A VISION OF PARADISE: ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ by Botticini (1475 – 1476)

A VISION OF PARADISE: ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ by Botticini (1475 – 1476)

The Son, adored and nursed by the sweet Maid,

A thousand fold of love for love repaid.

Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced,

Next to His throne, her Son, His Mother placed;

And here below, now she’s of heaven possessed,

All generations are to call her blessed.

  • Thomas Ken (1637 – 1711)

The words of this beautiful hymn are brought to life by the painting in consideration. We are ushered into the great mystery that operates at three levels – the earthly, the intermediate and the heavenly.  At the centre of the grassy mountain-top lies an open white berth. The apostles huddle around it in awe and amazement for the berth of the Blessed Virgin Mary contains no longer her body but a meadow of lilies. As we join the apostles to gaze at the beauty of the fragrant flowers we are joined by two individuals, in particular a man and a woman, kneeling on either side of the plateau.

These individuals are no ordinary but the patrons of the painting. In 1474, Matteo Palmieri (1406 – 1475) commissioned ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin’ for his burial chapel in the Church of San Pier Maggiore in Florence where several members of his own family were already buried. Located nearly five hundred metres to the east of Brunelleschi’s Cathedral dome, San Pier Maggiore was one of Florence’s oldest and most prestigious ecclesiastical institutions.

The painting was executed by the Italian painter Francesco Botticini as a tempera on wood. Although originally installed in the Church of San Pier Maggiore (1477), the altar piece was taken down in 1784 when the Church was demolished. In the late 1880’s it was then purchased by the National Gallery where it continues to be housed. 

Matteo Palmieri the patron of the artwork, was a notable Florentine businessman, politician and diplomat. In 1427, he ranked among the top tax payers in Florence. A humanist scholar, he spoke several languages and wrote several books, the most famous being Citta di Vita or the ‘The City of Life’, a poem inspired by the famous Dante. In his poem, Palmieri describes himself climbing a mountain titled ‘The Mountain of Virtue’ in order to find God having first visited the horrors of hell. The mountain thus reflects his journey back to God where he encounters a vision of Paradise.

The Patron of the work of art

Palmieri is joined in this vision by his wife – Niccolosa di Seraggli who is depicted to the right in the painting. Niccolosa was the daughter of a wealthy Florentine banker. Sadly, Palmieri did not live to see the completed painting. However shortly after his death, Niccolosa renewed the commission of the painting with Botticini and probably asked him to depict her wearing the traditional clothing of a Florentine widow.

The Patrons wife

As the patrons kneel in adoration, beyond the hillock, the dreamy city of Florence sits still as she silently reflects the legacy of the Palmieri’s through her prodigious panorama. The perspective stretches south-westwards as the river Arno lazily winds through the theatrical walls, spires and domes of Florence. We can notice the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio in front of Palmieri while the spire of San Pier Maggiore can be noticed next to his right eye.

To Palmieri’s left is also depicted the Fiesole, the hillside summer retreat of the wealthy Florentines. Upon the bank of the river are depicted the patron’s farms and country villas treading up the slope.  Crowning the slope is the Badia Fiesolana, a former convent where the Duke of Florence, Cosimo de Medici had granted Palmieri the patronage of the Chapel of St. Romolo. Also displayed is the pristine river Mugnone and its bridge – Ponte alla Badia.

As we gaze at the charming city of Florence, this earthly paradise prods us to move beyond her beauty so as to seek the Heavenly Paradise that awaits us. We are drawn into this magnificent, mysterious and marvellous dome where Mary, the Mother of God and our Mother is united to her Son Jesus, the Alpha and Omega. Heaven and Earth combine at this great moment and rejoice at this great mystery. They are surrounded by ranks of neatly ordered angelic beings. The highest of these represent Councillors (Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones), followed in the middle by Governors (Dominions, Virtues, and Powers), and finally Ministers (Principalities, Archangels, and Angels) in the third row.

The apostles by Mary’s berth

Scattered among the angels are several Old Testament figures including Adam and Eve, covered in camel-skin who behold in delight the New Adam and the New Eve in the New Garden of Eden. The camel-skin bears witness to the Lamb of God who by His death won Salvation and Paradise for all of human race. King David, at this jubilant hour, joyfully plays the lyre even as the heavenly residents of hermits, martyrs, popes and prophets sing together in symphony ‘Ave Ave Ave Maria’. The painting forms a perfect portrait-picture of celestial bliss. 

Adam and Eve

As the heaven rejoices, notice the apostle Peter with his key at the centre of the mountain. He is seen beyond the commotion and the amazement of the apostles as he silently gazes at the meadows of lilies and contemplates upon their great mystery. Since antiquity, the flower lily symbolises purity and sings of the song of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who pure and free from sin, transformed the terrible terror of death into a peaceful, effortless transition into a new life and through this painting she offers us a Vision of Paradise!

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