“Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity and the Impact of Savonarola”
Associate Professor of Art History
Art History Department
The basic ideas for this essay were put down in the late 1980s. In 2010, I added a new ending discussing Botticelli’s nymph-like angels within the tradition of a feminized Paradise most famously articulated by Dante. In February, 2012, I polished up the writing without adding any ideas.
This essay is the second of two dealing with the impact of Savonarola and penitential piety on the late works of Botticelli. The other essay, “Botticelli's Mystic Crucifixion and the Gendered Apocalypse of Savonarola,” should be read first because it contains an overview of Florence and Savonarola.
“Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity and the Impact of Savonarola”
Around the same time as he painted the Mystic Crucifixion, Botticelli created a Mystic Nativity which also drew on millennial piety while leaving psychological and physical violence behind in favor of joyous hope and expectation.
Few artists of the 1480s had done more than Botticelli to develop a detailed, worldly, graceful and sensual naturalism for modern Renaissance painting. As all observers have noted, the Mystic Nativity dramatically rejected the robust naturalism of the artist’s earlier style. Indeed, one might reasonably say that the elderly Botticelli repented of his earlier, “pagan” worldliness, as did his fellow humanist trafficker in erotic mythology, Poliziano. Instead of outward grace and seductive beauty, the Mystic Nativity introduced an intense, “Gothic” inwardness and an equally irrational space. Here a medieval system of hierarchical scale subordinating size to importance worked to obliterate the natural laws of one point perspective used in Botticelli’s earlier work. So too, Botticelli dissolved his blue sky into a gold, supernatural opening around which angels dance in jubilation. At the same time, he made this visionary opening recede in space, affirming at least a modicum of traditional perspective. The painting was no less unusual in its subject matter. Although it depicted the birth and worship of Christ, the painting’s inscriptions and symbolism also referred to the second coming, the Day of Judgment, and the life hereafter.
At the right, Botticelli painted two simply dressed shepherds wearing crowns of celestial triumph. They kneel in worship while angels direct their attention to the infant Christ. On the left, he symmetrically placed three somewhat more attractively dressed figures which probably represent the magi. Whereas earlier Florentine depictions of the magi such as Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi and Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi gloried in their courtly wealth and splendor, Botticelli dressed the magi is much simpler clothes and removed their precious gifts as if they had repented of their worldliness. He also gave them and the shepherds more rustic, laurel crowns elaborating the familiar Christian metaphor of salvation as a crowning. Derived from the Book of Revelations and elaborated in Medieval and Renaissance discussions of apocalypse and salvation, Botticelli made explicit the crown of salvation by having his twelve dancing angels dangle nine star-tipped celestial crowns of gold as rewards for the faithful.
Following traditional Christian exegesis and earlier Florentine art – seen in the Apocalyptic images and heavenly gardens in Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi, Botticelli also allegorized the journey of the shepherds and the magi as the soul’s inner journey or pilgrimage to God and to the heavenly sphere. In part, he did this by bringing the magi and shepherds together, erasing social hierarchy in a symmetrical vision of shared humility, worship, and spiritual travel. Although this perfect social harmony drew on conventional millennial rhetoric and traditional ideas of Paradise, it also drew on the civic spirituality of penitential confraternities in Florence and other Renaissance towns which routinely affirmed a heavenly civic body and unity beyond class.
To clarify this ideal of heavenly unity, Botticelli brought the kings back a second time in the foreground in the full peace and joy of a salvational embrace with angels. Here viewers could glimpse that perfect future when they finally saw God “face to face”. (Such embraces and kisses appeared in earlier depictions of Heaven by Fra Angelico and Giovanni da Paolo and continued in later art such as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.) To underscore the salvational meaning of this embrace and the soul’s final victory over Satan at the end of time, Botticelli sprinkled the same foreground with scenes of defeated demons crawling back into their dark holes.
The conflation of Christ’s First and Second Comings was not an idea invented by Botticelli. It was a commonplace in patristic writing and was elaborated in the liturgical hymns and readings of the Advent season from the earliest days of the church. i Nonetheless, the focus of Italian Renaissance nativity scenes remained on Christ’s first coming. Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity was highly unusual in its thematic and stylistic departures. Inspired by the millennial piety of Savonorola, the artist used the first advent of Christ to symbolize the Second Coming while using the approaching shepherds and magi to allegorize the soul’s journey toward glory and bliss.
Classical Nymphs, Platonic Humanism, and the Feminized Angel
Although the Mystic Nativity departs from the Renaissance beauty aesthetic which Botticelli helped pioneer in works such as the Primavera, the later Nativity retains important traces of the Platonic beauty central to Botticelli’s mythological paintings. One place is the lush green of the landscape which offers an abstracted version of a Paradise garden, We should also attend closely to the sensual figures of the ten dancing angels. With their long hair, full hips and bottoms, flowing, dress-like robes and circular movement over in a verdant landscape, these angels are clothed, spiritualized versions of the dancing Graces seen in the Primavera. Or rather, the Graces and the later angels are both versions of a more common type – the classical nymph – who appears frequently in Botticelli’s oeuvre. Examples include Minerva and the Centaur, Birth of Venus, Venus and Mars, and Judith and Her Maid with the Head of Holofernes.
At a time when fourteenth and fifteenth-century Florentine humanism had already remade the classical nymph as a chaste follower of Diana, it was easy for Botticelli to transform the dancing classical nymph into a chaste, dancing angel. Already a long tradition of Florentine writers such as Boccaccio, Petrarch, Poliziano, and Lorenzo de’ Medici has developed elaborate tributes to the perfect beloved as a chaste “nymph”. Her nymphal purity always went hand in hand with great physical beauty and worked not to suppress male desire but to inflame it while transfiguring and ennobling passion into a more legitimate, Platonic love. In that sense, purity was the chief license for erotic verse and visual representation and for the growing literary and artistic pursuit of female beauty in pagan terms. No artist did more in the late fifteenth century to make classical nymphal beauty central to Renaissance painting than Botticelli.
Botticelli’s decision to turn down sensuality and turn up Christian chastity in his dancing angels also drew on a broad late medieval and Renaissance literary tradition which transcended its most important, originating author, the Florentine poet, Dante. For all later poets, especially Petrarch, his Divine Comedy set the cardinal example of erotic desire sublimated and redeemed by the pursuit of a chaste, heavenly beloved (Beatrice). It was Dante who turned his lady love into the first, unofficial, female angel and who unleashed a torrent of late medieval and Renaissance poems raising the beloved into a celestial or angelic sphere of purity, chastity, and spiritual perfection. That Dante did this without abandoning Beatrice’s external beauty, despite his many professions to the contrary, shows the expressive power of female beauty within its more chaste, heavenly or angelic form. Framed by the celestial sphere and by the idealizing yet highly poetic rhetoric of immaterial light, Dante was more, not less, free to develop elaborate tributes to Beatrice’s “heavenly” beauty. Fifty years later, humanist pioneers such as Petrarch and especially Boccaccio dramatically increased the sensuality of the chaste beloved and introduced the pagan figure of the “nymph” as a more earthy, modern, and fashionable metaphor for the perfect beloved. From Boccaccio to Botticelli, poets and artists interwove the chaste angel and the chaste nymph even further, simultaneously eroticizing chastity and spiritualizing desire.
If Botticelli’s ten dancing angels were Christianized versions of his earlier pagan nymphs, those nymphs were already Christianized in their ethereal, elongated, dematerialized grace and floating elegance. Reformulated as dancing angels and relocated to the celestial sphere in an allegorical Nativity suffused with visions of the Second Coming and heavenly paradise, Botticelli’s angels borrowed Dante’s idea of a feminine Paradise seen most perfectly at the conclusion of the Paradiso where Beatrice and Mary occupy center stage and Christ is mentioned only briefly. ii
Botticelli's Late Style as an Unappealing Option for Renaissance Art Around 1500
Like other late works by Botticelli, the Mystic Nativity offered one alternative to the potential secularity of later Early Renaissance naturalism. Yet in its backward-looking style, abandoning much of the "progress" self-consciously won by early Renaissance painters, it was not to be an influential solution. Already twenty-five years earlier, Leonardo had introduced a more compelling alternative, a forward looking solution to these problems which managed to be both more carefully "studied from life" on the one hand and more ideally beautiful and spiritual on the other so as not to obscure the visual sense of the sacred. This is the style art historians later dubbed the High Renaissance style and which was adopted by all the best young artists within ten years of Botticelli's Mystic Nativity.
i See Gordon Kipling
, Enter the King. Theater, Liturgy, and Ritual in the Medieval Civic Triumph
, Oxford, 1988, 25-27
To be sure, these dancing angels are not explicitly identified as women, presumably because there are no female angels, at least not until the 18th
centuries. It might be better to see these angels as feminized and androgynous young men, in line with Botticelli’s oft-noted devotion to androgynous men. See, for example, his pretty boy angels in the Madonnas
, the Mars of the Venus and Mars
and the Mercury of the Primavera.
This nexus of woman and angel would gather steam in poetry and art through the seventeenth century, continue as a lesser theme through the eighteenth century – and explode in the Gothic Revival and medievalism of the nineteenth century as the male psyche coped with disturbing changes by retreating into a domestic paradise of angelic women.
(For more on the Renaissance nymph and the idea of female celestial beauty, see the essays on these topics under Essays: Thematic