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Sandro Botticelli and the Mystic Nativity

Welcome to day 14.

“I, Sandro, painted this picture at the end of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy.”

So begins the inscription at the top of the Mystic Nativity. Today’s piece is unique, complicated, and very beautiful. To begin to understand it we need a bit of background.

Allessandro Botticelli was an early Renaissance painter from Florence, Italy. Trained as a goldsmith, and as a worker in Fra Lippi’s workshop he received excellent training. Having a clear understanding of strict linear perspective, how to use a consistent light source, and how to model figures with mass, in this painting he ignores most of these principles. As we look at the Mystic Nativity and see these deviations we should recognize that the deviations were done very intentionally.

Botticelli's Primevera

Botticelli’s Primevera

Botticelli was under the patronage of Lorenzo Medici, the ruler of Florence.  The Medici court was a center of intellectual and cultural development. A high value was placed on art, literature, and philosophy. In this atmosphere, the intelligent and sensitive Botticelli thrived. He developed as a person and an artist.  In particular he blossomed as he came to embrace the Philosophy of Beauty. This can sound strange to us, but beauty was valued along with truth and justice. I think it’s important to understand that this was a serious theme in philosophy for most of our history. Here I’ve quoted a bit of an article from the  Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy. This was from an article revised in 2016.

“The nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy, and is—with the nature of art—one of the two fundamental issues in philosophical aesthetics. Beauty has traditionally been counted among the ultimate values, with goodness, truth, and justice. It is a primary theme among ancient Greek, Hellenistic, and medieval philosophers, and was central to eighteenth and nineteenth-century thought.”

Surrounded by discussions of beauty, goodness, and religion Botticelli found the perfect intellectual backdrop for his mythical paintings. We might look at them, and see beauty, but there are a great deal of complex visual ideas being explored.  During the 1480’s while connected to the Medici’s he did some of his most famous works. Along with mythical paintings he did portraits and religious paintings. In particular his workshop produced many Madonna and child compositions.

The Map of Hell painting by Botticelli is one of the extant ninety-two drawings that were originally included in the illustrated manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. Artist Sandro Botticelli Year c. 1485[1]

Also contributing to Botticelli’s intellectual development was his work with Dante’s, Divine Comedy. Lorenzo Medici asked him to draw illustrations for portions of the Comedy. More than 100 of the drawings he worked on remain. This would have meant intense study and discussions of the finer points of this work. It would be hard to overstate the importance that Dante’s poem had on Christianity. An epic poem, theological treatise, and prophetic vision, this poem solidified ideas on heaven, hell and purgatory. Botticelli was immersed in this work and its visions and images. Coming into the early 1490’s Botticelli entered a period of profound spiritual crisis. This coincided with several other events that contributed to his creation of the Mystic Nativity.

As the year 1500 was approaching people were becoming fearful that the end of the world was soon to come. Botticelli believed he lived in the end times and that Christ second coming was imminent. Millenarianism was gaining traction. People believed that they were living in the in between times from Revelation. They read the verse ‘1/2 time after time’ and believed that time was 1,000 years and that the year 1500 was significant. As they watched wars, famines, plagues enveloping Florence they felt that this was the devil unleashed before the second coming.

Fra Girolamo Savonarola

Fra Girolamo Savonarola

Into this world came a charismatic religious leader, Fra Girolamo Savonarola. A Dominican monk, he preached boldly against the excesses in Florentine society. He denounced worldliness, godless art, scandalous writings, and corruption in the church. He gained quite a following.  He claimed to be a prophet who could hear God’s voice and see visions. By all accounts he was genuine in his piety and fervor.

His preaching included a plea to Florence to repent and return to God. He said if they did Florence would be the New Jerusalem and Florence would be richer, more powerful and glorious than ever. His emphasis on civic glory and protection held great appeal. One prophecy involved a new Cyrus invading from the north who would reform the church.

It appeared that his prophecy was coming true when Charles VIII invaded from France, bringing with him 10,000 soldiers. Florence expected to be sacked and burned. Savonarola went out to meet with Charles and negotiated for the cities safety. Once Charles agreed the Medici’s were driven out and Savonarola established a republic government and called for many reforms.  This was the period of the ‘bonfires of the vanities’ when people made massive bonfires burning books, art, mirrors, combs, and other examples of their excessive lifestyles and vanity. It is highly likely Botticelli saw some of his own paintings thrown into the flames. Savonarola and his government ruled Florence from 1494-1498.

Public opinion turned within 4 years and Savonarola and his 2 closest allies were convicted of being heretics. Savonarola, while being tortured admitted he’d made up the visions. The men were hung and burned. This was to insure there would be nothing left for his followers to turn into holy relics, and so ended 4 years of religious extremest rule.

So what does all of this have to do with a nativity painting. Quite a bit I think. This painting was hidden away for nearly 300 years, has no documentation, so Art Historians have had to play sleuths to figure out the oddities in the painting. I’m going to present what I believe is going on. If you are intrigued, you can look into all of the various theories. They are fascinating.

Sandro Botticelli, The Mystic Nativity, 1500. The National Gallery in London

Sandro Botticelli, The Mystic Nativity, 1500. The National Gallery in London

In 1500 Botticelli painted a small nativity work on canvas. It is the only work Botticelli ever signed.

Botticelli seems have been in an odd, in-between position. He was a close friend of the Medici court. His brother Simon who was also his roommate was a followner of Savonarola. He was struggling spiritually and with the place art played in his faith. The Mystic Nativity appears to be a visual representation of a sermon that Savonarola gave about the second coming of Christ.

The painting was done on canvas, this was unusual. He normally painted on wooden panels. There is no known commission for this work. It’s entirely possible he painted it as a personal devotional work, or for someone who didn’t want to be identified. As it was painted onto a canvas it was much easier to conceal and in fact was ‘lost’ for nearly 300 years. If it was indeed a visual record of a Savonarola sermon it would have been dangerous for Botticelli to have it recognized as such as he’d been declared a heretic. In fact, his followers were searched out in an effort to root out the lingering political threat they might stir up against the Medici family and the current Pope.

The painting has an inscription on the top in Greek. It reads….

“This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh chapter of Saint John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three-and-a-half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth chapter and we shall see him buried as in this picture”

The work appears to be a joyous celebration of the nativity, and in fact the top section of circling angels has been used on many Christmas cards. However, there are darker elements at play here. Beyond the disquieting quote at the top, if one looks closely there are demons disappearing into the ground at the bottom of the painting, and angels appear to be wrestling individuals. This is not a Christmas card nativity scene, but one full of spiritual struggle. There is a convergence of diagonal rocky paths, cold winter skies. While there is joy and celebration, there is also pain.

Let’s start with the 12 angels and gold dome at the top of the painting. The 12 is thought to refer to 12 hours, or the 12 months of the year. Botticelli’s training as a goldsmith is in evidence here as he has put gold leaf over the top to create this opening into the heavens. Gold doesn’t decay or tarnish, so it was the choice to stand for heavenly spaces. As the surface of the canvas was a bit uneven, the gold would have been uneven as well, which would have created a glittery surface, reflecting light.

It is believed that this representation of an opening to heaven is a memory from Botticelli’s childhood. Theatrical religious plays were quite popular at the time, and at San Felice in Piazza, the architect Brunelleschi created a circling dome that held children dressed as angels that spun slowly suspended from the ceiling, for an Annunciation play. It must have been quite a spectacle, and one that was likely witnessed by Botticelli.

In this painting, the angels dressed in white, red, and a burnished green circle the opening. They carry olive branches and scrolls, and there are crowns suspended, twirling with them. The angels repeat several times throughout the work, always in red, green and white robes. These signify Faith (white), Hope (green), and Charity or love (red). The green is an obvious green in other parts of the painting, although in this top section it appears that the robes have been burnished with gold so that they are no longer a true green. It has been suggested that this is because we are now entering heaven so hope is no longer needed, our hope has come to fruition.

The crowns were mentioned in Savonarola’s Assumption Day sermon. Savonarola also expounded on the 12 privileges of the Virgin Mary. The writing that can still be read on the scrolls says ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.’ While the writing on these scrolls cannot all be read with the naked eye, using infra-red reflectography it has been shown that each of Savonarola’s privileges are listed on the scrolls.

The Angels are also holding olive branches, the symbol for peace. Interestingly, in the 1500’s what is now celebrated as Palm Sunday was then called Olive Sunday, as the Prince of Peace was entering Jerusalem and carried the olive branch with him. Olive branches are everywhere in this work.

Below the circlet of angels we have the stable where the Holy Family gathers. Here we have the combination of cave and stable. The cave looking forward to Christ burial sepulcher. The ox and ass look down at the Christ child. Mary is there, bent forward, adoring the baby. Mary and Jesus are extremely large, even kneeling Mary barely fits into the stable. This emphasized their importance.

The baby is an interesting picture. We have a mix of symbols here. The baby is naked, which traditionally was to remind us that God took on flesh. But we also have his swaddling, which was often painted in a way to remind us of his funeral wrappings, but here they have been kicked aside, literally, as the baby is kicking.

As this painting is a coming together of Christ first and second coming, what we have here is the baby of the first coming, combined with the image of the risen Christ who has cast aside his funeral wrappings. His leg is kicking to signify that he, by dying and rising from the dead has crushed Satan under his foot. With this image and the abundance of olive branches signifying peace we are reminded of the verse, ‘The God of peace will crush Satan under his feet.”

The magi are on the left, pictured without their regal finery or gifts, instead they bring only their own devotion. The shepherds mirror them on the side. With each group is an angel with an olive branch. From each branch unfurls a ribbon that once read, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” John 1:29

From there if we set our sights on the foreground we encounter a mysterious part of the painting. Here we have three men, each paired with an angel. The angels have olive branches with ribbons streaming that say, “Peace on earth to men of good will.” Who exactly these men are and what is going on has been a subject of much debate. I’ll give you several possibilities.

  1. This is Savonarola and his two companions being raised up in the last days with the angels.
  2. These are unknown martyrs being raised up at Christ’s second coming representing all of those who come through the tribulation.
  3. These represent the philosophies of the world that are ceremonially wrestling with the angels representing God.
  4. We are meant to read this picture from left to right, taking the path that runs in front of these figures. The angels are not pulling them up, but helping them to kneel. From left to right the men are going down onto their knees, the only proper position to approach the scene in the manger.
  5. Angels are pulling people out of a state of religious limbo, perhaps where Botticelli feels that he is.

Below these figures, if one looks closely, there are demons escaping in the cracks in the earth. These demons have been vanquished by the coming of Christ. Christ presence causes them to flee, a few seemingly falling onto their own weapons.

As we saw yesterday in our work by Hugo Van Der Goes, in this painting Botticelli rejects standard rules of perspective and creates dissonance and destabilization. This emphasizes that we are at a time of transition and transformation. The Nativity and the Second Coming change everything.

While much of the early Renaissance was focused on rendering the body and space naturally, Botticelli was always occupied with the stresses of the soul. His strong religious beliefs and struggles became more and more evident, until his works became highly emotional pictures with intense religious themes.

Eventually he would give up painting all together, it is thought due to his spiritual struggles. This seems exceedingly sad to me. The Mystical Nativity is primarily about peace. That through Christ coming, both His first and His second coming, evil has fled and Peace reigns. It is a message of faith, hope, and love, just as the repetition of the angels colors are meant to remind us. It is a message of triumph. Yet, I’m not sure the message, reached Botticelli and his struggling soul.

A man who could paint such beauty, struggle with questions of faith, and offer others the hope that Christmas brings should have been able to be at peace with his artistic gift, and able to enjoy it and the beauty he was able to create.

It is a good reminder for us this Christmas time. Botticelli lived in a turbulent time, pulled many directions at once, afraid of many things, war, death, plague, famine, and the state of his eternal soul…yet what Christ came to give at Christmas was the gift of peace. Peace with God and peace with men.  Peace on earth and goodwill toward all men.

Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 15 Durer

Albrecht Durer and woodcuts of the Nativity


E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website

Metropolitan Museum of Art website

The Getty Center

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

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