Art Resource/The Vatican

The Hebrews stand safe on dry land as Pharaoh’s army is engulfed by a literally red sea. Holding high his staff, Moses leads his people in their escape from Egypt.

The elaborate painting, executed by Cosimo Rosselli(1439–1507) late in his career, telescopes several other dramatic Exodus events, both before and after the drowning of the Egyptian army. As the sea turns red with blood, another plague—hail—strikes the Egyptians. At the far right, the enthroned Pharaoh consults with his courtiers, perhaps asking them to interpret his dream that presaged the birth of Moses. Sitting on the bank, at Moses’ right, Miriam sings as she plays the lute; this scene probably depicts Exodus 15:20, in which Miriam plays the timbrel and sings a song of praise to God who had hurled the Egyptians into the sea. Finally the Hebrews march on toward the Promised Land.

Rosselli’s mural “The Crossing of the Red Sea,” decorates part of an upper side wall in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The work was commissioned in 1481 by the Pope; the contract—with Rosselli, Botticelli, Perugino and Ghirlandaio—called for a cycle of paintings, which still appear on either side of the chapel altar, showing parallels between the life of Moses and the life of Jesus.