Botticelli’s “Nativity”: an elusive mystery of time

Sandro Botticelli, “Nativity of Jesus,” 1500-1501, National Gallery, London. Image/Wikimedia

By Linda Brooks

Christian Biblical stories have been presented visually in numerous ways — from early symbolic scratches on hidden walls, to incredibly realistic detailed paintings, and then a return to symbolism in modern abstract paintings. But rarely does a painting transcend time in all of these genres. Such is the uniqueness of the masterpiece known as “The Mystical Nativity” by Sandro Botticelli completed in 1501.

At first glance, it is a classic Nativity scene — Mary and the infant Jesus resting in a grotto with a stylized roof signifying a manger. Joseph rests close by. There is a donkey and an ox, shepherds to the right and the wise men on the left. It would be a calm serene setting — if not for the strange angels.

There is tension in their movement, everywhere in the painting. On the manger roof, three angels read from the Bible. They are dressed in white, red and green, the colors of faith, hope and charity. Above them, 12 similarly-dressed angels circle, holding branches and ribbons suspended with crowns. Below in the foreground, another three angels embrace men rising from the ground, holding scrolls which proclaim in Latin, “peace on earth to men of goodwill.” At their feet, seven devils flee to the underworld, some of them wounded with their own spears.

Close up shows the Christ child lying on death shroud and staring at the cross on the donkey’s shoulder above Mary’s halo.

What is going on with this imagery? It is joy and celebration, but also fear and sorrow. This painting is showing not just Christ’s birth but his entire life and resurrection. The cloth loosely wrapped around the Christ child’s body is symbolic of his resurrection. He is not looking up to his mother but to the cross that is marked on the donkey’s shoulder, perhaps indicating his future arrival in Jerusalem. Botticelli is asking the viewer to think of Jesus’s birth and his resurrection.    

This is the only known signed work by Botticelli. Along the top there is an inscription in Greek that reads, ‘This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I, Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh [chapter] of Saint John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three and a half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth [chapter] and we shall see [him buried] as in this picture’.

Botticelli’s signature and inscription that appears across the top of the painting.

The quote reflects the fact that the late 1490s to early 1500s was a time of great turmoil in Italy. Botticelli, as well as much of the population, thought it was the end of days. The city of Florence feared war with France was imminent and the opulent Renaissance was transformed into the restrictive Reformation period.

A devil escaping to the underworld in lower left corner of painting.

The fanatical conservative preacher Girolamo Savonarola had urged people to repent for their extravagant lifestyles, or perhaps meet their fate as did the devils at the bottom part of the painting. There was no mass communications to compare voices, only the fear given by one voice.

We can look at this painting today and see the cycle of our own times — fear, war, death — are as continuous as birth and resurrection. Perhaps we can contemplate the beauty Botticelli has given us and be inspired by it. This is a season of great joy. Whatever troubled times Botticelli experienced have passed, as will our own difficulties in time.  

With material from Wikipedia and Gareth Leaney’s Art Blog.