Botticelli's Mystic Nativity
This was probably painted as an aid to devotion for a private patron in Florence. It is the only picture that Botticelli signed, which may suggest it has some particular significance - or may be because his patron requested a signature. It now hangs in the National Gallery in London.
At the top of the picture is a gold band bearing the Greek inscription, 'This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, following the eleventh 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 and we shall see as is shown in this picture.' The ‘half-time after the time’ is from Revelation 12:14. It was taken as meaning halfway through the second millenium: the year 1500. Some translations of the Bible render ‘time’ as ‘year’, thus losing the point made here. The other references are to Rev. chapters 11 and 12.
Start at the top corners of the picture, striking a line from each to the bottom corner diagonally opposite. These lines cross at the centre of the picture, which is the juncture of the ass’s body and neck - the hinge, as it were, from which its neck is bowed in worship before the infant Jesus, showing the whole of Creation worshipping Him.
There are two levels in the picture: a celestial and a mundane. This is an indication that there are two levels of meaning, which we’ll look at below. The highest points within the mundane level are the tops of the trees on either edge of the picture (the olive branches in the centre, which link heaven and earth, are carried by angels and so belong to the celestial level). Strike a line from each of these to the bottom corner opposite: the lines cross at the hand of Jesus, raised in blessing, which is thus identified as the centre of the mundane sphere, of our world. Mary kneels in prayer. Joseph, who bears the same name as the dreamer of dreams in the Old Testament (Gen. 37:5) and who received all his important information in dreams (Matt. 1:20, 2.13, 2.19) appears to be asleep. On our right kneel the shepherds, on our left the Three Kings. The pillars supporting the stable roof separate them from the central scene. Only the arm of each accompanying angel crosses this divide, directing their adoration. But they remain outside. These two groups wander into the story, adore the Infant, then wander straight out again, never to reappear, for the time of the full revelation is not yet come. Botticelli’s viewer, however, is not thus separated from the scene. The path leading from the bottom left corner takes us straight to the centre, where we worship with Mary, mother not only of Jesus, but of the Church; of, therefore, us.
But what’s so ‘mystic’ about this nativity? There are paintings to be looked at and there are paintings to be read. For all the visual beauty of the work, this is one that demands to be read if its inner beauty is to be discovered. As the picture is divided into celestial and mundane, so are there two lines of approach, one from the celestial, one from the mundane. The mundane approach begins from the world - from the viewer. It is a general rule that if the artist paints a path it is because he wants us to follow it, a rule all the more true if that path begins at the very front of the picture, with the viewer. We can, then, follow that path from the bottom left corner.
There is a stumbling-block in the figures of the angelic embraces in the foreground (as indeed there is a stumbling-block in the pathway directly behind them). The assumption of the modern age is that standing upright must be better, more worthy, than kneeling. So the angels are seen as gradually raising the mortal to his feet, from right to left. But follow the path: the angels, the colours of whose garments show them as representations of the virtues of Hope (green), Faith (white) and Charity (red) are bringing us, the viewer, to our knees, which is the only appropriate posture for approaching the manger. See the devils scattering as we are brought to this attitude of prayer; notice that there are no more devils beyond this point. Critics such as Kenneth Clark say that we do not in fact see the devil dealt with as Botticelli’s inscription claims. But we do. The Infant’s energetically raised leg refers us to the promise of Genesis 3:13, that the offspring of Eve shall bruise the serpent’s head. Jesus is no longer wrapped in the swaddling clothes that are a presage of the grave-clothes in which He will be wrapped after the Crucifixion, but has cast them aside. Note the open cave, with its reference to the empty tomb from which the stone has been rolled away. While many pictures of the infant Jesus show him with the instruments of His Passion, the references here are to Christ Resurrected. It is that which buries the beast - an act in which we partake as we approach the manger on our knees.
The path leads us on, past the Kings, whose worldly wisdom has led them here; past Joseph, that Good Man who performs his duty in the world while keeping his heart centred on that Mystery to which he is so close, without needing to fully understand it; past the shepherds, those wanderers across the face of the earth, who have no true home but this stable. The winding leads us round, past the Infant, till with Mary, as part of Mary for she is the Church, we kneel before Him to receive His blessing.
The main scheme on which the painting is composed, however, leads us from the top downwards. This scheme is the Lord’s Prayer. More particularly, it is Dante’s restatement of it that is, gem among gems, one of the sublime glories of the Purgatorio (Canto XI, 1-21). Botticelli’s many illustrations show how closely he had studied the Comedia. ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, not circumscribed but by the greater love Thou hast for Thy first works on high.’ This is the gold band at the top of the picture: the impenetrable light within which God dwells. The inscription is thus contained, as it were, within God, all ends being His to determine.
‘Praised be Thy name and Thy power by every creature, for it is right to give thanks for all that so sweetly flows from Thee.’ Here we have the choir of angels, circling, singing His praise: Gloria in excelsis deo. Notice that none of the angels at this level is clad in green, for hope is an irrelevance when this close to God. Indeed, although this is hard to see on a reproduction, the ‘green’ angels in the dance have had their garments painted over with the gold of divinity, showing hope in its final consummation.
‘May the peace of Thy kingdom descend upon us, for if it comes not, we cannot reach it by ourselves, for all our efforts.’ This is the three angels on the stable roof - the same three angels that are in the foreground leading us towards the manger. It is often said that they hold a song-book, but in so carefully thought-out a work as this, the idea that angels might need a songbook to tune their praises would be a curious lapse. It might be the book of the Law; it might be the Prophets, the angels reading the prophecies of the Messiah that are now fulfilled; more likely, in view of Botticelli’s theme, it is the Revelation of St John and this is the loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night (Rev 12:10). These angels are not arranged in a closed circle, as in common, for example, in depictions of the three Graces. Their arrangement, like people sitting on three sides of a table, leaves a place for us, the viewer, who is read to directly.
‘As Thine angels make their will a sacrifice to Thee, singing hosannas, may us men do the same of ours.’ Now we have reached Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, whose will was utterly conformed to that of the Father.
‘Give us this day our daily manna, without which in this dry desert who most labours to advance falls backwards merely.’ This is the infant Jesus Himself, who has come into the world to be our manna, the Bread of Life.
‘And as we forgive everyone for the wrong we have suffered, in Thy mercy forgive us, and look not on our deserving.’ This is the first of the three angels in the foreground, the red angel of Charity. Now we do have the upward motion, rising from our knees to our feet, but for rather different reasons than those usually assumed. Being on our knees is not a failing, a sign of weakness from which we must be released. It is entirely fitting to us, for it is only by being in that posture (The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord) that we render ourselves capable of being formed into something truly and fully human, as shown here by our being raised to our feet.
‘Do not test our resolution, that surrenders so easily, in struggle with our old enemy...’ Here the white angel of Faith prevents us being submitted to the temptations to which we so easily succumb.
‘... but free us from him who so goads us’. Finally, we reach the green angel of the Hope that we shall be delivered from those temptations to which we have already succumbed. As the prominent placement of the angels with the book suggests, this is indeed a picture to be read.
Image from Mark Harden’s excellent Art Archive. Definitely worth a visit!