Heads of state

Seeing double… Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV… adoring the Infant Saviour

In my previous post I pointed out that in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, the figure of Joseph is leaning on a stone shelf which depicts Leonardo da Vinci as the head of the Great Sphinx. It wasn’t the first time Botticelli had portrayed Leonardo as the Sphinx. He had used the motif in an earlier work when he and other Florentine artists were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The commission was seen as a gesture of goodwill in building the peace process between Florence and the Pope in the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and assassination of Giuliano de’ Medci.

I also mentioned that the two tree trunks supporting the roof of the building housing the Holy Family represent the Roman numeral IV – four – and made the connection to the pharaoh Thutmose IV.

Now the numeral can also be understood as a pointer to Pope Sixtus IV, born Francesco della Rovere.

The two supports are from oak trees. Some oak leaves sprout from the vertical support even though it has been stripped of its bark at the base and so starved from nutrients and therefore any future life, a likely reference to the figure below of the hanged assassin Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli, who served on the side of Sixtus in the pope’s efforts to remove the Medici family from its power base in Florence.

The Pope’s family name of Della Rovere means “of the oaks” or “the place of the oaks”. So here we see Botticelli expressing the Pope’s desire to take control of the Florentine Republic of which Lorenzo de’ Medici was the de facto ruler.

Art historians generally agree that the figure kneeling in front of the Infant Jesus is Lorenzo’s grandfather, Cosimo de’ Medici, but it also depicts Pope Sixtus IV as head of the Church on earth, and so a bridge (pontiff) between heaven and earth, a crossing into the promised land, not only led by Moses as described in the Old Testament, but also through the death and resurrection on the new-born Saviour, Jesus – hence the hands of Cosimo and Sixtus clasping the feet of the Infant. The two families, the Medici and the Della Rovere, are shown united in a symbolic sign of reconciliation and peace.

It was Pope Sixtus IV who built the Sistine Bridge across the Tiber in Rome. Notice the river-bend shape of the white scarf draped around his shoulders. Seen as Cosimo, the drape represents a waxing crescent moon.

There is another reference to ‘the place of oaks’ – the head of Sixtus – shaped as an acorn with its cup and nut. It’s gaunt appearance is reminiscent of some of the skull studies in Leonardo’s anatomical drawings and is meant to act as a ‘bridge’ to the sculpted head of Leonardo portrayed in the ‘rockface’ above. Which brings me back to the start of this post and the mention of Botticelli painting a similar motif in an earlier work.

For this we have to return again to the Sistine Chapel and the connection to Moses leading the Israelites to freedom from Egyptian captivity. The particular fresco is the Trials of Moses (or the Youth of Moses) painted on the southern wall.

My next post wil explain how and why Botticelli has linked references to Leonardo da Vinci in this fresco and the Uffizi Adoration.

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