I’ve added another section to my analysis on Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Child at this link. It introduces the painting’s connection to Leonardo da Vinci.
According to The Guardian newspaper, “the National Gallery in London is to make an exceptional loan of a painting by Jan van Eyck to a one-off exhibition celebrating the 15th-century Flemish master. Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir), one of the earliest dated works by the painter, will be among the star exhibits in Van Eyck – an Optical Revolution, which will open at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) in Ghent, Belgium, in February.”
The newspaper added that “theories abound as to who the sitter was” for Van Eyck’s Léal Souvenir. The “sitter” is also portrayed sat on a horse in the Knights of Christ panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. He is Pierre de Bauffremont (c1400 – 1472), Count of Charney and Lord of Montfort. He was Sénéchal of Burgundy and a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece founded by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Pierre was also married to Marie de Bourgogne, a legitimised daughter of the Duke. It was his third marriage.
Incidently, what is often referred to in the painting as a parapet, isn’t. It represents an inscribed foundation stone. The painting is also linked to two other works by Van Eyck, the Arnolfini Portrait and Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban. He also features in Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece.
The Uffizi Galleries in Florence will stage the first museum exhibition on Botticelli in China next September, as part of an unprecedented five-year exchange with the Hong Kong government’s culture department. Details at this link.
• Updates and additions to this post at THIS LINK
The Virgin Adoring the Child is one of many in a line of Mary-and-the-Infant-Jesus paintings by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. So what’s different in this Nativity portrayal? For starters, the artist has woven a representation of himself in his painting.
In Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects he devotes a chapter on the life and work of Sandro Botticelli. There is a notable anecdote in the biography that records a dispute Botticelli had with a neighbour who was a weaver. Botticelli confirms the incident in this painting, as well as another reference made by Vasari to Sandro’s health late in life. However, Botticelli uses the same iconography to apply other levels of meaning to interlock and weave with additional themes in the painting.
But first here is Vasari’s anedote about Botticelli and the weaver:
“Another time a cloth-weaver came to live in a house next to Sandro’s, and erected no less than eight looms, which, when at work, not only deafened poor Sandro with the noise of the treadles and the movement of the frames, but shook his whole house, the walls of which were no stronger than they should be, so that what with the one thing and the other he could not work or even stay at home. Time after time he besought his neighbour to put an end to this annoyance, but the other said that he both would and could do what he pleased in his own house; whereupon Sandro, in disdain, balanced on the top of his own wall, which was higher than his neighbour’s and not very strong, an enormous stone, more than enough to fill a wagon, which threatened to fall at the slightest shaking of the wall and to shatter the roof, ceilings, webs, and looms of his neighbour, who, terrified by this danger, ran to Sandro, but was answered in his very own words—namely, that he both could and would do whatever he pleased in his own house. Nor could he get any other answer out of him, so that he was forced to come to a reasonable agreement and to be a good neighbour to Sandro.”Text is from the ten-volume edition published by Macmillan and Co. & The Medici Society, 1912-14, sourced from The University of Adelaide
The stone building blocks rising above the Infant represent Botticelli – a kind of ‘Lego’ figure, with arms outstretched, bearing a stone, and supported precariously on two wooden poles. The ox’s horns represent the dilemma faced by the weaver. If the ox dislodges the nearest pole, then Botticelli’s stone may fall on the stubborn donkey below (the weaver) that seems to be oblivious to the danger and interested only in peering out from the woven fence, tempted by the straw in the manger. However, Botticelli implies that the weaver doesn’t have a choice with the stone structure appearing to rest on one horn only.
The ox is also symbolic of Luke’s gospel and the two vertical poles alongside are a reference to chapter eleven, in particular the verse about the Return of the Unclean Spirit.
The specific number of looms mentioned by Vasari amount to eight, which tallies with the unclean spirit returning to the man’s house (his soul) that had been swept clean, bringing with it seven other spirits, even more wicked. Eight in total.
Without realising it, Vasari also alludes to the two poles supporting Botticelli’s arms: He writes: “Having grown old and useless, and being forced to walk with crutches, without which he could not stand upright, he died, infirm and decrepit, at the age of seventy-eight…”
So here Botticelli depicts himself as still standing, stiff as stone, but upright with a straight back, even if with the aid of crutches, on a cornerstone representing Christ, and still very much capable of producing meaningful paintings. Notice also his head is turned, not looking into darkness but at the light radiating from the Virgin Mary. Notice also the light from the Bethlehem Star falling onto Botticelli’s ‘capstone’ head, in line with the light’s descent onto the Saviour.
• More Boticelli gems found in this painting on my website at this link.
There’s a likeness between these two portraits, the left being Henry Beaufort painted by Jan van Eyck, and the right being “A Goldsmith in his Shop”, aka a self-portrait of painter Petrus Christus.
A Goldsmith in His Shop painting is based on some of the panels from the Ghent Altarpiece completed by Van Eyck in 1432 and, just as his mentor, Petrus has applied multiple identities to his figures. Not only is the man in the berry hat a reference to John, Duke of Berry, but also a pointer to Henry Beaufort, the man with the golden touch; so rich he was considered the Midas of his time. The portrait also represents St Eligius and, as already mentioned, the artist himself, Petrus Christus.
But for this presentation the focus is on Henry Beaufort and one aspect in particular – his ear. In Jan’s portrait which precedes the completion date of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Lord Chancellor of England, whose fortune bankrolled kings and princes of Europe, is portrayed with a sharp razored hair style trimmed above his temple. The trim line runs down to his rather large ear.
Christus makes the same point in his portrayal except it is the sharp rim of the cap which extends down along the temple and over the top of the ear which is also rather large.
There is an explanation for this. Van Eyck was, as usual, playing word games and providing clues to anyone who wanted to play along. He was combining two words “temple” and “ear”, But first a trim is necessary – the last letter of the first word, and the first letter of the second word, the letter ‘e’ in both (and shaped as an ear!) – before the new word is formed: TEMPL-AR. (a new look, as the hairstyle!)
So did Van Eyck have knowledge of a connection between Beaufort and the Knights Templar? The organisation was disolved in 1312 and its assets transferred to another Christian military order, the Knights Hospitaller. Could Beaufort have stumbled on some of the Templar fortune possibly hidden at some time?
One of the many legends associated with the Templars is the Holy Grail chalice and connection to Jesus. The Templars were also said to have been keepers of Christ’s burial cloth, now referred to as the Turin Shroud.
Seemingly Van Eyck makes no reference to the Grail Cup, unlike Petrus who places it directly behind the ear in his portrait, but Jan does create a subtle reference to Christ’s tomb and eventual resurrection in Beaufort’s ear, often closed to the appeals of many and possibly even Van Eyck himself. Within the tomb is the shroud-covered corpse awaiting resurrection.
Supporting this point, Van Eyck makes a further reference to the Shroud and the tomb – Beaufort’s red garment, considered by many to be a cardinal’s robe. It isn’t, it represents a woolsack, symbolic of the tomb-shaped seat that the Lord Chancellor sat on in the House of Lords. The seat, without arm rests, was filled with sheep wool, hence the white wool trim. The white wool and its blood-colour cover symbolizes the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) and was considered a Templar symbol.
The ear reference appears several times in the Ghent Altarpiece which is centred on the Lamb of God. For instance, Henry Beaufort appears as the front rider in the group featured in the Just Judges panel and it is not without significance that his ear has been well and truly covered.
Again, there are other narratives relating to this symbolism, Here is one example: The deep-red crown of Beaufort’s fur hat in the image above points to the red cloak worn by another rider in the background. One of the identities of this particular rider is Humphrey Villersexel, Count de la Roche, and a guardian of the Shroud from 1418 until his death in 1438. Close inspection of the red cloak shows that Van Eyck has shaped the form of a shrouded face within the folds.
It’s not without reason that Van Eyck has connected the Shroud to the two outward riders in the group. They represent the two elements of the Pisces constellation that I pointed out in a previous post, Riders in the Sky. As always with Van Eyck he applies more than one level of meaning and understanding, but in this instance has specifically connected the two riders in this way to link to the Shroud.
It has been suggested that the Shroud may have been in England for safekeeping at some time in its history. Could it be that Beaufort, as bishop of Winchester and Lord Chamberlain of England, may have had some role in protecting or housing the Shroud?
More on this at another time, along with further references to the Shroud found in the Ghent Altarpiece.
Here’s another painting of Fioretta Gorini and her son Giulio portrayed in the role of the Madonna and the Infant Christ, one of many similar paintings by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. Not surprisingly it embeds features which point to Leonardo da Vinci, and not just because he painted the same woman in two of his paintings – the Benois Madonna, and later the portrait mistakingly titled Ginevra de’ Benci.
In his monograph, Botticelli Life and Works, Ronald Lightbown describes the adoration scene:
The composition of the small tondo of the Virgin Adoring the Child, painted around 1490, was repeated, as it deserved to be, in many workshop versions. The broken gray masonry of the stable in the foreground, converts the circle into a square within which the Virgin, wearing a pink robe beneath the deep blue of her cloak, kneels in the dark sward, adoring the Child who lies on the cloak’s end propped up by a bale of straw, stretching up his hands to her. The straw is painted with great attention: each outer straw is executed with a straight stroke, highlighted with touches of yellow. From the triangle of sky to the left of the thatched golden-brown roof, a gold star sends down its ray above the Child’s head. Behind, a duck swims on a pool; beyond are low dark-green undulations with a wooden gateway opening onto a path over bright green hills on the left. On the right is a brown fence and a river landscape. Such browns – pale tawny brown, golden brown, chestnut – are characteristic of Botticelli’s later pictures; so too is the conjunction of tawny and light green to give a delightful effect of pastoral gladness.Ronald Lightbown, Botticelli: Life and Work, pp 217-218
The painting is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the gallery’s date attribution is between 1480 and 1490. However, there are indications in the work that suggest it was produced after 1490, possibly as late as 1495. The painting may appear to be a simple portrayal of the Virgin and Child, but with Botticelli nothing is as straightforward as it appears at surface level. There is an underlying narrative that relates to the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonrola, a revolutionary figure in Florence between his arrival in the city in1490 and the time of his execution in May 1498.
My assessment for the date of the painting is not before the second half of 1498, and after the execution of Girolama Savonarola.
The Virgin Adoring the Child also inspired Mantegna’s Parnassus, said to have been painted in 1497, although some of its iconography does suggest a later date. Mantegna produced a second painting for Isabella d’Este’s studiolo, the Triumph of Virtues. This is dated between 1500 and 1502.
• More details on this in a future post