Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity and Savonarola’s Sermons – the Brooklyn Rail


On February 7, 1497, Piazza della Signoria, the civic heart of the city of Florence, caught fire as piles of works of art, books, mirrors, beautiful clothes and musical instruments were piled up and on. Known as the bonfire of vanities, these pyres were the result of years of preaching by Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola who asked Florentine citizens to sacrifice any items that might attempt to sin, to repair what he considered like the corrupted and corrupted aspects. of their life. In his sermons, Savonarola warned the Florentines that the apocalypse was approaching and asserted that their city could become the New Jerusalem (the abode of the blessed in heaven) if the citizens only repent. In a city that had become known for its wealth, intelligence, and beauty, such public destruction of valuables represented a huge reversal, or dramatic reinvention, of their civic identity.

Savonarola particularly criticized pagan and mythological works of art. One of the many artists specializing in these genres was Sandro Botticelli, perhaps best known for his poetic mythological paintings of beautiful supple goddesses in the Primavera (spring) and the Birth of Venus (late 1470s-early 1480s), painted for the Renaissance palaces and villas of Florence’s elite. Less well known are his smaller religious works “Savonarolan” from the 1490s, such as the so-called Mystical Nativity (1500), arguably the most personal, complex, enigmatic and powerful of all his works.

At first glance, Mystical Nativity resembles many Renaissance representations of the birth of Christ: the Virgin Mary kneels before the Child Jesus, accompanied by the Ox and the Donkey. Joseph is resting on the left as the shepherds and the wise men approach from either side. At second glance, the work becomes more destabilizing and its “mystical” characteristics stand out. The Magi do not carry any gifts for the Child, perhaps suggesting that devotion is their true offering. They also lack their traditional crowns, instead wearing olive garlands, a symbol of peace and hope. The nativity takes place not in a stable but in a cave of the type more commonly associated with the tomb of Christ. At the bottom of the work, three angels inexplicably embrace three men, appearing to lift them off the ground while seven devils behind them attempt to flee to the underworld. At the top of the composition, 12 angels, suspended in the air, dance in a circle holding olive branches and above them the sky opens into a golden dome. The key to understanding these curious inclusions is an inscription, in Greek, at the top of the canvas which translates to:

This painting, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, me, Alessandro, in half time after time, painted, after the eleventh [chapter] of Saint John, in the second misfortune of the Apocalypse, during the liberation of the devil for three and a half years; then it will be linked to the twelfth [chapter] and we will see [him buried] like in this photo.

Here, the “troubles” Botticelli alludes to must refer to the recent French invasion of Italy in 1494 and the fear that they would sack the city of Florence. He interprets these events in light of the biblical book of Revelation, also known as Revelation of John, which foretells the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. As a result, Botticelli’s work is not at all a mere nativity but an apocalyptic interpretation of contemporary events and a warning that he and his fellow Florentines would be judged and that what was at stake was nothing less than their own. souls.

The “troubles” in Italy provided Savonarola with the opportunity to enter the political vacuum caused by the expulsion of the Medici rulers from Florence. The preacher met the King of France on behalf of the city and persuaded him to leave peacefully. As a result of this coup, Savonarola’s power grew, and on Assumption Day 1496 he preached to a crowded congregation, which possibly included Botticelli himself, in Florence Cathedral. The preacher described his vision of a heavenly crown adorned with 12 ribbons inscribed in Latin with the unique mystical qualities or “privileges” of the Virgin Mary in which she is described as “the mother of her father,” the “daughter of her. son ”and“ the bride of God ”, etc. … Exactly these mystical qualities were originally inscribed on the now abraded ribbons held by the 12 dancing angels atop Botticelli’s painting. Savonarola then explored the 11th and 12th chapters of Revelation, the precise chapters mentioned in Botticelli’s inscription. Revelation describes a series of prophetic visions of fantastic beasts and culminates with the Second Coming of Jesus. Chapters 11 and 12 describe extraordinary events, including the opening of the temple of God in heaven, a woman (often associated with the Virgin) who gives birth to a male child (associated with Jesus) who will rule all nations and the great dragon. (interpreted as the devil) cast out of heaven. Savonarola interpreted these visions as emblematic of the city of Florence, identifying the dragon with the city’s contemporary tribulations and the defeat of the beast as marking the end of this period of upheaval.

In his Mystical Nativity, Botticelli translated aspects of both Revelation and Savonarola’s visionary sermon into painting, relating the glory of Mary to the imminent coming (or second coming) of Christ to Earth. The inscribed scrolls held by the three entwined angels at the foot of the composition which proclaim, in Latin, “peace on earth to men of good will” also reinforce this reading. The inscriptions, along with the gestures of embracing, the predominance of olive branches and fleeing demons, some of whom have been impaled by their own weapons, all suggest a rapprochement of the celestial and the terrestrial and the era of peace that should follow the work of Christ. back to Earth. The dispersal and impalement of demons however reminds us that this vision of joy and love was realized through suffering and death, suggesting that this nativity could also be understood as a kind of “mystical rebirth”. Speaking of things yet to be seen, Botticelli’s work was an attempt to envision the spiritual hopes of his contemporaries in concrete visual terms.

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