The Mystical Nativity
Tempera on canvas
108.5 x 75 cm
The National Gallery, London
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A painting of Christ's Nativity is often a comfortable Christmas card. Botticelli's picture is the reverse. It is the record of a spiritual struggle, a pilgrim's progress in which the pain is remembered.
On earth there is a strenuous convergence of diagonals. The paths and rocky walls zigzag angrily, their movements only slightly modified by the three figures in the foreground ('men of goodwill , as their fluttering scrolls inform us) who are receiving angelic comfort, and whose angular poses ascend in contrary direction to the plot of ground on which they stand. At the sides of the cave the scars in the rock are like the lances of an invading army, and within it there is a design of dangerous sharpness, as of some complex machine which will cause us pain unless we can master it. The sharpest point touches the Virgin's brow.
But above the roof the rhythm changes. The angularities of trouble are cut short, their halt made less abrupt by a fringe of trees, and there appears in the clear winter sky, capped by a golden dome, a circlet of angels so light, so free in their ecstatic movement from the discords of human conflict, that they remain in the mind's eye as the purest expression of heavenly bliss.
I seeThe Nativity is not one of those pictures which can be enjoyed through the eye alone. It is, in the best sense, a literary picture, to be read and slowly unriddled in the light of all that we can know about the painter and his times; and it even contains a long inscription which is an integral part of the whole. This is in Greek capitals, and, although it is unlikely that Botticelli knew Greek, it is obviously painted by his own hand. This is the only time he ever signed a painting, and clearly it had a special importance to him.
'I, Sandro, painted this picture', he says, 'at the end of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy'; and he goes on to state that, after a time foretold by St John, the Devil will be chained and 'we shall see him trodden down, as in this picture'. Actually, we do not see this. There are four minor devils who have been transfixed with lances; also both Botticelli's references to the Book of Revelation are incorrect. But the general meaning of the inscription is clear, and we are led to ask why the painter of the Primavera and The Birth of Venus comes to be in this apocalyptic state of mind?
Even in his early work what distinguishes Botticelli from the other artists of his generation is his spiritual tautness. While his colleagues were concerned with rendering the movement of the body, he was always occupied with the stresses of the soul. But this religious temper was complicated by an almost morbid hunger for physical beauty. And when the humanist philosophers of the Medicean circle persuaded him that the inhabitants of Olympus, even that witch Madam Venus, could be made to symbolise Christian virtues, we can imagine how willingly Botticelli accepted their fine spun arguments. But how little of a pagan he became! Nothing could be further from the thoughtless, full bodied, fruit like gods of antiquity than his anxious divinities. And in the early 1490's he received from the same patron who had ordered The Birth of Venus, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, a commission of a very different kind, an immense series of illustrations to Dante.
The Florentines of the fifteenth century studied Dante in much the same spirit as the Greeks of the fifth century (whom they so closely resembled) studied Homer; for information, for precept and for religious guidance. Botticelli's years of application to this task must have had a profound influence on his mind, and it is in the Dante drawings, of which over a hundred have survived, that one finds for the first time the uncorporeal lightness of his later work. They are the most Oriental works of Western art. They achieve their purpose by pure outline, which floats and dances with the same disregard of substance as thirteenth century illustrations to The Tale of Genji. The hard won laws of perspective, of which Botticelli had been the acknowledged master, are abandoned, and the figures are sprinkled over the pages like holy hieroglyphics.
Some of this oriental character survives in the Nativity. But compared with the decorations at Ajanta or Horajui, how complex is its design, how dreadfully urgent its message! This vision of joy and love has not been achieved, as in a Buddhist painting, by peaceful contemplation, but through participation in disasters.
Botticelli's experiences in the 1490's were such as would have bruised a stronger spirit than his. His patron and close friend, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, was the enemy of Savonarola. Yet Botticelli's brother Simone, with whom he shared a house, was an actual follower of the frate, and one cannot doubt that Botticelli himself was moved by the power of that high, haunting voice which had driven the Florentines into a state of hysteria. In 1497 his patron was forced into exile; in 1498 Savonarola's body was burnt in the Piazza della Signoria, and the conquering armies of France threatened the tranquillity of every State in Italy. By 1500 the troubles of Italy were real enough, and the most realistic mind in Europe was seeking for a saviour, though emphatically not for a Prince of Peace. There were also less real troubles. The two references to the Apocalypse in Botticelli's inscription remind us that just before the half millennium there was an outbreak of that fear of universal destruction which had afflicted men's minds five hundred years earlier, and from which we are not altogether free as the year 2000 approaches [nb - originally published in 1960.]. The night which preceded the blissful morning of Botticelli's Nativity must have been exceedingly dark.
The Nativity is in many respects an archaic work. Botticelli has accepted Savonarola's denunciation of realism, and drawn his Virgin and Child on a different scale from the subordinate figures, as a Byzantine painter would have done. He has made no attempt to create an illusion of depth, and has set the thatched penthouse in the centre of his scene, frontally to the spectator. The foreground figures have this same archaic flatness, as if to represent them in the round would be to introduce too strong a flavour of mortality. But such scruples need not be extended to Heaven, and the angels are far from archaistic. Ruskin called them pure Greek, and in fact their billowing draperies and thrown back heads do derive from the maenads of the fourth century. He also called them 'faceless', by which he meant he averted his eyes from their faces, because they are no longer pretty. SavonaroIan puritanism has made Botticelli renounce the physical beauty which he still thought appropriate to the blessed spirits in his Dante drawings. He has not been able to shake off the habit of sensitive observation on which his wonderful powers of draughtsmanship were based, and the thin arms are still drawn with delight. But the draped bodies are as angelically immaterial as anything in Byzantine art. This is the least sensuous dance in painting. If we join it, we do so with our spirits only, and as we move round the circle, swayed by the cross currents of draperies and wings, pausing at magical patterns of crowns and palmleaves, we may fancy that the heavenly music of the initiates may yet be audible to our corrupted senses. But for all its archaism and its renunciation of material things, the Nativity is not at all a 'precious work. It is, on the contrary, a strong picture, strong in design, grave in colour, vigorous in execution. Before a recent cleaning its strength was partially concealed by a tapestry like unity of tone, but now the interplay of colour enhances the energy of the design.
In the foreground wine-red draperies complement the mossy greens; to the right the shepherds are a subtle contrast of grey and brown, given life by the whitest angel in the whole picture. To the left the kings, although puritanically deprived of their regalia, are allowed more festive colours, and there is a Soft, rainbowish kind of pink in the angels' wings. But the central harmony, the grey of the rocks and the ass and the cold blue of the Virgin's mantle, is extremely severe, and reminds us that near the top of the Monte Sancto di Dio the air is too pure for human breath.
Cleaning has also heightened the contrast between earth and heaven. Only now, can we realise how clear and cold is the winter sky, and I confess that I had never before observed the small clouds, as jewel like as the clouds of Altdorfer, which infrinLe the golden dome. The painting of the foreground is much richer than I had supposed. The three groups have gained in importance and I am led to speculate on their meaning. Can these olive crowned martyrs be a cryptic representation of Savonarola and his two companions? Or do they, as seems more probable, symbolise all those who have come through great tribulation ? In either case these figures stretching out their arms to one another, their heads touching, their bodies far apart, are the visual equivalent to those reunions of the Blessed Spirits which reward us in the Paradiso.
The Nativity was the first of Botticelli's pictures to reach England, and when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1871 it seemed to confirm the spirit of pre-Raphaelitism in its second, poetic phase. The effect of the angels on Burne-Jones is obvious enough, although he was so far from the strain and struggle which underlay Botticelli's vision. For Ruskin, on the other hand, this latent hysteria was an added reason for enthusiasm, and set him off on one of his own most memorable visions: 'Suppose that over Ludgate Hill the sky had suddenly become blue instead of black, and that a flight of twelve angels covered with silver wings and their feathers with gold had alighted on the cornice of the railroad bridge as the doves alight on the cornices of St Mark's at Venice, and had invited the eager men of business below, in the centre of a city confessedly the most prosperous in the world, to join them for five minutes in singing the first five verses of such a psalm as the 103rd "Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me (the opportunity now being given for the expression of their most hidden feelings), all that is within me bless His holy name, and forget not all His benefits" do you not even thus, in mere suggestion, feel shocked at the thought, and as if my now reading the words were profane.'
Ever since I read this paragraph in The Eagle's Nest, over thirty years ago, it has been in my mind when I look at Botticelli's Nativity. It is not the kind of response to painting which has been considered acceptable during those years. But is it so far from Botticelli's intention? And, as this question forms in my mind, I begin to reflect on the shaky foundations of art history. Before the time of Leonardo da Vinci we have very little evidence of how painters regarded their art. Some scholars believe that they were simply craftsmen who derived all their ideas from learned patrons. Others assume that they were able to master the most complex systems of philosophy and embody them in their works. I do not know which is nearer the truth. But I am fairly certain that Botticelli was a man of the finest intelligence which he applied to the subjects of his pictures as well as to their design: that, for example, his St Augustine in the Ognissanti is the result of profound meditation on the Confessions, and that in the Nativity every movement has a meaning which becomes apparent only when we have steeped ourselves in the thought and imagery of his time.
Text from Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures.