Happy Christmas everyone.
My choice this year again evokes the Italian Renaissance. Sandro Botticelli painted The Mystical Nativity around 1500. As well as being a superb piece of art it is also very interesting, telling a somewhat subversive story, for its day, and maybe contributing to the down slide in the artist’s fortunes. When the High Renaissance of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael arrived Botticelli virtually disappeared, only to find favour again, centuries later, with the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelites.
In the painting we see the the Holy Family in a stable with the ox and the ass. Joseph is seated looking away from us, typically unsure of his role at the birth. However Botticelli has portrayed the Virgin and the Christ Child larger than the other figures. This is a retrospective action from the artist using a form of graphical representation of the Middle Ages. The perspective used by Botticelli in earlier works is more correct and consistent with Renaissance thinking. Medieval perspective portrayed the important person, normally Christ or the Virgin, larger than other figures to assist the reading of the painting’s meaning.
The rest of the painting has little to do with the nativity and is more reflective of Botticelli’s state of mind at the turn of the century. Both above and below the joyous image of the nativity is augmented with more troublesome and apocalyptic scenes. The Greek inscription at the top refers to the Book of Revelation and the warnings of the last days. Most specifically the painting is suggestive of what Christian’s called The Great Tribulation, a short period of great upheavals before the second coming of Christ.
In the painting we see the angels circling above the stable representing Faith, Hope & Charity in their colours. Three of the figures on the right maybe the Magi, but bearing no gifts. More troublesome are the images at the bottom of the angels embracing three men, maybe pulling them from the ground as the devils retreat downwards impaling themselves.
Botticelli had earlier in his life painted nativity scenes but the mystic spirituality of these images was challenging to Florentines at this troublesome war torn times. The artist came under the influence of the monk, Savonarola, who tried to rid Italy of the modern humanist ideas of the Renaissance. Botticelli, had clearly been influenced by the monk, and was one of many who saw the year 1500 as the possible Great Tribulation, combining the nativity with the ideas of the apocalypse.
The painting reveals the artist’s great skill in line figures, and portrays the beauty and hope of the nativity while spiritually acknowledging the turbulent times ahead. To Christians, these are set in motion by the Easter story.
In the meantime have a great Christmas with your loved ones and a wonderful New Year, full of health and cheer.
The Mystical Nativity by Sandro Botticelli is on permanent display at the National Gallery in London.