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The narrative chronology starts on the top tier of the right wall and moves from right to left. The Model makes it possible for the viewer to fly up through the space and stand at the same height as the ground-line. Each tier contains more than one episode in an arrangement called “continuous narrative,” that is, multiple moments before a unified background. The figures are depicted in a frieze-like arrangement along the frontal plane in the manner of a Roman sarcophagus. At the center of the lunette is a magnificent tree [now partially destroyed]. The wood of this tree, after many centuries, will be used to fashion Christ’s cross.
The Death of Adam
Piero begins the story at the right end of the tier where he introduces a scene that is without precedent: now 900 years old and dying, Adam is on the ground supported by the ancient Eve. He is speaking to three of their sons, who attend with thoughtful resignation. As his strength fades, Adam reveals the logic of his death: His Original Sin brings death and death brings the need for salvation. The story of the True Cross will explain how salvation will be delivered. The pose that Piero gives Adam--the same knee-up position often used in scenes of the “Creation of Adam” -- and the pose and flowing contours of the beautiful nude boy seen from the back -- reminiscent of antique sculpture -- create an optimistic undercurrent of rebirth.
Seth Returns to the Gates of Paradise
The figure with the white beard represents Seth, Adam’s oldest living son, who refuses to accept his father’s death. In the small scene in the background, Seth returns to the gate of paradise and asks the Archangel Michael for the “oil of mercy,” to keep his father alive. The angel refuses, but tells Seth to plant a branch of the Tree of Knowledge in his father’s body.
On the ground below the great tree, Adam’s dead body is shown with the head toward the picture plane. Seth kneels behind him to plant the branch in his mouth. They are surrounded by other members of the family in various poses of mourning, some in quiet contemplation, one quite violent in grief. Their clothing represents stages of the progression from primitive nudity, to coverings of fur and animal skin, to figures in the full cloth togas of ancient civilization.
The beauty of the original fresco surface can be seen in the luminous skin tones of the two figures at the far left. The dark-haired boy looks toward the funeral. The blond androgynous figure, on the contrary, looks leftward, as though across the corner of the chapel and over to the stalwart young prophet standing at the same level of the altar wall.