There are plenty of puzzling paintings, but few as old and thoroughly mystifying as Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity (1500).
At a time when most paintings and pictures being touted on greetings cards show scenes of winter in the northern hemisphere, I thought that it would be more eclectic to take a look at a painting which is a little less commonplace.
I have already featured Botticelli’s huge Primavera (Spring) (c 1482) in the Favourite Paintings series. The first puzzle, then is how an artist can devote two huge works – if we include its companion The Birth of Venus (c 1486) – to pre-Christian myths and deities, but at the same time be painting strongly devotional Christian scenes.
During the Renaissance, there seemed no contradiction between reading and celebrating the myths of the Classical Greek and Roman cultures, and being a devout Christian. Those of learning were as conversant with the Classics as they were with the Bible; whilst the ancients provided the foundation of progressive philosophy, politics, and science, the Bible provided their theology and religion.
By 1500, Botticelli had already painted some conventional nativity scenes. Two frescoes which have survived are quite typical: The Nativity (c 1473-5) has been transferred to canvas and can now be seen in the Columbia Museum of Art, and that in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella (1476-7) is one of the recommended sites in Florence, Italy.
You can work through these with the standard checklist in terms of their content: the infant Christ, required to be at the centre of course, with Joseph the carpenter on one side, and the Virgin Mary on the other. They are within a semi-derelict cattle-shed, with a background of an ox and an ass, and there are attendant shepherds. Representatives of the angelic host are optional. Botticelli does a fine job in both cases, but these do not have the greatness of Primavera or The Birth of Venus.
Towards the end of the fifteenth century, there was a growing feeling of apocalypse in northern Italy. The French had been at war since 1494, when ten thousand of their troops invaded Florence. Although they were persuaded to withdraw peacefully, that war continued for another four years. The Renaissance was a turbulent time in terms of ideas, Florence was growing rapidly, and remained under the control of a few elite families.
In 1490, the radical preacher Savonarola had arrived in the city, calling on repentance from vice and corruption which he saw as being rife at the time. He preached to huge crowds in Florence Cathedral, proclaiming his vision of Florence as the New Jerusalem, citing chapters from the Book of Revelation with its disturbing succession of apocalyptic scenes.
The established church reacted, charging him with heresy (he had already been excommunicated in 1497), torturing him to confess that his visions were false, and he was hung then burnt, along with two of his leading followers. There followed religious repression, which fuelled the feeling of apocalypse.
Around 1495, Botticelli completed a drawing, Adoration of the Child, which is now in the Uffizi in Florence. It may well have been a preparatory study for the centrepiece of his Mystic Nativity. At the time, Botticelli was growing old, and commissions had virtually dried up.
The result was quite unlike his previous paintings. At its heart are the same key elements as are traditional, but they are set uniquely between scenes which today look quite bizarre.
At the very top is an inscription in Greek, which means: “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.” This refers to the chapters from Revelation which Savonarola had used in his preaching.
Below that are twelve angels, dressed in the colours associated with faith, hope, and charity, who are circling a golden opening in the heavens. The angels fly/dance in a circle, clutching olive branches, at the bottom of which are crowns associated with the kingship of Christ. The ribbon-like objects are in fact scrolls, which examination by infra-red reflectography has shown to bear inscriptions meaning “peace on earth to men of good will”.
Below this is the traditional cattle-shed with the holy parents and infant, standard animals, shepherds, and further angels. Although not identical to his 1495 drawing, there are marked visual similarities with it.
At the foot of the nativity scene is another passage which appears strange. Three angels are seen embracing men, possibly a reference to Savonarola and his accompanying martyrs. Behind them, among the path and rocks, are seven small devils, some of them already impaled on their own weapons, who are fleeing back to the underworld.
This is a strange blend of a traditional nativity, apocalyptic elements more appropriate to a scene of the Last Judgement, all with veiled references to contemporary events.
It is not known who commissioned the painting, but it was probably not long before it was hidden away and forgotten. It was rediscovered by William Young Ottley when the French were occupying Italy again, at the end of the eighteenth century. He brought it to England, where it was eventually purchased by the National Gallery in London, where it continues to baffle and to mystify.