This large tondo-format Nativity scene (without its frame) is four feet in diameter! Titled Adoration of the Christ Child, it is one of many Nativity paintings produced by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. This particular version is dated c.1500 and housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.
The museum’s website provides this description:
“At once narrative and symbolic, this elegant painting by Sandro Botticelli expands the conventional theme of the Adoration of the Christ Child. In the central scene, the gracefully arched bodies of Mary and Joseph echo the contours of the round picture format.
“The Virgin Mary kneels in veneration before the Christ Child, while Joseph sleeps. The infant lies stiffly on Mary’s cloak, parallel to the picture plane and presented to the devout viewer for adoration. Two shepherds at right approach to offer Christ a sacrificial lamb, and the Holy Family’s subsequent Flight into Egypt is depicted in the background at left.
“Botticelli oversaw an active workshop, producing hundreds of paintings—especially devotional images of the Virgin and Child—over the course of his career. Very few of Botticelli’s paintings are signed or dated, and it is often difficult to determine his authorship. Some scholars attribute this work entirely to Botticelli, but it may have been executed in part by his assistants.”
What the museum doesn’t point out is the male figures also represent four artists: Sandro Botticelli as the Christ Child, Andrea del Verrocchio as Joseph, Domenico Ghirlandaio as one of the shepherds carrying the lamb, and Leonardo da Vinci as the other shepherd.
The four artists are also depicted in Verrocchio’s painting, the Baptism of Christ, produced a quarter of a century earlier, around 1475, in which Leonardo is said to have painted one of the angels.
Another painting linked to Botticelli’s Adoration of the Christ Child is Andrea Mantegna’s Parnassus (Louvre), dated at 1497, although there are elements in the work to suggest it may not have been completed until 1498.
This would place the completion of the Botticelli painting at an earlier date than c1500 for Mantegna to have had sight of it and reference it in the Parnassus. Other Botticelli works are also alluded to in the Mantegna painting, as are several references to Leonardo da Vinci.
So why would Botticelli choose to depict himself as the Christ Child? What narrative was he presenting when he did this, and how did it relate to the other artists featured in the painting?
This seemingly simple Nativity is embedded with much more than what appears at surface level.
• Some answers and more details about this painting in a future post.