One Botticelli painting that may be overlooked when visiting the Uffizi Gallery was made for a minor church in Florence, San Barnaba, in 1488.
FROM THE LEFT, the SAINTS ARE:
St. Catherine - She was tortured on a spiked wheel which you see as her attribute right behind her.
Saint Augustine - writing in a book, presumably his Confessions, with a quill pen. He wears a bishop's mitre and cope since he was Bishop of Hippo in North Africa.
Next St. Barnabas, the name saint of the church. Who on earth is Saint Barnabas? and why is a church built to him in the city of Florence? Saint Barnabas was a Jew from Cyprus who converted to Christianity and then joined St. Paul in spreading the Christian message in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea in the first century A.D. But he shows up in this altarpiece in a church named for him not in order to celebrate his martyrdom or his beneficial works, but because the Florentine Guelf Party won a victory over the Florentine Ghibellines in Camaldoli on St. Barnabas' FEAST DAY, June 11, 1289.
He is the saint whose intercession was believed to have caused the victory, so he is important enough, then, to be placed to the right of the Madonna. He is shown here with a long, dark beard and appears next to her with a book for his writings and an olive branch to symbolize the ensuing peace between the parties after the victory. But he is really only there because he is the patron saint of the church built for a battle won on his saint's day, no other connection. He doesn't even look at the Enthroned Child, he turns to regard Saint Augustine writing his Confessions, and perhaps surreptitiously, St. Catherine.
ON THE RIGHT from the viewer's perspective:
St. John the Baptist - he wears animal skins and red mantle and holds a cross staff, but he is there because the altarpiece was made for a Florentine church and he is the patron saint of Florence:
Next to him is another Bishop who holds a red heart, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, whose heart was ripped from his body after martyrdom. Both he and Augustine wear white gloves that have a ruby
sewn into them to signify their special status as saint bishops:
Then comes an armored saint, presumably St. Michael, with wings, since he was an archangel. He holds a very thin-blade sword in one hand, an orb with an image of the countries around the Mediterranean in the other.
We understand why Barnabas and John are chosen for the painting but what about the others? The Madonna is there because she was the protector of the Guild and the members dedicated themselves to her. But the four other saints and the four angels? Often the saints will stand in for the names of specific patrons, Catherine for the Abbess of a nunnery, for instance, associated with the church, Augustine, Ignatius, and Michael for the names of prominent members of the Guild, but I do not know for certain in this painting.
Two angels next to the Madonna hold, on the left, a crown of thorns of the type worn by Christ when he was mocked in Pilate's court, on the right, nails with arrow-pointed heads to remind us of the nailing of Christ to the cross. (In reality he was probably roped to the cross, but in the 15th-century they believed he was nailed.)
The other two angels pull back the ermine-lined curtain (ermine being the most expensive fur so worthy of a holy throne) to reveal the Madonna and Child and the shell-shape niche above them, with roundels of the Annunciation in bas-relief to either side of the shell.
The viewer has a joyful sense here of a young child with his mother at the beginning of his life,
with the Annunciation story above. We have a sense, too, that he is royalty, hence the ermine curtain. In sharp contrast with that joy are the angels with the symbols associated with Christ's death that make the viewer think about the ALPHA and OMEGA we so often see juxtaposed in Christian images from this period, the beginning and the end of Christ's life.
Two other elements in the painting contribute to the meditation on death that underlies this joyous altarpiece. The inscription in Italian written on the step of the Madonna's throne
is a description of Mary found in Dante's Paradiso in his Divine Comedy, Chapter 33, line 1:
VERGINE MADRE in English: Virgin Mother
FIGLIA DEL TUO FIGLIO Daughter of your SonThese lines from Dante underscore the paradox of the Mother of Christ who was the protector of the Guild and whom the Guild members served: Mary was a virgin and yet became pregnant by God and had Jesus as a child. Because Jesus is also God, Mary, being the daughter of God, is also the daughter of her own Son. The mystery of the Virgin Birth as well as the mystery of Christ being the Son of God and also God are both included in these Italian phrases. What makes the words even more poignant in the setting is that Dante himself was a member of the Guild of the Medici and Speziali, so Botticelli is just painting into the throne of the Madonna and Child familiar concepts known to the Guild members because one of their previous alumni had written them. Secrets known to the ones who know, the ones who attended church in that place, but also now known to all who see the painting in the Uffizi.
While most of the altarpiece radiates the lively joy of textures and touch, the underlying message "BEWARE the FUTURE" hangs over it all. Girolamo Savonarola had come to Florence twice by the time this altarpiece was painted, but his "doom and gloom" preaching began in earnest when he arrived back in the city in 1490 at the Church of San Marco, right down the street from the
Church of San Barnaba. The peril to come that Savonarola preached about is emphasized in the predella panels made for the bottom section of the altarpiece.
When complete, each saint would have had a panel below with a miniature scene depicting an episode from his/her life.
Only four of these are extant, the rest are lost:
Under St. Augustine the story is from the Golden Legend where Augustine is walking on a beach thinking about the concept of the Trinity (3-godheads in one - Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) and he comes upon a young boy who, with a shell, is scooping water from the ocean into a hole he has dug with a spoon. When Augustine points out to him the futility of trying to fill his hole with the the vast ocean, the boy replies, "Just as futile it is to think we can ever comprehend the deep mystery of the Trinity."
The deaths of Christ, Ignatius, and John the Baptist are what are presented in the predella panels that have remained. The Augustine predella is about contemplation and part of his contemplation is about death. As viewers the predella panels remind us of our own mortality but also of the suffering that Christ, John the Baptist, and Ignatius endured for their deep faith. Would the predella panels under Catherine, Barnabas, and Michael have represented similar themes of suffering, martyrdom, and death? We can only hope they turn up some day so we can tell.
The overriding sense of this altarpiece is that if you suffer for your faith, the Madonna and Child will be revealed to you. Catherine looks up at the nails because she knows that kind of sharp torture.
Augustine writes down his thoughts of the problems of the life of the flesh.
Only John the Baptist is showing the suffering on his face, with mouth open as if to gasp his last breath before his head is taken from him. His eyes narrow from pain, but he, too, points to the inscription in which Dante tried to describe the great Christian mystery of faith.
All the saints know that life is not easy, but they insist in this nativity play with the beauty of their bodies and serious glances that the innocent child who is revealed by the angels helped them find a way to survive. Botticelli wants that beauty for himself, for his Guild, and for the viewers he knows will come after his own death.