Among the many frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, one depicts a scene from the Book of Esther. Michelangelo placed it in the spandrel at the juncture of the south wall and the central wall of the altar of the Last Judgment. The proximity is not only material, but also thematic. It depicts the core of the Book of Esther, the judgment of Haman and his crucifixion. What stands out about the spandrel – but one could also say about Michelangelo’s genius – is its originality. The fresco is unique in the Sistine Chapel and marks the apex of the painter’s mastery. One art historian writes: “Never in the entire history of art has a book of Sacred Scripture been summarized so well in a single fresco as in this painting by Michelangelo, which shows figurative art’s irreplaceable capacity for synthesis.”
The ‘Punishment of Haman’
To understand the fresco, it should be kept in mind that the scenes painted in the Chapel’s four spandrels illustrate events of salvation history. Mirroring the one involving Haman is the depiction of the bronze serpent, raised in the desert, that saves the Hebrews bitten by poisonous snakes. Between these two spandrels is the fresco of the prophet Jonah, with the great fish and the traditional castor tree, a paradoxical sign of salvation for the Ninevites. The two spandrels on the entrance wall, at the opposite end, depict the death of Goliath and the slaying of Holofernes, other scenes of salvation often depicted in the Renaissance. The four spandrels thus depict “four interventions of God working for the salvation of God’s people, and […] imply God’s intervention par excellence, the salvation wrought through Christ.” They also connect directly to the central altar, where Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is celebrated.