Friday, March 4, 2016



Toward the end of his life Botticelli painted a small vertical painting with a Nativity scene in
the middle:

This oil on canvas painting is dated 1500 and now in the National Gallery in London. We do not know of a patron or church that might have ordered this subject, so scholars have speculated that
Botticelli painted it as a personal private devotional piece, perhaps for himself.  Since we know that his brother was a devotee of Savonarola, the fiery Dominican preacher who is raised to the position of head of state of the Florentine Republic and three years later is burned at the stake in front of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in 1498,
many have also seen in this painting the remnants of Savonarolian apocalyptic visions. Certainly the figures in the lower third of the picture are suggestive of the sermons Savonarola gave in Florence about wrestling with the devil.
We see Florentines (dressed in red) embracing angels with wings as devils scurry underground behind and in front of them.
          The rest of the painting is also not just a Nativity scene. Though Mary and Joseph look down
upon a restless baby, above their heads on the roof of the manger are kneeling 3 figures of the CARDINAL VIRTUES - FAITH in white, HOPE in green, and CHARITY or LOVE in red in the center. These VIRTUES are singing angels with a choir book held and shared among them.
Next to the central scene of ADORATION of the CHILD are two separate subjects, one on each side. On the left is the ADORATION OF THE MAGI.
The three Magi are in the tradition of three ages of man, (oldest in green, middle aged in red, youngest in yellow), wear crowns made out of laurel leaves instead of proper crowns, and are led to the Nativity scene by an angel.
On the right is the ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS; two shepherds, also crowned with laurel leaves but dressed in rustic country clothing, are brought to the central miracle by another angel.
Since both the Magi and the shepherds wear natural crowns, both kneel, and both are attended by similar angels, there seems to be a leveling of distinction of ranks. The crowns are removed from the 3 KINGS and lifted high in the sky with the dancing angels. Each crown in the group above is attached to an olive branch with a banner.

In fact, ALL of the angels in the painting carry OLIVE BRANCHES, signs of PEACE, and the reconciliation of angel with citizen in the lower part of the painting is an echo of the reconciliation going on in the rest of the painting, with the kings and shepherds gathering in the same space with the holy figures and with the VIRTUES singing together above their heads.
The mother's adoring face and the light on the child who looks up at her with rapt attention
as he sucks on his fingers are the central focus of the painting.
Directly behind Mary is a backlit meadow, the symbolic light of the world that we read in the figure of the baby.
The peace of the olive branches, angels, sweet faces, embracing figures are meant to evoke the
reassurance that, while devils may scurry and kings and shepherds may come and go, the story of
Christianity will remain as a central tenet, the notion that God loved the world enough to send his
son to sacrifice his life for human sin.
           The Greek inscription, left in rubble condition, at the top of the painting, speaks of the mystery of this tenet:

          "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 inscription names the artist and speaks of the devil after three years' release. Some scholars have thought the inscription referred to the death of Savonarola.
If the three Florentine citizens are meant to be the monk Savonarola with the two men (also monks) who were hanged with him, why do they not wear monks' robes? Could the artist be imagining the arrival of the three religious men in the heavenly world after their deaths, since they never received a proper burial? (Their ashes were scattered in the Arno River.) On the other hand, is Botticelli perhaps celebrating here the death of Savonarola after three years' reign? Perhaps the three Florentines are Botticelli and two others, released after their spiritual binding to the monk.
        The messages written on the ribbons carried by the angels above are small phrases meant to define the Virgin Mary -daughter of her Son, bride of God, mother of her father - which were mentioned in a sermon Savonarola gave about the Virgin. (The messages have only been seen in infra-red technology.) The Virgin is clearly the center of the drama here, but the earthly world is only part of the picture. The upper third of the picture represents a golden dome of heaven with 12 angels moving in a circle. The circle moves counterclockwise from down below, clockwise if you think of looking at it from above it.
          What are the angels meant to display for the viewer? They carry olive branches, crowns, and originally carried the inscriptions about the Virgin. They are her dancing representatives in HEAVEN, imagined as a golden dome in the sky above the world. But, as with all things created by Botticelli, the dance is also a SYMBOL. And what kind of dance is it? Botticelli must have watched dance masters during his lifetime give instructions in dance, which they did in person and in dance treatises, where dances appear written for the first time in known history, STEP by STEP, in ITALIAN. This dance is not one specifically described in those treatises, but the dance figures remain.
          As an artist Botticelli is always interested in the FEET of his figures and he understood, as Donatello did before him, the principle of DISNEY ANIMATION: that to create believeable movement, you must recreate the motion in STEP SEQUENCES. SO LET US LOOK AT THE FEET OF THE ANGELS here:
If we begin with the angel in pink robe in the center front, she faces left, the direction of the dance, and she steps out on her LEFT foot. The next angel to her left, in white robe, steps with her weight on her RIGHT FOOT.  If we follow all the 12 angels in the circle, they continue the sequence begun by these two: LEFT RIGHT, LEFT RIGHT, LEFT RIGHT, LEFT RIGHT, LEFT RIGHT, LEFT RIGHT,
which returns us to the angel in pink robe again, who steps on her LEFT. No matter where you begin
in the circle, the angel's foot with the weight on it is the opposite one of the angel to either side of her.
What Botticelli is conveying in this elegant image is the IDEA of ETERNITY. The steps are continuous and do not stop. The movement follows as though one figure moved around the circle
in continuous motion. A more beautiful way to imagine ETERNAL LIFE in HEAVEN I have never seen painted elsewhere.
          The angels of the Virgin dance her eternal steps above her head in the golden globe of a heavenly sky.
    All the human creatures in this story are attended by comforting angels: the Florentines down below, the shepherds on the right, the kings on the left, and Mary, Joseph, and the baby by the angels on the roof. There are 8 of them, numbered here from FAITH as 1 to the far left angel as 8.

If the painting is alluding to the Second Coming of Christ, and the future fate of human beings on earth, the scene seems a glorious vision of hope, faith, and love. Everyone is accepted, everyone has the Child to look to, everyone has dancing angels hovering over them. And the devils are quite overpowered by the sights and with hardly a look back, are banished to the underworld.

What a blessed view
Botticelli paints to assuage the painful torments of PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder! He has lived through papal patronage, he has seen those kings of the church overthrown when Pope Sixtus dies in 1484 and the Sistine Chapel work dries up. He has lived through Medici patronage, almost Medici kingship, he has seen those kings overthrown when Giuliano dies in the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478 and when Lorenzo dies of natural causes in 1492. And he has seen Savonarola triumph as an orator and government leader in 1495, only to be killed by the crowd three years later. As an artist Botticelli still has his art and can soothe himself with images that will provide a sense of the ongoing power of his faith.
          The eternal circle dance of his 12 angels together with the encircling composition of 8 angels around the holy figures ensure a peaceful protection of his religious feelings, even while the tumult of the outside world has battered them with its instability.

As his own life draws to a close, he wishes to create reconciliation and eternal love in whirling circles of angels. That the dancing angels step in sequence means that the dance will never end, the light of the world will keep going. For someone who had illustrated Dante's Divine Comedy, it was important to keep the devils at bay, at least in paint.

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