The Mystic Nativity

This is the last religious work we shall look at tonight, the strangest one, in which Botticelli addresses the mysteries of Christ. It's still the same subject as before, it's still a Nativity. This masterpiece is one of the most important one we have seen so far. It is in the National Gallery in London, where it has been thoroughly studied. Two mysteries surround this painting. On the first hand, this is the only work which Botticelli signed and dated, the only one of all the paintings he produced. On top, in five lines of text, he wrote in Greek: "I, Alessandro Botticelli, at the end of this year, 1501, have..." and it is thus signed and dated. 1501 is near the year of his death and, if it is signed and dated, it was to mark the event. On the other hand, it is the strangest Nativity one could possibly imagine: the cradle is still there, along with the donkey, the ox, the Virgin, Joseph, the Christ Child, but as for the rest, we are totally lost. There are no shepherds, no Magi; angels are everywhere, on the roof, in the sky, on the ground and people - people whom we don't really know, nor do we know the reason for their presence.

A study of this work, which was long thought to be eccentric, proved to be a revelation. Botticelli's maturity coincided exactly with the era of what was perhaps the century's greatest preacher: Savonarola. We must keep in mind that in the famous Lent sermon in 1499, a few days before Botticelli started this painting, Savonarola had told the Florentines: "Repent of what you have done, repent of your sins, distance yourself from the Demon, let yourself be won over by the angels, the only ones who can bring you to the Savior". This was only the framework, for Savonarola, as always, used all sorts of more explicit and more architectonic symbols. And the more we study the sermon and the work, the more we become aware that the work is, in effect, an illustration of the sermon. The circle of twelve angels corresponds to the twelve hours of the day and the twelve months of the year and can be found in Savonarola's words. The presence of the angels, who represent faith, hope and charity in white, red and green robes, were named by Savonarola. The angels, the same ones, in green, red and white, who come to save the humans by pulling them out of limbo, are again from Savonarola. The expelled demons, and we can see some here and there, are again from Savonarola. To put it simply, we realize that after a period of very esthetic Christianity, that of the first Virgins, the first tondos and what might be called the very social Christianity of the great Adorations, there was suddenly a signal event in Botticelli's career: the discovery of Savonarola. Botticelli's most inspired work is The Mystic Nativity, the last work of this first branch which we wanted to present to you tonight. We shall, moreover, have the chance, after having admired the pagan works, to see if "Savonarolism" was very important or only episodically significant to Botticelli, if it does or does not explicate the body of his work.

Details: angess crowned with laurels because they listened to Savonarola, urged on by the red, green and blue angels toward the Nativity are the right-hand group. In the center, an astonishing embrace of this angel and this Gentile, who are separating from one another, enabling us to clearly see the Devil trying to slip under a flagstone. A magnificent double movement, nearly a triumphal arch marking this composition's central focus.