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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.