Mystical Nativity for our Times

  • Sandro Botticelli’s  The Mystical Nativity


The Mystical Nativity is a painting of circa 1500-1501 by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, in the National Gallery in London. Botticelli built up the image using oil paint on canvas. It is his only signed work, and has a very unusual iconography for a Nativity.

It has been suggested that this picture, the only surviving work signed by Botticelli, was painted for his own private devotions, or for someone close to him. It is certainly unconventional, and does not simply represent the traditional events of the birth of Jesus and the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi or Wise Men.

Rather it is a vision of these events inspired by the prophecies in the Revelation of Saint John. Botticelli has underlined the non-realism of the picture by including Latin and Greek texts, and by adopting the conventions of medieval art, such as discrepancies in scale, for symbolic ends. The Virgin Mary, adoring a gigantic infant Jesus, is so large that were she to stand she could not fit under the thatch roof of the stable. They are, of course, the holiest and the most important persons in the painting.

The angels carry olive branches, which two of them have presented to the men they embrace in the foreground. These men, as well as the presumed shepherds in their short hooded garments on the right and the long-gowned Magi on the left, are all crowned with olive, an emblem of peace. The scrolls wound about the branches in the foreground, combined with some of those held by the angels dancing in the sky, read: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men‘ (Luke 2:14).

As angels and men move ever closer, from right to left, to embrace, little devils scatter into holes in the ground. The scrolls held by the angels pointing to the crib once read: `Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world‘ the words of John the Baptist presenting Christ (John 1:29).

Above the stable roof the sky has opened to reveal the golden light of paradise. Golden crowns hang down from the dancing angels’ olive branches. Most of their scrolls celebrate Mary: ‘Mother of God’, ‘Bride of God’, ‘Sole Queen of the World’.

The puzzling Greek inscription at the top of the picture has been translated: ‘I Sandro made this picture at the conclusion of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time according to the 11th chapter of Saint John in the second woe of the Apocalypse during the loosing of the devil for three and a half years then he will be chained in the 12th chapter and we shall see […] as in this picture.

The missing words may have been ‘him burying himself’. The ‘half time after the time’ has been generally understood as a year and a half earlier, that is, in 1498, when the French invaded Italy, but it may mean a half millennium (500 years) after a millennium (1000 years): 1500, the date of the painting. Like the end of the millennium in the year 1000, the end of the half millennium in 1500 also seemed to many people to herald the Second Coming of Christ, prophesied in Revelation.

At a time when Florentine painters were recreating nature with their brush, Botticelli freely acknowledged the artificiality of art. In the pagan Venus and Mars he turned his back on naturalism in order to express ideal beauty. Read here La Primavera – Botticelli: The Eternal Spring and a message for our times

In the ‘Mystic Nativity’ he went further, beyond the old-fashioned to the archaic, to express spiritual truths – rather like the Victorians who were to rediscover him in the nineteenth century, and who associated the Gothic style with an ‘Age of Faith’.

The painting emerged from the city of Florence in a time when the fanatical preacher Savonarola held the city in its grip. There is no documentary evidence to prove whether or not Botticelli was one of Savonarola’s follower. But certain themes in his later works – like the Mystic Nativity – are certainly derived from the sermons of Savonarola, which means that the artist was definitely attracted by that personality so central to the cultural and political events of Florence during the last years of the fifteenth century.

The painting is on canvas – normally he would have used wood panel – perhaps for a painting with a dangerous message, canvas had the advantage that it could be rolled up and hidden. With his canvas prepared he would sketch a detailed design on paper, then he transferred this to canvas. He drew on many sources – the dancing angels echo his own three graces of Primavera, the scurrying devil was inspired by a German woodcut. X-rays show that very little of the original design changed – only an angel’s wing was adjusted and trees added over the roof of the stable. Botticelli was now ready to build up the image using oil paint – like canvas an experimental medium. To create the heavenly dome Botticelli called on the goldsmith’s craft he had learned as a boy. “The symbolism of the gold is to do with the unchanging, untarnished nature of heaven – gold doesn’t decay, it doesn’t darken like silver. Botticelli would have used an adhesive layer made of oil mixed with resin – not burnished , the gold just patted down on to the surface, following the surface irregularities of the canvas – a glitter, intricate, it would have helped the jewel like quality of the painting – it would have drawn the eye upwards from the Nativity into Heaven. Faith, hope and charity,[the angels clothed in] white, green and red – but the copper based green pigment has discoloured with time, to bronze. Originally it would have been vibrant.”

Botticelli died in 1510. The Mystic Nativity remained hidden for another three centuries. Rome at the end of the 18th century was very different to Renaissance Florence – except for the presence of French invaders. Many foreigners left, but not a young Englishman, William Young Ottley. He was an art lover, and wealthy with a slave plantation in the Caribbean. He bought up many paintings cheaply. At the Villa Aldobrandini he saw a small, unknown work, Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity. Botticelli was then in obscurity.

It arrived in London where Ottley’s house became in effect a private museum of Italian masterpieces. After Ottley’s death William Fuller-Maitland of Stansted picked up the painting at an auction for £80. When he loaned it to the Art Treasures Exhibition, Manchester 1857, it was now on open display. The Exhibition’s newspaper the Art Treasures Examiner printed a new engraving of it.

  •  The ideas of Savonarola in Sandro Botticelli’s ‘The Mystical Nativity’.

Experts mean that the ideas of Savonarola are illustrated in the painting of Sandro Botticelli ‘The Mystical Nativity’, circa 1500-1501; tempera on canvas, 108,5 x 75 cm, preserved in the National Gallery, London. The board of the National Gallery wrote:
‘Sandro Botticelli painted the ‘Mystic Nativity’, dated 1500, at the turn of the half-millennium. At first glance the painting seems to show a conventional Nativity scene. Shepherds and wise men have come to visit the new-born king, while angels in the heavens dance and sing hymns of praise. However, the text at the top of the picture, veiled in scholarly Greek, provides a key to further layers of meaning.
The Greek inscription has been translated: ‘I Sandro made this picture at the conclusion of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time according to the 11th chapter of Saint John in the second woe of the Apocalypse during the loosing of the devil for three and a half years then he will be chained in the 12th chapter and we shall see […] as in this picture.’ ‘
The missing words may have been ‘him burying himself’. The ‘half time after the time’ has been generally understood as a year and a half earlier, that is, in 1498, when the French invaded Italy, but it may mean a half millennium (500 years) after a millennium (1000 years): 1500, the date of the painting.

Savonarola had arrived in Florence in 1490 but had been repelled by the artistic glory and enormous wealth that so impressed the world. He preached that this was a corrupt and vice-ridden place. A great scourge was approaching – and then his words had assumed a terrifying reality. In 1494 a huge French army invaded Italy and 10000 troops entered Florence so that the Florentines feared the King of France meant to sack the city. Savonarola stepped into the political vacuum, he met with the French king and persuaded him to leave Florence peacefully. In their gratitude and relief the Florentines increasingly saw the friar as a prophet and his preaching attracted huge crowds to Florence Cathedral. Savonarola claimed that Florence could become the new Jerusalem if the citizens would repent and abandon their sinful luxuries – and that included much of their art. His beliefs were made real as groups of evangelical youths went on to the streets to encourage people to part with their luxuries, their lewd pictures, and books, their vanities, combs, mirrors. Botticelli may well have seen his own paintings fed to the flames. Yet the artist might not have objected because, like much of the city, he too had come under the sway of Savonarola. It seems that a sermon preached by Savonarola bears directly upon the Mystical Nativity.
In one sermon Savonarola preached he set forth a vision that had come to him in which he saw an extraordinary heavenly crown. At its base were twelve hearts with twelve ribbons wrapped around them and written on these in Latin were the unique mystical qualities or privileges of the Virgin Mary – she is ‘mother of her father’, ‘daughter of her son’, ‘bride of God’ etc. Though much of the writing on the ribbons held by the dancing angels is now invisible to the naked eye, infra-red reflectography has shown that the original words on the angels ribbons correspond exactly to Savonarola’s 12 privileges of the Virgin. In his sermon, preached on Assumption Day, Savonarola went on to explore the 11th and 12th chapters of the Book of Revelation – the precise chapters mentioned in the painting’s inscription. He connected the glory of Mary with the imminent coming of the power of Christ on earth.

Years Savonarola held Florence in his hand but his hard line charismatic rule made him powerful political enemies. He was challenged to prove his holiness by walking through fire and when he refused the tide of opinion turned against him. He was arrested, and under torture confessed to being a false prophet. On 23 May 1498 he was hanged with two of his leading lieutenants, their bodies burnt and their ashes scattered in the River Arno. Some see the figures of the three men at the bottom of the painting as representatives of the three executed holy men, raised up and restored to grace – but persecution not peace awaited Savonarola’s followers and it was in an atmosphere of oppression that Botticelli set out to create the Mystic Nativity.

The painting has some dark symbolic premonitions, including:

  • the baby Jesus rests on a sheet that evokes his death shroud;
  • the cave echoes his tomb;
  • the Kings on the left bear no gifts;
  • at the bottom of the painting, three angels embrace three men, seeming to raise them from the ground;
  • at the very bottom of the canvas, seven devils flee to the underworld; and
  • some of the devils impaled on their weapons.

On the reassuring side, the painting includes the following:

  • at the top of the picture twelve angels dressed in the colors of faith, hope and charity dance in a circle;
  • the angels are holding olive branches;
  • above the angels, heaven opens in a great golden dome;
  • the symbolism of the gold is the unchanging, untarnished nature of heaven; and
  • the angels at the bottom are holding scrolls which proclaim in Latin, “Peace on earth to men of goodwill.”

The painting uses the medieval convention of showing the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus larger than other figures. This emphasis was certainly done deliberately for effect, as earlier Botticelli nativity paintings used the correct graphical perspective. The Greek inscription at the top translates as:

“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”.

Savonarola’s Impact

This painting may be connected with the influence of Savonarola, whose influence also appears in some late pictures by Botticelli. The painting emerged when the fanatical preacher Savonarola held the city of Florence in his grip. He had arrived in Florence in 1490 but had been repelled by its artistic glory and wealth. He preached that this art was corrupt, and a great scourge was approaching. His words became a terrifying reality during the Italian War of 1494–1498. In 1494 a vast French army invaded Italy, and 10,000 troops entered Florence, and the citizens feared the sack of their city. Savonarola stepped into the political vacuum; he met with the French king and persuaded him to leave Florence peacefully. In their gratitude, and relief, the Florentines increasingly saw the friar as a prophet, and his preaching attracted huge crowds.

Savonarola claimed that Florence could become the new Jerusalem if the citizens would repent and abandon their sinful luxuries, including their art. His beliefs were made real as groups of evangelical youths went on to the streets to encourage people to part with their luxuries, their pictures, and books, their vanities, combs, mirrors. Botticelli may well have seen his paintings thrown into the flames. The artist might not have objected because, as much of the city, he too was fearful of Savonarola. Savonarola’s fearful sermons must have affected the Mystical Nativity.

For years Savonarola held Florence in his grip, but his hard-line rule made him powerful enemies. He was challenged to prove his holiness by walking through fire, and when he refused, the tide of opinion turned against him. He was arrested, and under torture, confessed to being a false prophet. In 1498 he was hanged with two of his lieutenants. Their bodies were then burnt.

Bonfire of the Vanities

The ‘bonfire of the vanities’ usually refers to the fire of 1497, when supporters of Savonarola collected and burned thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books in Florence. The focus of this destruction was on objects that might tempt one to sin, including vanity items such as mirrors, cosmetics, elegant dresses, playing cards, and musical instruments. Other targets included books that were deemed to be immoral, manuscripts of secular songs, and artworks, including paintings and sculptures.

Great Tribulation

The Great Tribulation is a period mentioned by Jesus as a sign that would occur in the time of the end. In Revelation, “the Great Tribulation” is used to indicate the period spoken of by Jesus, however, in the context of those hard-pressed by siege and the calamities of war.  Christian eschatology is the study of ‘end things.’ The study includes the end of an individual life, the end of the age, the end of the world, and the nature of the Kingdom of God.

There are many passages in the Bible, which speak of a time of terrible tribulation, such as has never been known. Time of natural and human-made disasters on a grand scale. Jesus said that at the time of his coming, “There will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever will be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake, those days will be shortened.” [Mt 24:21-22]

  • Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, Savonarola and the Millennium

….Already by 1400 the theme of the reconciliation of the heavenly virtues was
being used for reform propaganda. According to the chronicler Luca Dominici,
notices relating to the Book of Revelation (so he says) were posted on the doors of
the main churches of Bologna, reading:
Through the world a multitude of the peoples dressed in white and shining stoles, shouting, ‘Lord, grant us peace and mercy’. And at last, when Righteousness and Peace had
descended from heaven, they kissed each other. And Truth and Peace arose upon the earth, and the true shepherd of all will become known, and the righteous king will arise on earth …

The purpose of such notices was to encourage the Bianchi, then converging in
great numbers upon Rome for the Jubilee.16 We encounter three of the heavenly
virtues in a song by Girolamo Benivieni, one of Savonarola’s closest followers, in
which he describes a visit by Christ to Florence in order to see and judge the newly
reformed city. Mercy and Righteousness come before him and embrace each other
and are then joined by Peace. The song, published in 1500, was probably written
during Savonarola’s lifetime, to be sung by groups of his most ardent followers.’
In a sermon given in December 1494 Savonarola himself used the image of the
heavenly virtues to illustrate how great God’s love was for Florence:
I have told you several times in the past, Florence, that even though God has everywhere  prepared a great scourge, nevertheless on the other hand he loves you and is fond of you.
And so it can be said that in you has been realised that saying, ‘Mercy and truth are met
together’, that is, Mercy and Righteousness [sic] have come together in the city of Florence.
From the one side came the scourge, and Mercy came towards it from the other side, and,  ‘righteousness and peace have kissed each other’, and have embraced together, and God has  wished to show you justice and on the other hand be merciful to you, and save you…

This passage appears to bear not only on the Mystic Nativity but on the Mystic Crucifixion as well.

Each of the twelve angels in the circle at the top of the Mystic Nativity has at least one ribbon bearing an inscription in Latin or sometimes Italian . Each of the seven surviving
inscriptions conforms exactly to one of what Savonarola, in his Compendio di revelatione, first published in 1495, calls the  twelve ‘privileges’ of the Virgin.

  • The  twelve ‘privileges’ of the Virgin

The  ‘privileges’ are part of an allegorical  crown offered to Mary by the Florentine people, and occur on banderoles surmounting the twelve hearts in the lowest  of its three tiers .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the which banderoles were written twelve privileges of the Virgin with words of prayer,
which are these:

Two in relation to the Everlasting Father: The first: Sposa di Dio Padre vera, because God the Father and she have  one and the same son. The second: Sposa  di Dio Padre admiranda, because just as the  Father gave birth from eternity to his Son in  heaven without a mother, so she gave birth  on earth to that same Son without a father.

Two others in relation to the Son: First: Madre di Dio. Second: Madre del suo padre, because Jesus Christ was the Son and is God the Creator of the Universe, who created her.

Two in relation to the Holy Ghost: First: she is Sacrario dello Spirito Sancto singulare, because by it she was singularly full of all of the graces. Second: Sacrario ineffabile, because the Holy Ghost made her fit to be the mother of the Creator of the Universe.

Two in relation to her virginity: First: she is Vergine delle vergine, because no other virgin can be compared to this one, who was never spotted by any venial or mortal sin. Second: she is Vergine fecunda, because she alone is virgin and mother.

Two in relation to the Church Triumphant and the whole universe: First: that she is Regina sola del mondo, because she is the true Spouse and Mother and Shrine of the King of the World, who is God Threefold and One. Second: Regina sopra tutte le creature honoranda, because … she is honoured much more highly than all the saints, and with an honour that is called ‘hyperdulia’.

Two last ones in relation to the present Church Militant: First: she is Dolcezza di cuore delli giusti, because through her they beg for many favours from God, and her love is ‘sweeter than honey and the honeycomb’, which love amazingly makes their souls and bodies chaste. Second: that she is Speranza delli  peccatori et delle persone miserabili, because through her prayers and merits they hope to beg for  mercy from God. These twelve privileges, then, were written on those twelve banderoles in this form: Sponsa Dei Patris vera, ora pro nobis; Sponsa Dei Patris admiranda, intercede pro nobis. And thus also followed all the others.

There is good reason to believe that there is a tropological dimension to the
painting. The known Savonarolan sources on which the Mystic Nativity draws are all
moral in intent, and the painting exhorts us to worship the Child truly and become
reconciled with our brothers. Unlike most Italian pictures of the time, it is clearly
structured into groups of significant numbers and combinations of white, green,
and red. Significant numbers were the almost irresistable cue for late-medieval theologians to list a set of moral precepts, and Savonarola was no exception to this
rule. White, green, and red usually symbolise Faith, Hope, and Charity respectively.


That perhaps is what they do in Botticelli’s painting also. But caution is necessary.
For Savonarola Faith may be green and Hope sky blue,’ whereas white, green, and
red may stand for any number of other things.
To conclude, I shall propose three possible interpretations of the painting, taking them in ascending order of probability, before ending with an observation  about its theme.

Firstly, the Mystic Nativity might be, along with the Mystic Crucifixion in the Fogg
Art Museum , a picture intended for the boys in the group of Bernardino
dei Fanciulli or another Savonarolan association like it. This is suggested by the
highly ‘naive’ syntax of both paintings, the great stress on angels, and the fact that
in both paintings the symbols of evil-five small and apparently self-destructed
demons in the case of the Mystic Nativity and two small and seemingly unferocious
animals in that of the Mystic Crucifixion-do not appear to be intended as frightening. As a further slight but perhaps relevant indication, in the only volume of the ‘collected works’ of Bernardino dei Fanciulli, there are just two illustrations, one  showing the Nativity and the other the Crucifixion. Against the possibility that these two pictures were intended for children is of course the presence of the Greek inscription to the Mystic Nativity. But as we have seen, that inscription might have  been added later;  if so, perhaps it was added with the purpose of ‘redefining’ the painting. In this connection we should note that Bernardino and his group were  forced into exile in 1500-and according to the inscription it was ‘at the end of the  year 1500, in the troubles of Italy’ that the Mystic Nativity was painted.
Secondly, the painting might be a cryptic representation of the Millennium-or rather those features of it in which Botticelli believed and which he thought to be in harmony with the predictions that Savonarola had made. During such a Millennium those Florentines who truly believed would reign with Christ their king. As we have seen, the Millennium begins with the binding of Satan. Accepted Catholic doctrine holds that it therefore begins, figuratively, with the birth of Christ. It is even possible that the word ‘time’ in the painting’s Greek inscription means ‘millennium’, as in Francesco da Meleto’s interpretation.176 The mortals being embraced by angels and led by them to the manger would be the martyrs and saints who live again through the First Resurrection -or whomever else it was that Botticelli might have thought these Apocalyptic persons stood for. Their crowns of olive would be the crowns of martyrdom or righteousness. It at first strikes one as unlikely that Botticelli would have shown the Millennium in an age in which it was rarely mentioned. But of those persons who believed in the Millennium at the time, how many actually ventured to  say so in print? If the Mystic Nativity does represent the Millennium in any real sense, firstly, the painting is in this respect unique as far as we know; secondly, it is  thoroughly heretical. We recall that-if for the wrong reasons-Vasari believed  Botticelli to have been a heretic.

The third possible interpretation is that the painting is a figuration of an ‘Apocalyptic’ birth of Christ, in which allusions to the reconciliation of the heavenly virtues with one another and with mankind, the ‘crown’ of Mary, and the Millennium (or the casting out of Satan) are elements of a complex and yet ‘simple’ allegory of the future in which Botticelli believed.

That future would, through the intercession of Mary, see the ‘birth’ of Christ in the hearts of the Florentines. Through the mercy of divine Grace, the Florentines would be filled with charity and love towards one another and be reconciled with the angels and their God.

There would thus come to pass that peace and goodness which the devil cannot abide and which would cause his downfall: ‘Now is come the power of Christ on earth; the
dragon has lost’.
Whatever it is that the Mystic Nativity shows, the chances are that it took great
courage for Botticelli to paint it.

  • Where heaven shall touch earth

The overriding theme of the Mystic Nativity, because of the large number of olive branches in it, appears to be peace. But we should do well to remember that in
Botticelli’s time the olive was usually a symbol of mercy.

In Savonarola’s ‘1493’ Christmas sermon it is Mercy, not Peace, who holds a branch of olive. Moreover, wreaths of olive conveying thoughts of mercy and repentance had recently come into use in one of Florence’s most important public rituals, the offering of little torches by pardoned offenders at the city’s Baptistry. These persons had formerly
been led to the Baptistry in chains, but from 1493 at the latest each is described as
being led, ‘in the usual way, his head uncovered, with a crown [or garland] of olive,
with a little torch in his hands… preceded by trumpets’.

Now, one of the conditions for receiving pardon at the time was that an offender make ‘peace’ with the offended party. Perhaps onlookers remembered this as the olive-wreathed offenders were marched past them. But surely what was uppermost in their thoughts was that these transgressors had come to repent what they had done and were now receiving mercy. Indeed, what Botticelli and many others who lived during his age probably hoped for more than anything else but also in our times , was Mercy.

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