling above it likewise octagonal, the eight angles of which he foreshortened so well as to show that he had as good a knowledge of this art as any of the others.” Rosselli possessed workmanlike skills, but lacked visionary power. The scenes of Christ on The Mount of Olives, arrested, and crucified appearing outside the windows of the supper scene add a surreal touch, but are common to the narrative vocabulary of the time.

Rosselli’s Sermon on the Mount (above, from 1482) is the third and last of his Sistine Chapel frescos. Again, Christ appears several times: walking to the scene with his apostles, preaching, and then healing a leper. Vasari claims that Rosselli filled his Sistine frescos with brilliant blue to cover up his other deficiencies. When the Pope announced a prize for the best artist, everyone thought that Rosselli didn’t stand a chance. Instead, the Pope fell under the spell of those brilliant blues and awarded the prize to Rosselli, adding insult to injury by instructing the other artists to add brilliant blue to their works as well. Rosselli laughed last (at least if that story was true), but soon drifted into the obscurity of a man cursed by colossal contemporaries.

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