Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity is the subject of Day 14 in our Advent series.
“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 Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity. Today’s piece is unique, complicated, and beautiful.
Who was Botticelli?
Alessandro Botticelli was an early Renaissance painter from Florence, Italy. Trained as a goldsmith, Botticelli worked in Fra Lippi’s workshop where he received excellent training. Botticelli had a clear understanding of linear perspective, how to use a consistent light source, and how to model figures with mass, yet, in this painting he ignores these principles. Why? We have to assume the deviations were done intentionally.
Botticelli was under the patronage of Lorenzo Medici, the ruler of Florence. The Medici court was a place of culture and intellectual pursuits. Art, literature, and philosophy were esteemed. In this atmosphere, the intelligent and sensitive Botticelli thrived. Botticelli developed as a person and an artist.
During the 1480’s, while connected to the Medici’s, Botticelli did some of his most famous works. Along with mythical paintings Botticelli painted portraits and religious paintings, specializing in Madonna and child paintings.
Philosophy of Beauty in Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity
In particular Botticelli embraced the Philosophy of Beauty. This term can sound strange to us, but beauty was studied as a distinct branch of Philosophy. I think it’s important to understand that beauty (or aesthetics) was a serious theme in philosophy for most of history and was of particular interest during the Renaissance.
Here is 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.”
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Also, contributing to Botticelli’s intellectual development was his work on Dante’s, Divine Comedy. Lorenzo Medici asked him to draw illustrations for portions of the Comedy. An epic poem, theological treatise, and prophetic vision, this poem solidified ideas on heaven, hell and purgatory and Botticelli immersed himself in the visions and images that Dante created.
More than 100 of the drawings Botticelli worked on have survived. Illustrating the famous poem meant intense study and deep discussions with theologians of the finer, theological points of the work. It would be hard to overstate the importance that Dante’s poem had on Christianity.
Coming into the early 1490’s Botticelli entered a period of profound spiritual crisis. His personal struggle coincided with several other historical events that contributed to his creation of the Mystic Nativity.
Half Time After Time
As the year 1500 was approaching people feared the end of the world was upon them. Botticelli himself believed Christ’s second coming was imminent.
Millenarianism was gaining traction throughout Europe. People believed that they were living in the in between times described in the Biblical book, Revelation. The verse ‘1/2 time after time’ led many to believe that ‘time’ was 1,000 years and that the year 1500 (or 1/2 time after time) was significant. Wars, famines, plagues enveloped Florence just as the book of Revelation foretold. Was this the devil unleashed?
Fra Girolamo Savonarola’s Impact on Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity
Into this troubled world came a charismatic religious leader, Fra Girolamo Savonarola. A Dominican monk, Savonarola preached boldly against the excesses of Florentine society. The monk denounced worldliness, godless art, scandalous writings, and corruption in the church. Claiming to be a prophet who could hear God’s voice and see visions, he gained quite a following. By all accounts he was genuine in his piety and fervor.
Savonarola’s preaching included a plea to Florence to repent and return to God. While preaching against monetary excesses and worldliness, Savonarola also preached that if Florence repented the city would be the New Jerusalem and be richer, more powerful and glorious than ever. His emphasis on civic glory and protection held great appeal.
Invasion of Charles VIII
One prophecy of Savonarola 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 and the city was spared, the Medici’s were driven out and Savonarola established a republic government and began his reforms. Savonarola and his government ruled Florence from 1494-1498.
Bonfire of the Vanities
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.
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, and has no documentation. Art Historians have had to play sleuths to figure out the oddities in the painting.
I’m going to present what I believe Botticelli was trying to communicate in this work, but there are many fascinating theories out there.
In 1500 Botticelli painted this small nativity work on canvas. It is the only work Botticelli ever signed.
Botticelli seems have been caught in the conflict between the Medici’s and Savonarola. He had a long association with the Medici court and they had supported his artistic and intellectual development.
At the same time, Botticelli’s brother Simon, who was also his roommate, was a follower of Savonarola.
Botticelli was struggling spiritually and questioning his life’s work. Was his art glorifying God, or was it a vanity? Had his intellectual, philosophical pursuits led him astray? Was he in danger of falling into one of the circles of hell Dante had described and he had illustrated? Was Christ’s 2nd coming at hand and was he about to be judged? We can surmise that all of these thoughts plagued Botticelli in these years and it is during this time Botticelli paints this small nativity that he then hid away.
Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity is a Visual Sermon
Botticelli’s 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, which was unusual, Botticelli normally painted on wooden panels. A painting on canvas allowed it to be rolled up and concealed and, in fact, this work 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 the painting recognized as Savonarola had been declared a heretic and put to death. In fact, Savonarola’s followers were searched out in an effort to root out the lingering political threat against the Medici family and the current Pope.
There is no known commission for this work, which doesn’t rule out that possibility. If the commission came from a patron who supported Savonarola he might have wished to remain unidentified. It is also entirely possible Botticelli intended the small painting as a personal devotional work for himself.
The inscription on the top of Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity is 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.
Circle of Angels
Let’s start with the 12 angels and gold dome at the top of Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity. 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.
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.
Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity Iconography
Below the circlet of angels we have the Holy Family gathering in a stable that is enclosed by a cave. The cave looks forward to Christ’s burial sepulcher and brings together Christ’s coming with Christ’s purpose, dying for mankind.
The traditional ox and ass are present and look down at the Christ child. Mary is there, bent forward, adoring the baby. Mary and Jesus are painted according to heretic scale, meaning their size emphasizes their importance. Both figures are extremely large, even kneeling Mary barely fits into the stable.
The baby is naked, which traditionally was to remind us that God took on flesh, emphasizing his humanity. In Christ’s first coming he becomes a man, but in his second coming he will return in glory.
Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity Combines Christ’s First Coming with His Second Coming
One familiar device of artists is to wrap the baby Jesus in swaddling cloths so that it resembles his future funeral wrappings. Just as Botticelli has set the scene in a cave to remind us of Christ’s death, swaddling clothes can serve the same purpose. However, here Botticelli has chosen to have the baby lying on his swaddling cloth which have literally been kicked aside. Instead of an immobile baby swaddled tightly in clothes that resemble the wrappings of the dead, this baby has been freed and kicks his feet and raises his hands, communicating Christ’s eventual victory over death.
As this painting is a coming together of Christ’s 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
Three Men, Three Angels
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.
- This is Savonarola and his two companions being raised up in the last days with the angels.
- These are unknown martyrs being raised up at Christ’s second coming representing all of those who come through the tribulation.
- These represent the philosophies of the world that are ceremonially wrestling with the angels representing God.
- 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.
- 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’s presence causes them to flee, a few seem to be falling onto their own weapons.
Transition and Transformation
Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity 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.
Did Botticelli Find the Peace The Mystic Nativity Promised?
Eventually Botticelli 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’s 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 angel’s 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.
If you want to explore one of Botticelli’s mythical works you can check out my post on Venus and Mars.
And if you are a teacher I have a post on teaching the Botticelli Venus and Mars painting.
Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 15 Durer
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 www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.