In this serene fresco by the Italian Dominican friar Fra Angelico, Christ sits on a rocky shelf at the centre of the composition, a little above his disciples, with his right hand raised in a gesture of teaching. In his left hand he holds a scroll, possibly referring to the Traditio Legis, or giving of the law, as seen in early Christian iconography.
The scroll signifies Christ’s perfect fulfilment of the Law as described a few verses later in Matthew 5:17–20 and his teaching of true righteousness, the main theme of the Sermon on the Mount. This true righteousness is not an external righteousness gained merely by following rules and regulations, but instead is a greater inner righteousness of the heart, pointed to by the Law, that can only come from repenting of sin, and trusting and following Christ.
Christ’s halo is inscribed with a cross, signifying his divinity and thus the divine authority of his teaching. His gesture and the scroll recall traditional Byzantine images of the Pantocrator that depict Christ as ascended into Heaven and as ruler and judge of all, and that connect the worshipper to Heaven through him. Several of the disciples sit with their backs to the viewer, thus drawing the viewers in—inviting them to become participants. Each of the disciples is slightly individualized, giving a diversity of figures and thus pointing to the reach of Christ’s teaching and salvation to all.
All of the disciples look at Christ and are intently focused on his teaching. No crowds are depicted; instead, Fra Angelico included a minimum amount of detail in order to keep the focus continually on Christ. The warm, vibrant colours of the figures’ robes and their semi-circular arrangement draw our attention and guide it towards Christ’s teaching. The figures sit in a strikingly steep and rocky mountain landscape. The height of the mountain may suggest the supremacy of God’s laws over those created by human rulers.
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.