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The Mystical Nativity of Botticelli

As the celebration of Christmas draws near, countless people all over the world will be reminded of the religious origins of the holiday. During the Renaissance, the observance of Christmas was a major religious event. Consequently, the birth of Jesus Christ was an extremely popular theme in Renaissance paintings. The Mystical Nativity, painted by Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli, however, is not only a representation of the birth of Christ but a meaningful reflection of the political and religious unrest that permeated Italian life around the year 1500.

To see an image of The Mystical Nativity, click here.

To see a zoomable image of The Mystical Nativity, click here.

Painted in tempura on canvas and about 42 inches x 29 inches in size, The Mystical Nativity depicted the birth of Jesus in a stable surrounded by the familiar angels, shepherds and wise men as well as his earthly parents and barn animals. But this is where the similarity to other nativities and to Botticelli’s earlier works ends. The painting is rife with symbolism, some of which has been deciphered by scholars and some of which remains a mystery to this day.

Around the year 1500, Botticelli, as a resident of Florence in Italy, was influenced by the preachings of Savonarola, a Dominican monk who was urging the citizens of the city to repent of their ungodly ways and give up their luxuries. It was Savonarola who initiated the “bonfire of the vanities” in 1497 in which Florentines were urged to throw their worldly goods, such as fine clothing, books, furnishings and even paintings, into a fire. During this period of religious fanaticism, there was also political unrest. Piero de' Medici who ruled the state after his father, Lorenzo the Magnificent, provoked opposition to the Medici due to his weak rule and the Medici were driven out of Florence. Savaronola took advantage of this momentary lack of leadership and snatched power for himself, exercising considerable influence over the people. Botticelli himself is believed to have thrown a significant quantity of his artistic works into the flames and modified his style to better suit the aims of the fiery preacher.

The inscription at the top of The Mystical Nativity is written in Greek and says: “This picture I, Allesandro, painted at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, in the half-time after the time, during the fulfillment of the eleventh of John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, when the Devil was loosed for three and a half years. Afterwards he shall be chained according to the twelfth and we shall see him trodden down as in this picture.”

What Botticelli seems to be referring to is the time of peace St. John describes in the Book of Revelations that will follow a period of extreme turbulence. It appears that Botticelli believed he was living in the tumultuous times that were predicted in the eleventh chapter of the Apocalypse. In the time of peace, a woman was to appear and give birth to a child. Since many identified this woman of the Apocalypse with Mary, the mother of Christ, it is likely that Botticelli chose to use a nativity to represent this event predicted in the Bible and foreseen by Savaronola as occurring by 1503.

The angels at the top of The Mystical Nativity are thought to be holding olive branches, traditional symbols of peace, and the three angels positioned on the roof of the stable appear to be reading a book which is most likely the Bible. The three sets of embracing men and angels are possibly meant to convey the joyousness of the occasion and their banners say: “On earth peace to men of goodwill.” The ground is strewn with devilish figures that appear to be bound to poles and “trodden down.”

Although the painting is obviously elaborate, it lacks the ornamentation and richness of Botticelli’s earlier works. The Kings, thought to be to the left of the stable, do not wear royal costumes but instead, simple and somewhat somber garments. Neither Mary nor the infant are dressed in an elaborate fashion and Mary has an almost flat look as in Byzantine art, perhaps indicating her holiness as compared with other mortal individuals in the scene.

Even though experts have unraveled some of the mysteries surrounding The Mystical Nativity, questions remain. Is there significance to the colors of the angels wings? What do the falling crowns mean? Why does Joseph appear to be sleeping? Why is there a cave inside of the stable? As with many old works of art, the meaning the artist intended to convey is lost in time. But what is clearly seen in Botticelli’s The Mystical Nativity is an artist’s response to social unrest and upheaval during the time in which he lived.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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