The Mystical Nativity

In keeping with our Jesus theme this month, let me present The Mystical Nativity by Sandro Botticelli:

The first interesting thing about this painting is that it’s the only work Botticelli ever signed. The next interesting thing is that it was influenced by Girolamo Savonarola, the friar who took over Florence when the Medici family was overthrown. He was quite self-righteous and had some strong opinions about how Christians should be living. Savonarola thought most of the Florentine Renaissance art showed “moral weakness” and ordered it burned. 

Sidebar: Here are some of my moral weaknesses: chocolate, caffeine, naps, bread, the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, Netflix. To name a few.  

The jury is out on whether Botticelli was a follower of Savonarola, but either way a bunch of his paintings were burned (maybe he did that himself, maybe Savonarola’s men had it done.) The Mystical Nativity, however, did not burn, and there is evidence it was heavily influenced by one particular sermon Savonarola did about Jesus’ death. Funny, because it’s a nativity scene, but there are some foreshadowing bits like the cave in the back (reminiscent of Jesus’ tomb) and the sheet on which Jesus sits is representative of the shroud he is wrapped in about thirty-two years later.

Botticelli must have had an inkling the painting would create a ruckus because rather than paint it on wood as he normally would have, it is on canvas so it could be rolled up and hidden more easily. Which it was. For about 300 years before art lover William Young Otley bought it (nobody even knew who Botticelli was at that point!). Today it hangs in the National Gallery in London. Good thinking to put it on canvas, Sandro!

Infared technology has revealed the inscriptions on the angels’ ribbons as the twelve privileges of Mary, which Savonarola preached about. There is also a Greek inscription on the top, which was calls back verses in Revelation, another part of Savonarola’s sermon. At the bottom angels are embracing Gentiles, and if you look carefully there are demons escaping into the underworld, where they can just STAY PUT. Secret inscriptions? Somber foreshadowing? Demons in the nativity? This really is a Mystical Nativity.

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