THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Mystic Nativity’ by Sandro Botticelli
“Look, the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel which means ‘God with us’.”
The Nativity is a revelation of the extra-ordinary love of God. It has popularly featured in cultural art since ages. Among the hundreds of depictions of the Nativity, Botticelli’s ‘Mystic Nativity’ emerges as a tough nut to crack thanks to its complexity of structure and symbolism.
At first glance it is a perfect Christmas image. Mary and Joseph kneel on either side of the Christ Child. They are accompanied by shepherds and kings who in humble devotion adore baby Jesus. The heavenly attendants in divine ardour reveal to the participants the Mystery of the ‘Emmanuel’.
So far, so nativity!
However a closer gaze at the painting would reveal something extra-ordinary. The painting in consideration is remotely a ‘Merry Christmas’ illustration. It presents an unconventional plurality of reality. Let’s then delve deep into the mystery of Botticelli’s ‘Mystic Nativity’.
We are greeted at the top of the painting by a quote that is a mystery in itself: “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.“
Right below the quote, the sky opens in all its glorious golden grandeur. Twelve angels in joyful delight dance in a circular chorus hailing glory to the new born king. A perfect biblical number, twelve symbolises the months of the year, the tribes of Israel as also the number of stars in the crown of the woman of the apocalypse. It thus pronounces Mary as a mediator who takes our prayers to the Almighty in heaven.
In addition, every angel holds paper scrolls entwined with young olives and a crown. The words on the scrolls praise the Virgin Mary for the 12 privileges she received as the ‘Mother of God’. The angels are garbed in white, green and red. They thus embody the three principal Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. Right below them, upon the golden thatched roof are seated three angels announcing the fulfilment of the God’s word, of Word made Flesh.
Botticelli’s ‘Mystic Nativity’ is an instrument of prophecy that points to the death and the Resurrection of Christ. The cross on the donkey’s shoulder confesses the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem while the ox presents the Lamb of God as a sacrificial victim. The cave foreshadows the tomb and the swaddling cloth reminds us of the shroud in which Christ was buried. However the abundance of greenery reveals the everlasting salvation won for mankind through Jesus Christ. The apparent exaggerated size of the Holy Family echoes its significant prominence.
At the bottom of the painting, three angels embrace three men lifting their spirits in reconciliation to the newly found hope in Jesus Christ. How profound is this embrace that 7 demons (read 7 mortal sins) fling off through the goodness radiated and are struck by their own lances. It recalls Psalm 85: ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.’
An in-depth study of the ‘Mystic Nativity’ has proved that it is more than just a painting. It reflects the exigencies of the epoch. It is a revelation of the century’s greatest preacher: Savonarola who held Florence in his grip and posed as a charismatic prophet of the era. The painting derives its depictions from the friar’s fanatic Lenten sermons. Botticelli was said to have had a soft corner for the militant priest. When Savonarola was executed in 1498 for heresy, Botticelli immortalized him and his two loyal followers through the three uplifted men as seen at the bottom of the painting.
The pulsating pattern of Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity is upwards and downwards. While the topmost portion indicates heaven, the middle signifies the mundane and the lowest segment connotes hell. The reckoning of the damned is reminiscent of ‘the Last Judgement’ and the ‘Second (Nativity) or the Second Coming of Christ’. Thus the painting prods us to dwell not only on Christ birth but also His return; on Christ the Alpha and Omega; on Christmas yesterday, today and forever!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557
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