The Religious Works

We'll look at these in chronological order. In the beginning it was difficult: it is true that Botticelli was the "cherished child of the gods", the Tornabuonis approached him, as did the Rucellais, and the Medicis were not long in following. The big problem, however - and this is a big problem for all young painters - is that Sandro Botticelli, still so young, was asked to create things as beautiful as those of his late master, in other words, Filippo Lippi copies. Let us not forget that he was trained by a archetypal Madonna painter, that Filippo Lippi had painted the most beautiful Madonnas ever. But Filippo Lippi was no longer there, so people turned to Sandro Botticelli to continue his work...


In the beginning, he was forced to make actual pastiches of his master's works, which is very noticeable in the somewhat ceramic line of the Virgin's face and the slightly stiff aspect of the Infant Jesus, the delicacy of the mixed pinks and blues, showing all the mastery of Maestro Lippi's hand.

Small Madonna for a donor

As time went by, albeit very quickly, we can see Botticelli completely divorce himself from what was being asked of him, the imitation and continuance of his master's work, to develop his own language. The lines became sharper in the good sense of the term, without the seductive and somewhat limiting plumpness, much more graphic. The lines are more demarcated, and the space has become plastic, that is to say that this lovely rostrum, with the landscape behind it, becomes very interesting. The donor is depicted here: Giovanni, one of the sons of the Rucellai family.

III-Madonna of the Sea

Later on, we come to works which are still more austere, and we shall see, at the end of this lecture, that Botticelli was an austere painter. A simple Virgin with a simple Child in front of a simple curtain opening on to the sea. This is one of Botticelli's most Venetian Virgins. It should be noted that this is the same type of formatting that the Bellinis would often use at almost the same period. One must wonder whether Botticelli, in an attempt break the Lippi mold in which he was being caught, wasn't stealing glances at Venetian painting, as if to free himself from an increasingly cumbrous past. This one is the prettiest of the three and is at the Academia in Florence. In 1993, it was established that this Madonna of the Sea was the right panel of a small travel diptych, the donor's portrait being the left one. There is a very beautiful portrait of Niccolo Rucellai by Botticelli in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, with a balcony and the infinite blue sea in the background. In Botticelli's Complete Works, Rucellai's portrait was reproduced on page 22 and the Madonna of the Sea on page 44 - nobody ever made the connection. As luck would have it, the two photographs happened to be put side by side: the same balcony, the same column, the same sea and the same mountains. The diptych was finally reconstituted, one half of which remains in Florence and the other in Naples, and allows us to put a date to Botticelli's wonderful liberation.
The Florentines who were commissioning these Madonnas were becoming more and more striking and acquiring more and more power. They wanted items which were more and more extraordinary, always larger and more beautiful. These young artists were pressured - each work had to be more magnificent than the last. The programs increased, always a Madonna with a Child, more persons were portrayed and fit perfectly in the round form, the tondo, a format which was very popular in Florence during the second half of the Quatrocento. Here is one of the first:

IV-Tondo with Eight Angels

V-Tondo of the Magnificat

Ornately framed, it belonged to the Pitti family. It depicts the Madonna writing the Magnificat, as though the Infant Jesus were dictating it under the angels' supervision.
But one day, Botticelli said: "No more Madonnas!" - or one can at least imagine him saying that. This is very curious as the Virgin of the Magnificat was the last of a very long series which marked the entire preparatory stage. One might think that Botticelli now felt that he had the means to really be reborn and the means to exist at the same time. He thus abandoned what was for him an exercise in style, the Virgin and Child and only came back to it much later and in a completely different manner: he devoted himself to a new subject, which was basically an "enriched" Virgin and Child, that is, the Adoration of the Magi. monomaniacally with the subject of the Adoration of the Magi. Last Tuesday, we saw that the Adoration of the Magi was a perfect subject for the Florentines, who were rich, prosperous and owned the most beautiful things on the planet - the Magi are their mirror image. Creating luxurious paintings of the procession of Magi was to pay homage to the reigning families. When Benozzo Gozzoli painted his famous Procession of the Wise Kings, he was paying homage to the Medicis.

VI-Adoration of the Magi

Botticelli painted a whole series of Adorations of the Magi, with the characters crowded closer and closer together, more and more extraordinary costumes and ever more violent colors. This very long Adoration of the Magi was certainly the front of a coffin.

VII-Adoration of the Magi

In the form of a tondo, it is superb. The Virgin is in the center of the composition with the Child, and one could almost say that all the other characters are choreographed around her, as though in some sort of courtly ballet, with extremely daring perspective vanishing points in this work, dominated by an architectural study, one of the more majestic that Botticelli ever undertook. The characters' turmoil in the lower half, this sort of chaos of color and line, is exorcised by the rigor of this austere, severe and desolate or near-desolate architecture which is represented in the top of this Adoration. Let us admire the detail of a horse's head, terrified by a small monkey clinging to one of the extras. We can now find many of the exotic details which we already saw appearing in Gentile da Fabriano's work during the 1420s.

VIII-Adoration of the Magi

This was painted for the Medicis. For the first time, and this is certain, the Medicis themselves "posed" as the magi; they didn't actually don the costumes, but Botticelli borrowed their faces to create this representation. Cosimo and his sons, Piero and Giovanni represent the Wise Kings, with Giuliano and Lorenzo as princes. All this in a composition no longer using a perfect circle like the preceding one, but a perfect triangle with the Virgins face in the peak. It composed exactly like the pediment of an ancient temple. This type of solemnity, along with its serenity, makes it one of Botticelli's greatest masterpieces of his first period. One must realize that at this point in time, Botticelli no longer used the bright colors that he and most of the other painters of this era used at the start of their careers. Instead, he played with them, smudging them, muting them in order to go from a grey to a blue and then back to grey, enabling a better transition to blue as we can see, in particular, on the sleeves of Lorenzo's garment . This is thus a painting, the virtuosity of which is absolutely stunning. And, for the first time, Botticelli has included himself in the corner of this Adoration of the Magi: the character to the extreme right, the young, blond man is Sandro Botticelli. This famous Adoration, known as the Medici Adoration, represents a major turning point in his career, and it has been looking back at its viewers since 1478, the date of this Adoration of the Magi.
We have nearly finished with the religious works, but there are still two or three important points to be raised. Let's take a look as the following work: it's the famous

IX-Saint Barnabas Altarpiece

A magnificent commission from Florence's richest guild, the doctors' and apothecaries ', for their church which was dedicated to their saint, Barnabas, the protector of medicine. Within this guild, there were all sorts of imaginable and unimaginable sponsorships, all the names in Florence are represented, and this was thus a very important commission. Botticelli agreed to paint this strange painting, which, as we have already seen, is made up of a Greek temple pediment showing us a Virgin and Child, surrounded by saints. The composition is surprising, as it is absolutely and totally immobile and hieratical: it looks like eight statues set down, one next to the other. What gives the piece its mobility is the presence of the superb angels parting the curtain of the Virgin's dais and revealing all the characters to the faithful. Let's also note the beauty of the color appositions, the very bottle green of Saint Catherine's garment on the left and Saint Augustine's much more firmly stated green; the two greens stand in counterpoint to the Virgin's royal blue mantle. Botticelli was already showing the adventurous sense of color that he will develop. One of the figures in this altarpiece would become famous: the image of Saint John the Baptist, which was long thought to be another Botticelli self portrait, but which simply remains a deeply moving face because of the piercing quality of the eyes that Botticelli gave him.


X-La 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: angels 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.
We shall now leave this Christian world to go on to the paintings of the pagan world, perhaps the most famous.