While in residence at San Marco’s, a Dominican monastery in Florence, Fra Angelico and his assistants were commissioned to decorate the meeting rooms and cells of the lay brothers, novices, and clergy. Many of the more than 40 frescoes depicted scenes of the crucifixion. One room that is slightly larger than the monks’ cells and in close proximity to the magnificent library (commissioned and funded by Cosimo de’ Medici) contains this fresco of the Sermon on the Mount. The room presumably functioned as a classroom. In Matthew 5, Jesus is presented as the “new Moses” whose teaching was intended not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.
This painting was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV for his private chapel. According to Roman Catholic tradition, Matthew 16:18–19 is the scriptural basis for apostolic succession and establishes Peter—here being handed the papal keys by Christ—as the first pope. The decoration of the Sistine Chapel, most famous for Michelangelo’s ceiling (1508–12), began in the 1480s with the walls of the chapel. The plan, established by the pope in conjunction with his advisers, was to depict significant scenes from the life of Christ on the north wall and the life of Moses on the south wall. Many of the most popular Renaissance painters throughout Italy were brought to Rome to paint in the new style, using linear perspective, harmonious color, balanced compositions, and lifelike figures.
This manuscript illumination depicting Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Matt. 14:13–21 and parallels) is from one of the most famous books of hours, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, by the Limbourg brothers. A book of hours is a set of prayers and meditations correlated with the canonical hours. This one consists of 206 pages (approximately 9 x 6 inches) with 66 large miniatures and 65 smaller illustrations. The Limbourg brothers were trained in the northern part of Europe but probably visited Italy and were influenced by the artists of Lombardy and Tuscany. The French court (King Philip the Bold’s brother was the Duke of Berry) enjoyed these custom-made, lavishly illustrated, portable prayer books.
In 1401, under the patronage of the Arte di Calimala, a competition to decorate the east doors of the baptistery in Florence was announced. Of the seven Tuscan sculptors who entered the competition, the young Lorenzo Ghiberti, barely 20 years of age, emerged the victor. The subject of the doors was the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), and the theme was that of divine intervention. In this climactic scene, Abraham is poised to strike a fatal blow with his knife. Isaac is depicted as what some have called “the first truly Renaissance nude”—perfectly proportioned, energetic yet graceful. An angel’s gesture stops the sacrifice, and the viewer notices a ram caught in the thickets in the upper left-hand register. This text has long challenged communities of faith. Some Jewish interpretations, such as the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, posited that Isaac was 37 years old, and the near sacrifice was an act of faith of not one but two consenting adults, both Isaac and Abraham. Christian interpreters from the patristic period (if not earlier; cf. Hebrews 11:17) had interpreted the story typologically. Melito of Sardis, for example, wrote: “For as a ram he [Christ] was bound . . . And he carried the wood upon his shoulders. And he was led up to be slain like Isaac by his Father. But Christ suffered, whereas Isaac did not suffer” (cf. Frag. 9–11).