Botticelli"s Mystic Nativity is, at first glance, the perfect Christmas image. What a shining, festive picture it makes as Mary and Joseph adore Jesus in a crude wooden hut in a rocky countryside, while mortals hug angels in the foreground. Hang on a minute. What are those devils doing disappearing into cracks in the ground? It is a Christmas parcel with a bomb inside.
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The Mystic Nativity depicts the end of the world. Dated to 1500, the half-millennium, it has a Greek text in which Botticelli declares that "I, Sandro, made this picture at the conclusion of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time according to the 11th chapter of Saint John in the second woe of the Apocalypse during the loosing of the devil....".
Mystic Nativity, by Sandro Botticelli, 1500
Mystical Nativity is one ofmany nativity scenes, with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, angels, and animals.
The circle of twelve angels at the top of the painting represent the twelve hours in a day, and the twelve months of the year. The angels represent faith, hope, and charity, dressed in the corresponding white, red, and green robes. The angels are pulling people out of a state of religious limbo, saving them from the demons.
At the bottom of the painting, seven demons are trying to escape under flagstones, fleeing to the underworld. Some are impaled on their own weapons. These demonic creatures are located at the bottom, where angels are embracing the gentiles, saving them from their own demons, causing the demons to flee. The largest figures are of Mary and Joseph, emphasising good over evil.
The main theme is one of peace. Christ came and peace was to reign. On the left are the humbly dressed Magi and on the right are the three shepherds. In each group, an angel is pointing them towards Mary and Jesus. Peaceful expressions are on each figure, while angels surround the area show their emotions above the manger scene, and dance with joy. Olive branches appear all around the painting symbolizing peace.
Look closely at the foreground of the painting where the seven devil-like figures are crawling back into the rocks. They cannot survive in an environment where both the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child have brought so much peace. Evil has fled and now peace can reign.
Botticelli used oil paints on canvas, instead of wood for this painting because the canvas could be rolled and hidden.. To create the heavenly dome in which the twelve angels are circling, he used the goldsmith’s craft which he learned as a boy, using gold-flecked paint. He used gold to create an untarnished heaven, knowing that gold does not darken or decay over time like silver does.
The Mystic Nativity is a vision of peace on earth, but it comes in a moment of crisis: the Nativity unlocks the prophecy in Revelations and human history ends in "rapture". Botticelli"s angels, spinning into paradise, are ecstatic; revolution hits the Holy Land.
At first glance everything in the picture is out of perspective. Botticelli deliberately rejects perspective, destabilising the painting, destroying pictorial order to make this a moment of absolute transformation. The Mystic Nativity is a reminder that millenarian change has not always been about a sponsor-friendly Dome.
This is a really radical take on the Resurrection. It is inspired by Millenarianism, whose followers believed that the world would come to an end, to be transformed as predicted in the Book of Revelation.
Mystic Nativity is an extremely beautiful pictorial equivalent to those sandwich boards reading "The End Is Nigh". But though Botticelli, like a number of Florentine artists, seems to have grown a bit odd as he grew older, he was not alone in his millenarianism. Such cults have been endemic in European history, and one version swept Florence just before the beginning of the 16th century.
Moreover, the end of the world had already begun, and people in Florence were living in the in-between period - "the half time after the time" - during which the devil is unleashed before the Second Coming of Christ. It can also be seen as an attack on the established church and city state rulers like the Medici family.
The painting emerged from Florence in a time when the fanatical preacher Savonarola held the city in its grip. He had been repelled by the town’s artistic glory and enormous wealth. He preached that this was a corrupt and vice-ridden place. A great scourge was approaching – and then his words had assumed a terrifying reality.
In 1494 a huge French army invaded Italy and 10,000 troops entered Florence so that the Florentines feared the King of France meant to sack the city. Savonarola stepped into the political vacuum; he met with the French king and persuaded him to leave Florence peacefully.
In their gratitude and relief the Florentines increasingly saw the friar as a prophet and his preaching attracted huge crowds to Florence Cathedral. Savonarola claimed that Florence could become the new Jerusalem if the citizens would repent and abandon their sinful luxuries – and that included much of their art. The youth of the city, like Mao"s Red Guard, took to upbraiding their elders. Taverns were closed, prostitutes driven away, good works done. In place of carnival, there were the "bonfires of the vanities" on which sinful mirrors, wigs, musical instruments and salacious paintings were heaped. His beliefs were made real as groups of evangelical youths went onto the streets to encourage people to part with their luxuries, their lewd pictures and books, their vanities, combs, mirrors. It seems that Savonarola bears directly upon the Mystical Nativity.
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Botticelli died in 1510. The Mystical Nativity remained hidden until the 19th Century. William Young Ottley, an art lover, keeper of paintings at the British Museum and generously bankrolled via a slave plantation in the Caribbean, bought up many paintings cheaply. At the Villa Aldobrandini he saw a small, unknown work, Botticelli"s Mystical Nativity. Botticelli was then in obscurity so prices were low.