Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Nativity Essays: Meditation on Botticelli's Virgin Adoring the Child

Nativity blogging
for the Season of Christmastide 2014-15:
Sandro Botticelli's
The Virgin Adoring the Child

The Virgin Adoring the Child by Sandro Botticelli,
1480/90, tempera on panel, 23 3/16 in. diameter,
Samuel H. Kress Collection,
National Gallery of Art

Christmas morning craziness is over but it’s still Christmastide, the twelve days of Christmas that stretch from the midnight announcement of Christmas day to the Epiphany arrival of the three Magi.  The Christmas company has departed.  Alone at last, Mary watches over her baby.  This is a part of Christmas, too.

I’m too introverted to be comfortable with the classic Nativity scenes.  They’re typically crowded with kings and their retinues, shepherds flocking down from the hills, angels on rooftops and dancing with the stars, and a stable-full of oxen and asses.  To find Mary and the baby, you have to search through all the turmoil.

The Adoration of the Kings by Sandro Botticelli,
1470-75, tempera on panel,
National Gallery, London
Painting in Florence and Rome in the late 15th century, Sandro Botticelli had a knack for crowded Nativity scenes.  In this early Botticelli Adoration of the Kings, I count more than 50 onlookers, a half-dozen horses, and a peacock (it’s on the wall on the right).  If it looks like a parade, that’s because Botticelli was almost certainly working from impressions of his hometown’s famous Brotherhood of the Magi pageants, known for their opulence.  A sense of wealth overwhelms the humbleness of the manger setting.

Technically, Botticelli’s early crowd scene is impressive, with its high-Renaissance mastery of architectural perspective and its varied portrait gallery.  Botticelli skillfully utilizes the tondo (round) format that was becoming popular at the time for paintings designed for private devotions.  But this crowded house isn’t what I crave from a Nativity scene.  For my private Nativity devotion, I prefer quiet, mystery, and a dash of expectant hope (the same elements I always hope for in a Christmas Eve service).

Botticelli’s Adoration of the Kings tondo came early in his career, perhaps one of his first works after finishing an apprenticeship with Fra Filippo Lippi in his early twenties.  As Botticelli matured—and his artistry became even more assured—he continued to paint Nativities, Magi scenes, and virgin-and-child images.  With some of his paintings, he started to pare the crowds back, placing more emphasis upon Mary and the baby.

Detail, The Virgin Adoring the Child
by Sandro Botticelli,
National Gallery of Art
In The Virgin Adoring the Child at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, painted circa 1490 when Botticelli was around 45 years old, the Nativity is reduced to its barest essentials:  Mary and child.  Even Joseph is absent.  The only intruders into this pastoral scene are a discreet ox and donkey, content to keep to the shadows.

Mary crosses her hands in a traditional sign of resignation to the will of God.  As in all of Botticelli’s mature works, Mary expresses a sadness that acknowledges an awareness of her son’s destiny.  Jesus’ sacrifice is hers as well.  Her sorrow will continue unabated through the lamentation and Pieta depictions of Mary cradling the body of the crucified Jesus.  In birth and in death, the figure of Mary calls us to contemplation of the fragility of humanity.

Exquisitely framed by a ruined stable wall, this Botticelli tondo is a triumph of personal devotion imagery.  We are asked to enter into the spirit of Mary.  The world is quiet, the child calls to us, and we respond with grace.  Above, revealed in a corner of sky, the Star of Bethlehem still shines, trailing glory.

Detail, Virgin Adoring the Child
by Sandro Botticelli,
National Gallery of Art

Reference Sources

Botticelli by Barbara Deimling
Botticelli: The Artist and His Works by Silvia Malaguzzi
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages by Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya

© 2014 Lee Price

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