Botticelli's Mystic Nativity often adorns Christmas cards and calendars. Its glorious representation of the nativity accompanied by flights of angels seems to paint an idyllic image of a Renaissance devotional work. What the cards won't tell you is that this painting was made during a very dark time in the history of Florence, and indeed the history of Western art. Underlying the themes of glory and salvation depicted in the work are religious fervour and persecution, fuelled by fear - which was to bestow irreparable destruction upon the cultural legacy of Florence. As a result, the works we are left with now are actually a remnant, or incomplete record of what actually was produced in the time before the 1490s.
Botticelli uses dramatic last judgement imagery and the Revelations inscription to drive home his message
Mystic Nativity is often described as a 'double' painting - in that it actually combines themes of a traditional nativity scene with themes of a last judgement painting. Far below Botticelli's swirl of angels, demonic figures can be seen - not traditionally part of a nativity scene. By including these last judgement elements, Botticelli seeks to reinforce the contemplation of not only Christ's arrival, but also his eventual return as outlined in the Book of Revelation.
Mystic Nativity is more than a pleasant image of a baby in a manger
Botticelli is not satisfied with mere symbolic messages in this instance - instead he inscribes the top of 'Mystic Nativity' with the following disturbing words:
"This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro painted. In the half time after the time, during the fulfilment of the eleventh chapter of St. John in the second woe of the apocalypse"
At this point, we must really pause to consider what the psychological state of Botticelli would have been. It most definitely does not seem to be words of man who painted the 'Birth of Venus' or playful 'Venus and Mars'. Whilst even these pagan themed works have a Christian devotional undercurrent, they are simply not as heavy handed in delivering this message.
From an intoxicated baby satyr clutching a hallucinogenic fruit to the apocalypse - a perfect illustration of Botticelli's change in psychological state afforded by Savonarola's scaremongering
The question needs to be asked - what had happened to Botticelli in 1490s? The answer is simple - the Dominican Monk, Girolamo Savonarola.
The delightful angels encircling towards the heavens in Mystic Nativity are wonderfully executed. Time had faded the inscriptions on many of the ribbons they carried - obscuring the direct link between this painting and Savonarola's teachings. An observant researcher by the name of Rab Hatfield(University of Syracuse in Florence) was looking at woodcut images of Savonarola's sermons in a book that had been left out in a library. In it, he noticed a stratified crown describing the 12 mystical properties of the Virgin Mary.
The Savonarola sermon illustration
Subsequent infra-red analysis of the angels' ribbons revealed the inscriptions - they corresponded exactly with the 12 mystical properties as delivered in Savonarola's sermon. Hence, 'Mystic Nativity' was not just a devotional work - it was also a statement of Botticelli's personal allegiance to Savonarola and his teachings.
We know that Botticelli spent the latter part of his career out of favour and in obscurity. It could be argued that he never fully recovered from the turmoil of the 1490s, where he had come from painter of satyrs and goddesses to someone in the throes of spiritual upheaval. As we have no direct correspondence from Botticelli at this time, we can only speculate on his true state of mind. What can be said with certainty however is the radiant, youthful energy of the artist seen staring confidently at the viewer in 'Adoration of The Magi' was no longer.
A pre-Savonarola Botticelli confidently faces the world in Adoration of The Magi(1475-6)
It is interesting to note that Savonarola came to prominence through political machinations rather than a life devoted to charity and good works alone. As so often happens in history, desperate times allow for radical individuals to hold sway - the Florence of the mid 1490s was exactly such a time.
A fuller picture of these events needs to consider 3 important aspects affecting the social dynamics of the Florentines at the time. The combination of these factors lent a prophetic slant to Savonarola's sermons, who had been warning of invasion and pestilence. These factors were:
1. The French Incursion in 1494
2. Widespread Syphilis (also attributed to France!)
3. The Impending 'End of Days' - from the Book of Revelation, the 'half time after the time' was believed to represent the year 1500. In the minds of many pious Florentines, the end of the world was just around the corner.
In a climate of fear such as this, it was not altogether surprising someone like Savonarola came to have such influence.
The primary goal of the French Army in 1494 was the occupation of Naples, but they also sought to gain from breaking the Medici dominance of commerce in Tuscany. In a true example of "my enemy's enemy is my friend" they shared a common goal with Savonarola - who had been advocating against the Medici from the pulpit. Following an unauthorised attempt at diplomacy by a young Piero de' Medici, which granted concessions to the French without the approval of the Florentine ruling body - the Medici were eventually forced from Florence in late 1494.
Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola
Even today, Florence itself seems to rest in an uneasy ambivalence about Savonarola's contribution to their history. Some of this perhaps due to an inherited guilt about the brutal mode of his execution. Savonarola is indeed a complex character. There is an element of his teaching that is an appeal for equality and temperance. But well meant words and the consequences which accompany them often take divergent paths. Under his regime, homosexuality became a capital offence, and there was widespread persecution of the wealthy.
In consideration of these events - there is one undeniable fact - Savonarola manipulated public fears to serve his beliefs. He rallied people to his cause and ignited a fervour which resulted in the destruction of artworks which ultimately detracted from the historical record.
One can only lament at what has been lost. We often muse that Giorgione's Sleeping Venus is the first full nude of the Renaissance - I have a sinking feeling that the word 'surviving' should be in there - with similar preceding Florentine works likely having been consumed in the Bonfire of The Vanities.
Savonarola met a brutal end, burnt at the stake in 1498
One shudders to think what the strict application of Savonarola's doctrine would have meant for Giorgione's works has this fervour consumed Venice. Fortunately it didn't. Whilst some were moved by Savonarola's words, or grieved by the manner of his death, they did not take to destruction of artworks to prove this point.
If anything, it bolstered the production of devotional artworks over the overtly pagan themed works. It is interesting to note that Raphael - whilst in Florence produced mostly devotional works - primarily due to his apprenticeship with Perugino at the time. Had the atmosphere of the 1490s been different, we can only surmise what classically themed works Raphael may have blessed us with earlier in his career.
For some more background on this, including some contributions by well known Renaissance scholars and authors, please view the except from Private Life of a Christmas Masterpiece, which was originally aired in December 2009 on BBC Two. Although the rest of the Private Life series seems to be available for purchase, this particular episode does not seem to be listed at the BBC shop or Amazon etc.
This special Christmas episode focuses entirely on Botticelli's amazing work - tracing its turbulent history, all the way until its acquisition by the National Gallery London and its current cosy life as a Christmas icon. As we have seen, the true face of this painting is much darker. Enjoy the clip!
apologies for small audio glitch at 0:22secs - missing audio is "some impaled on their own weapons"