Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity is as beautiful as it is mysterious. With this work we venture into the realm of speculation and conjecture. I hope you find this painting as intriguing as I do.
“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.
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.
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 with the Medici’s generous support.
During the 1480’s, while connected to the Medici’s, Botticelli produced some of his most famous works. Along with mythical paintings, Botticelli painted portraits and religious scenes, specializing in “Madonna and child” paintings.
To begin to unravel this work, we need to better understand Botticelli’s artistic style, Florence’s culture, and the religious convictions of 15th century Italy.
The Philosophy of Beauty in Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity
Botticelli embraced the “Philosophy of Beauty.” While we don’t normally associate philosophy with beauty today, it has historically been a central branch of the study of Philosophy. The “Philosophy of Beauty” is also sometimes called “Aesthetics,” an area that addresses questions like: What is beauty? What are the uses of beauty? What are the proper forms, styles, and methods that produce beautiful objects? Beauty was prized as a virtue as highly as truth, goodness or justice. Beauty glorified God because it revealed aspects of who he was and any aspiring artist during the Renaissance had to work hard to ensure their work could be considered “beautiful.”
Here is an excerpt from the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy’s entry on Aesthetics.
“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.”
However, as is true today, there were conflicting ideas about what was beautiful. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Great artists, however, redefined what the culture deemed beautiful, and instilled in their audience the belief that beauty and virtue were connected. If they paint a beautiful Madonna, her outward beauty reflects the purity of her soul. This was the mark of a true master. As we will see, Botticelli was such a visionary.
Now that we understand how Botticelli was shaping notions of beauty through his work, we need to understand what ideas were shaping him as an artist.
Artists draw their inspiration from many different sources. During the Renaissance, it was common for artists to be inspired by writers, for writers to be inspired by poets, and so on. By understanding the ideas that influence an artist, we can better understand the choices they make in their works.
A major influence for Botticelli was Dante Alighieri. Dante was a 13th century Italian writer best known for his trilogy, The Divine Comedy. Lorenzo Medici admired Dante’s work and wanted Botticelli to illustrate the text, bringing to life the epic tale of a man’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Botticelli studied the text intensely, immersing himself in Dante’s description of the nine sinful circles in the inferno and the nine angelic spheres of paradise.
Today, more than 100 of Botticelli’s Divine Comedy drawings survive. His illustrations are not only beautiful but symbolic, as they represent the theological themes of the text. It would be hard to overstate the influence that Dante’s poem has had on Christianity. Many modern Christian’s owe more to their understanding of heaven, hell, angels, and Satan, to Dante—more than they do to Biblical sources. Artists like Botticelli helped bring Dante’s work to life, disseminating his story visually while also shaping it through his artistic choices.
Illustrating Dante’s important work did not just shape Botticelli as an artist, however, but as a person. Thinking deeply about the theology embedded in Dante’, paired with the political turmoil of the late 15th century led to a period of profound spiritual crisis for Botticelli. These ideas and events all shaped his great work, Mystic Nativity.
The End of the World…in 1500?
Remember New Year’s Eve, 1999? Even if you were not alive, you may have heard stories about fears people had with the turn of the millennium. People throughout history have feared the turning of years, decades, and especially centuries. As the year 1500 approached, many people feared the end of the world was upon them. Botticelli himself believed Christ’s second coming was imminent.
This belief was called “Millenarianism” and it was gaining traction throughout Europe. People believed that they were living in the “in–between times” described in the biblical book of Revelation. This period was described as ‘times, and half a time’. Many people interpreted this to mean that “time” meant “1,000 years” and so “half-time” meant 500 years. Thus, the year 1500 was considered significant. Because Florence was experiencing wars, famines, and plagues, just as the book of Revelation foretold, many thought the end was nigh. Had the devil truly been unleashed?
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 an immense following. Many who were starving, and poor found solace in his message of deliverance. Even wealthy Florentines saw the error of their ways and donated their vast wealth to his cause. It may come as no surprise, then, that he challenged the ideas of beauty prized by artists and patrons alike.
Savonarola’s demanded that Florence, in all of its opulence, repent and return to God. He promised them that by rejecting their worldliness, God would reward them, and Florence would become the “New Jerusalem.” Unfortunately for the Medici’s, the political and cultural anchor of Florence, and artists like Botticelli, art considered excessively beautiful, sensual, or insufficiently pious was deemed worldly and subject to Savonarola’s purge.
Savonarola prophesized that a “new Cyrus” would invade from the north and reform the church. Cyrus, in the Old Testament, was a Persian ruler whose invasion of Babylon and contact with Jewish exiles led to his freeing the Jews and rebuilding the Temple. In Botticelli’s time, it appeared that Savonarola’s prophecy was coming true when Charles VIII invaded Italy from France, bringing with him 10,000 soldiers. Florence expected to be sacked and burned. But Savonarola went out to meet him, successfully negotiating for Florence’s safety. As a result, Savonarola’s followers drove the Medici’s from the city. Savonarola established a republic government and began his pious reforms. Savonarola and his government ruled Florence from 1494-1498.
Bonfire of the Vanities
One “reform” in particular shaped the art and culture of Florence. Savonarola decreed that all worldly objects that did not glorify God must be destroyed in a giant bonfire. His followers willingly tossed precious books, art, mirrors, combs, and other valuables into the towering flames. Among these treasures were many of Botticelli’s own works, lost to us forever.
After four years, however, Florentines had grown tired of Savonarola’s strict rule. Public opinion turned against him and he and his two closest allies were convicted of being heretics. Savonarola, while being tortured, admitted he had made up the visions. All three men were hung and burned to ensure there would be nothing left for his followers to turn into holy relics. Though he only ruled for four years, his regime challenged ideas about beauty and art.
Back to Botticelli: His Conflict
So how did these traumatic events and new ideas shape Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, a painting that was “lost” for nearly 300 years? With no additional documentation, the painting has required art historians to act as sleuths to uncover clues about the work’s meaning and purpose in the painting itself.
In 1500, after the flight of the Medici’s and the fall of Savonarola, Botticelli found himself in a vastly different position than he had a decade previous. The turmoil questioned understandings of beauty, truth, God, and art itself.
Botticelli was struggling spiritually and doubting his life’s work. Was his art glorifying God, or was it a vanity? Was it beautiful? And if so, what made it so? 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 second coming at hand and was he about to be judged?
It is at this pivotal moment of crisis that Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity was painted.
Fun fact: This is the only work Botticelli ever signed. Is this a clue to its importance to Botticelli? And if so, why did he hide it?
Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity is a Visual Sermon
Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity visually represents Savonarola’s sermon about the second coming of Christ.
The painting was done on canvas, which was unusual, since Botticelli normally painted on wooden panels. A painting on canvas allowed it to be rolled up and concealed, suggesting that even before he finished the painting, Botticelli intended to hide it.
This is perhaps because he knew that a visual record of Savonarola’s sermon would have been dangerous now that Savonarola had been declared a heretic and executed. 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. Botticelli couldn’t risk being associated with them.
There is no known commission for Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, implying that the artist made it for himself. As such, he may have intended the small painting as a personal devotional work. If the painting were commissioned by a supporter of Savonarola, however, that patron would have likely wished to remain unidentified.
The question for our sleuths remains: why would Botticelli sign a painting and then hide it away? Maybe he saw the new shape his style was taking and wanted posterity to know the work was by him?
Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity: From Top to Bottom
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”
Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity appears at first to be a joyous celebration of the nativity. In fact, the angels circling at the top been used on many Christmas cards. However, as we move down the painting, darker elements appear, perhaps influenced by Dante’s concepts of heaven and hell. At the bottom of the frame there are demons disappearing into the ground as angels wrestle with humans.
This is not a Christmas card nativity scene as we know it, but a representation of spiritual struggle. While there is joy and celebration, there is also pain.
Circle of Angels
Let us start at the top: the twelve circling angels and gold dome. The number twelve here is thought to represent the passage of time: either the twelve hours of the day or the twelve months of the year.
Botticelli’s training as a goldsmith is evidenced here as he has applied gold leaf to create an opening into the heavens. Gold does not decay or tarnish, so it was the perfect choice to stand for the eternal time of heavenly spaces. As the surface of the canvas is uneven, the gold is uneven as well, which produces a glittery, reflective surface.
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 for the Annunciation play at San Felice in Piazza (“The Church of St. Felix”), the architect Brunelleschi created a circling dome that featured children dressed as angels that spun slowly suspended from the ceiling. 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. Crowns are suspended above, twirling with them.
This image of angels is repeated several times in Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, always in red, green, and white robes. These signify Faith (white), Hope (green), and Charity or love (red). The green is a “true” green in most of the painting, however in this top section the angel’s robes have been burnished with gold so that they are no longer a pure green. It has been suggested that Botticelli altered the color because we are closer to heaven here, that “Hope” is no longer needed because it has come to fruition.
The crowns in the painting were mentioned in Savonarola’s Assumption Day sermon. Though they may appear blank to the naked eye, there is also writing on the scrolls woven throughout the angels. Using infra-red reflectography, art historians uncovered the following words: “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”
Savonarola also expounded on the 12 privileges of the Virgin Mary, and again using infra-red technology these privileges are listed on the scrolls.
You will notice that 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 appear throughout this painting. See if you can spot them all as we travel down the canvas. Does their location comment on the presence (or absence) of peace?
The Center of the Painting: The Holy Family
Below the circle of angels appears the Holy Family. They are gathered in a stable that is enclosed by a cave. The juxtaposition of the stable and cave is an artistic device that had been in use for several centuries. While the biblical narrative speaks of the birth of Jesus occurring in a stable, during this time caves were also used as stables. Caves were also used as tombs, so picturing the birth of Jesus near the site of his death foretells of his journey on earth. Layering these images brings together Christ’s coming (birth) with Christ’s purpose, (dying for humankind’s sins). At the center of this trinity of figures is baby Jesus. Mary is bending toward him, adoringly. She is not cradling the newborn but worshipping him, demonstrating that Jesús is both her son and her Lord.
Baby Jesus is naked. Typically, this choice reminds the audience that God took on flesh through Jesus. However here we see that Botticelli also chose to depict the naked baby lying on his swaddling cloth, which has literally been kicked aside. Instead of an immobile baby swaddled tightly in clothes that resemble the wrappings of the dead, or a baby naked and vulnerable, this baby has freed himself from his restrictions, kicking his feet and raising his hands, communicating Christ’s eventual victory over death.
Mary’s clothes are also important. She wears the traditional red dress which is the color of blood and signifies her humanity. Covering her is a blue cloak, which suggests the blue of the sky, or heaven, and divinity. In Mary’s clothing we have a visible reminder that she, a human, has carried the divine within her.
Mary and Jesus are both painted according to hieratic scale, meaning their size emphasizes their importance. Both figures are extremely large—even kneeling Mary barely fits into the stable.
While we only can see Joseph’s back here, we can assume that he is sleeping. Joseph is often painted as an older man who poses no threat to Mary’s virginity. Additionally, since Joseph is both a man and a sinner, he is often painted sleeping during the birth preserving Mary’s modest purity as well.
In addition to the figures of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, we see the animals who are traditionally present in nativity scenes: The ox and the ass, or donkey. The presence of these animals alludes to a verse in the book of Isaiah that states that the ox and ass will know their master, as even the animals will recognize their “king” when he appears. Additionally, the ox (considered a “clean” animal in biblical times) and the ass (considered an “unclean” animal) are thought to represent the union of the Israelites and the gentiles. Their presence together testifies to the fact that the Messiah was intended not just for the Jews, but for all of humanity.
What is on the Periphery?
Moving outward from the central depiction of the Holy Family, are adoration scenes on either side. The Magi or “wise men” are on the left, pictured, however, without their regal finery or gifts, instead they bring only their own devotion. Traditionally, the Magi were painted in elaborate clothes to emphasize that even the most powerful rulers will kneel to the King of Kings. We can see the influence of Savonarola’s teachings, who cautioned against such vanity, in Botticelli’s depiction of these figures. The beauty is in the act of adoration itself, not in the clothing worn by the wise men.
The shepherds mirror the wise men on the opposite side. With each group is an angel who gestures with an arm toward the infant. Each angel also holds an olive branch and 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.
On one side the wise men represent the rulers of the world, on the other the shepherds represent those who are ruled. Both groups are equally in need of the peace and reconciliation that the Christ Child brings.
Three Men, Three Angels
Moving into the foreground, or the “bottom” of our painting, we encounter the most mysterious feature. 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 are these men are and what are they doing? There are many interpretations that can help us answer these questions, each drawing on a piece of the historical, cultural, and biographical context we’ve discussed.
- The three men represent Savonarola and his two companions being raised up in the last days with the angels—a redemptive arc for the heretic.
- They are unknown martyrs being raised up at Christ’s second coming, representing all of those who come through the tribulation.
- They represent the great philosophies of the world that are ceremonially wrestling with the angels representing God.
- Reading this depiction from left to right and taking the path that runs in front of these figures we can view this scene as one in which the angels are helping the men kneel rather than pulling them up. From left to right, each man is closer to kneeling, which is the only proper position to approach the scene in the manger.
- Finally, the angels are pulling people out of a state of religious limbo, (remember Dante’s “purgatory”?), which is perhaps where Botticelli feels that he is during this spiritual crisis.
Below these mysterious figures, are the demons we mentioned earlier. They are easy to miss, as they’re escaping in the cracks in the earth and down to the pits of hell. Christ’s presence causes them to flee, and a few seem to be falling onto their own weapons, admitting their defeat.
Transition and Transformation
Botticelli was a Renaissance master who valued beauty and balance in his work. Yet, Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity rejects the standard rules of perspective and creates dissonance and destabilization. The three levels of the painting we discussed—top, center, bottom—do not connect naturally and do not flow together in landscape. Knowing Botticelli was a skilled artist well-schooled in the Philosophy of Beauty, we have to ask ourselves why he altered his style, or aesthetics, so dramatically, and consider how it reflected the religious, political, and personal turmoil of the turn of the century and (perceived) end of the world.
It is in this dissonance, this new definition of beauty, that we see Botticelli’s depiction of the second coming most clearly.
This dissonance emphasizes that we are at a time of transition and transformation. The Nativity and the Second Coming change everything. When God breaks into human history it is disruptive and destabilizes the world as know it. Old notions of form, style, and beauty are rearranged by the new world order.
While much of the early Renaissance was focused on rendering the body and space naturally, Botticelli focused instead on the stresses of the soul. His strong religious beliefs and struggles became more and more evident in his art, until his works became highly emotional pictures with intense religious themes. Could such intensity and discontinuity be considered “beautiful”? What do you think?
Did Botticelli Find the Peace The Mystic Nativity Promised?
Eventually, Botticelli’s spiritual torment influenced his decision to give up painting entirely. It seems he was not able to take to heart the very ideas he painted in the Mystic Nativity. Namely, that despite the upheaval and change, the second coming was ultimately a story about peace. That through Christ’s coming, both his first and second, evil has fled and a new and unimaginable peace now reigns. Throughout the painting the angel’s robes remind us of the perseverance of faith, hope, and love. As the demons slide back into the earth, the painting promises the eventual triumph of good. And yet, it does not seem like Botticelli’s struggling soul could be moved by his own message of redemption.
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, was pulled many directions at once, consumed with fear of war, death, plague, famine, and the state of his eternal soul…yet what Christ came to give was primarily 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 – 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.