The fresco depicting the Washing of Feet is found in the landing of the new Staircase of Maresciallo in the lunette above the entrance portal leading from the Cortile del Maresciallo to the Sala Regia. When the Sala Regia, one of the most important rooms in the Apostolic Palace, was constructed, it became necessary to expand the old staircase that served as the only passage in the Cortile del Maresciallo. Along this passage, individuals of high rank arrived by carriage and on horseback with their corteges to attend the papal audiences. The new staircase was constructed by Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane at the time of Paul III (Farnese 1534-1549), modifying the preexisting structure by demolishing the Cappella parva, a little wider than the old Scala del Maresciallo, and inserting it in a new edifice. Later decoration dates back to the time of Gregory XIII (Boncompagni 1572-1585), when Giorgio Vasari (Arezzo 1511- Firenze 1574) began reconstruction in the Sala Regia between November 1572 and the inauguration of the room on May 21, 1573, the day of Corpus Domini. Vasari relied on various collaborators, among them was Lorenzo Sabbatini (Bologna 1530- Rome 1576). Even after the death of Vasari, work proceeded as shown by the continued payments to Sabbatini and his aids, Raffaellino da Reggio and Cesare Nebbia. They continued work in 1574-1575 on the frescoes above the five doors of the atrium of the old basilica of Saint Peter’s and designed the Storie degli Atti degli Apostoli on the “caposcale” of the building.
The decoration of the lunette with the Washing of Feet was entrusted by Vasari to Sabbatini in1574-1575, who directed another painter in painting it according to his “order and design”.
The focal point of the scene is the figure of Jesus kneeling in the center, the profile of His face bordered by divine light, dressed in a grey robe and an apron with the sleeves rolled up and His hands outstretched in the act of washing the feet of Saint Peter in a basin. The apostle is distinguished through the usual iconographic traits: curly white hair and a beard. A young man with a mass of curly, blonde hair, most likely the apostle John, bends over in the act of pouring water from an amphora. On the opposite side, an apostle raises his arms in surprise at the humble act of Christ. The same wave of astonishment sweeps across the other apostles shown in the fresco in the side and background, behind the long table.
The scene depicts the Washing of Feet as narrated only in the Gospel of John (13,1-1-20). This scene occurs in a circle during the Last Supper, before the Passion and death of Jesus. On that occasion, Jesus, hearing the apostles argue “which of them should be considered the greatest”, told them: “the greatest among you will be like the least, and who commands will be like he who serves”. Afterwards, He wrapped a towel around His waist and began to wash the feet of the apostles in a basin. “When He had washed their feet and gathered the robes, He again took a seat and told them: “Do you know what I did to you? You call me Master and Sir and you speak rightly, because I am He. Therefore if I, Sir and Master, have washed your feet, you must also wash the feet of one another. I have given you, in effect, the example because as I have done, so too will you do” (John,13,12-15). Peter tried to stop his Master, asking him: “Sir, you wash my feet?” but Christ replied that such an action was necessary so that Peter could enter with Him into His heavenly kingdom. Still today, the Holy Thursday liturgy commemorates this moment with the celebration of the Washing of Feet, urging Christians to follow the example of Christ in service and hospitality.
The light and transparent colors, the swift figures, and the immediacy of the style is typical of the school of Vasari. The simplicity and airiness of the composition allows one to easily understand the event according to the precepts of the Late Mannerist style and the artistic-religious thought of the Counter-Reformation at the time of Gregory XIII.