Moses’s Journey into Egypt and the Circumcision of His Son Eliezar by Perugino

Perugino

Moses’s Journey into Egypt and the Circumcision of His Son Eliezar, c.1482, Fresco, 350 x 572 cm, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican State, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican State / Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Unpacking the Narrative

Commentary by

This image can be difficult to ‘read’ because it presents, not a static event, but a visual narrative: the narrative of Moses’s return journey to Egypt from his exile in Midian, as told in Exodus 4. The sequence begins in the middle background of the fresco, where Moses (dressed in yellow and green) departs from the house of his father-in-law, Jethro. He and his party travel along a winding path until—at the centre of the image—they meet the Angel of the Lord. This menacing figure holds a sword in one hand and grips Moses’s collar with the other, thus preventing Moses from continuing on his way. The narrative then proceeds to the right corner, where Zipporah (dressed in purple and blue) prepares to perform the circumcision that will spare her husband’s life and enable them to complete the journey into Egypt.

To truly appreciate the content of this fresco, the viewer must have a basic grasp of its situation within a wider theological programme. Located on the South Wall of the Sistine Chapel, Moses’s Journey into Egypt is the first in a series of frescoes showing events from the life of Moses; on the opposite wall is another fresco series depicting scenes from the life of Christ. The ‘message’ of the parallel cycles is that the new covenant of Christ continues and perfects the old covenant of the Mosaic law. Thus, each of the six frescoes showing scenes from the life of Moses is typologically paired with a corresponding event from Christ’s earthly ministry; the frescoes therefore communicate their theological content through the juxtapositions of each image with its parallel on the opposite wall. Within this programme, Moses’s Journey into Egypt is situated across from the Baptism of Christ, evoking the idea that the sacrament of baptism is a ‘spiritual circumcision’—a theological concept that can be traced back to the early Church Fathers.