MARY A MASTERPIECE – ‘The Madonna of the Book’ by Sandro Botticelli, Poldi Pezzoli Museum; 1480 – 1483

‘Every mother, when she picks up the young life that has been born to her, looks up to the heavens to thank God for the gift which made the world young again. But here was a mother, a Madonna who did not look up. She looked down to heaven, for this was heaven in her arms.’ – Venerable Fulton Sheen

 The words of the famous Archbishop resound through today’s masterpiece titled ‘The Madonna of the Book’ or ‘The Madonna del Libro’. Although small in size, the pictorial unity of this beautiful composition bridges the human and the divine through a mystery that predominates all of history. Preserved in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum, the painting was executed by the lyrical Botticelli between 1480 and 1483.

Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, known as Sandro Botticelli, was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. Born in Florence, he was initially trained to be a goldsmith. However, in his mid-teens, he was smitten by the world of painting. He soon found his niche in a city overflowing with creativity. Leading at the cutting edge of art, the brilliant Botticelli came to be renowned for his delicate yet dramatic paintings.

The intricate philosophy of his art is remarkably rendered in ‘The Madonna of the Book’. We are drawn to its serenity and yet taken aback by the overflowing grace. The Blessed Virgin and Christ Child are presented in a devout domestic setting. Seated by a window in the corner of a room, the Blessed Mother holds, rather prays from the Book of Hours or the Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis, a common thirteenth-century prayer book.

As Mary reads the Word, does she recall her treasured words at the Annunciation? ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, Let it be done to me according to Thy Word.’ Woven to the Word, the Blessed Virgin was attuned to the will of God. The Word took home in her and became Flesh. Jesus, the Word Incarnate, now sits in her lap and admires His Masterpiece.

Notice the other interesting insights. The Madonna’s tilted head corresponds to that of the Christ Child while their hands are placed at a diagonal. The unity of the composition echoes the purity in their relationship. However, the Virgin’s countenance is thoughtful. Her gaze is directed to the nails and the Crown of Thorns wrapped around her Son’s hands. Would this not reflect their undeniable unity in His Passion? The sword that would pierce the Son’s side would also pierce the Mother’s heart.

Botticelli captures the essence of the moment through iconography. Notice the set of boxes and the maiolica bowl of lush fruits depicted in the background. Lifelike, they also bear an emblematic meaning. The cherries and the figs reflect the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ while the plums pursue the intimacy of the moment.

Like every child, the infant gazes at His mother’s gentle appearance. He seems to read through her eyes and pray through her words. They share a relationship beyond understanding. Notice the brilliant blue robe of the beautiful Madonna. It mirrors the celestial stillness of the sky, representing heaven. Now notice the blue headdress that clothes the Madonna’s beloved babe. The Madonna adoringly looks down to heaven, for this is heaven in her arms and Heaven, not only gazes at the Blessed Virgin but affectionately wraps itself around her.

© – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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