Fra Angelico’s fresco in the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence, Cosimo Rosselli’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel, and Jan Brueghel the Elder’s oil on copper painting each contain exquisite renderings of the event of the Sermon on the Mount, and each conveys a specific understanding of Christ’s sermon, described in Matthew 5 and 7:
Matthew 5:1–2: Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.
Matthew 7:28–29: And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
Fra Angelico’s beautiful fresco is part of a larger programme of over fifty frescoes depicting the life of Christ that the artist and his assistants created for meeting rooms and cells of the lay brothers, novices, and clergy. The Sermon on the Mount is in a room likely to have been a study for the convent’s lector and used as a classroom, and is opposite the library. The focus in Sermon on the Mount on Christ’s teaching is thus especially appropriate for this cell. By solely focusing on the act of Christ teaching and the reception of his teaching by the disciples, Fra Angelico’s fresco reflects the relatively small community of men who would have viewed this image, and who belonged to an order that valued education. The disciples serve as the exemplar and show the friars how to learn and from whom to learn. Indeed, the friars’ lives are in themselves a form of commentary on the Sermon on the Mount as they lived out Christ’s teaching on how true righteousness is applied in everyday life—in our relationship to God in worship, to material things, and to other people; and not for applause of men or reward.
Rosselli’s Sermon on the Mount is part of a fresco cycle on the central sections of the north and south walls of the Sistine Chapel. Directly opposite the Sermon on the Mount on the north wall, Rosselli created a fresco on the south wall depicting Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and the Israelites and the golden calf below. He used a similar composition of landscape and figures in both paintings to emphasize the connection between the two events and between the Old Testament and the New Testament, in a typological pattern of prefiguration and fulfilment. By depicting the disobedience of the Israelites who sacrifice to a golden calf at the very time when Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments, Rosselli shows our ultimate inability to keep the Law and our need for Christ’s atoning sacrifice. In Sermon on the Mount, Rosselli shows Christ who perfectly fulfilled the Law and offers us his salvation.
By including so many intricate details in his tiny painting, Brueghel invites the viewer to look closely at the numerous interactions between the figures. Through these interactions, the artist reflects on human nature, with people’s outward appearances and their actions revealing their hearts. While frequently humorous, these actions often convey a warning to the viewer about letting the things of this world distract us from our need of Christ’s salvation. While Fra Angelico and Rosselli chose to depict Christ as a large figure, easy to identify, in Brueghel’s painting the viewer must look closely to find him. Brueghel thus suggests that we as the viewers must be purposeful in focusing on Christ in our lives, and not allowing ourselves to be distracted. Brueghel also provides an important message through the young girl at the lower right corner who observes the bones of an animal, a memento mori, reminding the viewer not to put faith in the things of this world, but in Christ.
These artworks by Fra Angelico, Rosselli, and Brueghel put the focus on the act of teaching by Christ, on the authority of his teaching, and on the importance of listening to his teaching and allowing it to transform our minds and hearts. All three works show Christ’s perfect fulfilment of the Law and his teaching of true righteousness that begins in the heart, forms our character, and flows outward. Instead of gaining righteousness through external observation of rules and regulations, these works show that the Law points to a greater righteousness, a true righteousness that only comes from trusting Christ, from repentance of sin, and from following Christ.
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5 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.
7 28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.