Botticelli and the dark psychology of the Mystic Nativity

December 13, 2010

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"


Alberti's Window said...

I can't believe it - even though I've studied this painting in connection with Savonarola previously, I have never noticed those little demons before! What an interesting and fun detail!

This is why I love blogs so much (and yours in particular): I continually learn and discover new things about paintings that have long been familiar to me. (At least, I think that they are familiar, but then I learn about things like the devils in Mystic Nativity!) There really is no end to learning about art, is there? :)

I'm glad you posted this Christmas "Private Life" episode. I own the series, but the Christmas episodes were not included in my set. How fun!

Unknown said...

Glad you enjoyed the post M! Are you aware of any other resources that have investigated Botticelli's works from a psychological point of view?

To the best of my knowledge this PLM episode does not seem to be available for purchase - though the previous Christmas specials are, featuring Bruegel, Van Eyck and Gauguin.


Unknown said...

Love the little demons. An interesting northern/Germanic influence prehaps?

Your posts continue to amaze me...always fasinating and fun to read.

I'll add the Private life series to my Christmas wishlist! :)

Unknown said...

Hi Ellie! Welcome to 3PP!

The Private Life series is awesome! You'll love it :)


Dr. F said...


Many thanks for a very fine post. I thought the video was exceptionally well done and balanced when it came to Savonarola. Here are some points.

Botticelli was an exceptional painter of sacred subjects long before Savonarola. Like most Renaissance painters his work was the result of negotiations between artist and patron. He was working on Madonnas at the same time that he worked on the Venus and the Primavera.

Consider the following about Savonarola. According to the video, he averted the French sack of Florence. Who knows what art works would have been lost in that event? Afterwards when the cash strapped Republic thought of dispersing the famed Medici library, he and the monks of S. Marco brought it entire under their protection! What really was burned in the Bonfire of the Vanities? Professor Villari thought very little. As for the resulting fear, the high point of the Renaissance folloowed Savonarola's death.

Finally, the Nativity shows that Botticelli was far from over the hill in 1500. What a magnificent rendering! Consider that c. 12 of the Book of Revelation introduces the Woman clothed with the Sun and her Son.

Thanks for opening our eyes to this great work.


Unknown said...

Cheers for your comments Frank :)

I don't think it is as surprising that Savonarola and his fellow monks would have moved to preserve the Medici library - so many of those works were monastic in origin - I saw a few of them myself earlier this year.

Despite Villari's claims, without evidence to the contrary what may or may not have been lost is speculation. We have very little account of what actually went into the fire. We can surmise however that paintings are more flammable than vanities, so it is not inconceivable that paintings and books of a certain nature went in!

What is telling though is that Botticelli never painted an overtly classical subject after 1497. Something changed in the man - he was not comfortable to be doing Venuses and Madonnas, and just stuck to the latter.

Had his classically themed works not survived, his legacy would not have been as prominent or influential to subsequent artists.

Think of Bernini's amazing "Daphne and Apollo" - and its amazing resemblance to figures of the Primavera. I am not sure if Bernini ever saw Botticelli's work, but he must have heard about it I imagine(at least from reading Vasari).


David Packwood said...

Excellent post H- I really enjoyed it.

I teach this painting often and I do wonder at Botticelli’s state of mind. I don’t know about psychoanalytic interpretations, but there might be something in Georges Didi-Hubermann’s book on Botticelli- Ouvrir Venus. It’s mainly about Botticelli’s representations of Venus though. I did a short post on GDH and Botticelli some time ago on the blog.

I know Hatfield’s article, and the point about number in relation to Savonarola is interesting. Numbers and prophecy seem to have fascinated the preacher. Edgar Wind detected the influence of S’ Dialogue on True Prophecy in the iconography of the Sistine ceiling; the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit compared to the seven prophets on the ceiling.

Savonarola must really have affected painters mentally, especially Botticelli. Michelangelo was made of sterner stuff. I think the full force of S’s influence on Botticelli can be seen in that harrowing “End of Days” painting at Harvard. A true Florentine apocalypse and no sign of Arnie to save them!

Unknown said...

Fascinating stuff David.

I think I must track down Ouvrir Venus!

It's interesting to note Botticelli also did a 'Mystic Crucifixion' which is also at Harvard, whose Museum has a fabulous online presence - including a great search facility

They dont seem to have an 'end of days' though - did it go by another name?


David Packwood said...

I meant to say it was the "mystic Crucifixion" which has an apocalyptic "end of days" mood to it.

Thanks for the Harvard link. This is a very fine museum, but I saw the paintings when they were still in the Fogg Art Museum, before the refurbishment. That would be about 2006-7 I thnk.

Unknown said...

Cheers for clarifying David :)

Botticelli did do some drawings for Dante's Inferno (for the Medici) that also have a despairing apocalyptic mood - but given the context of the work being illustrated, is less an example of his state of mind than the progression seen in his overall subject matter from the mid 1490s onwards.


Anonymous said...

I feel that the Mystical Nativity symbolises coming to terms with ones demons (shadow) in our human journey's. The human mystical experience of the divine feminine represented by Angelic embraces and the Virgin Mary provides redemption (the red, green, blue and yellow colors of Mary's robes and hair represent the Axis Mundi, the connection between heaven and earth). The Christ within us requires nurturing and sustenance as demonstrated by the hand gesture to mouth by baby Jesus. Notice also the pilgrims on the right of the nativity scene... no shoes...why I wonder... Mystical Nativity is very rich in symbolism, universal pointers for our life journey

Unknown said...

Thank you for your comments anonymous.

I'm going to have to go with Archbishop Rowan Williams' description of the Book of Revelations as "troubling, complex" extending to the painting - Intriguing as a case study in symbolism and psychology, but I'd rather have Titian/Giorgione's Pastoral Concert on my wall!


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