Making Assumptions…

A section of the Northern Wall in the Sistine Chapel and some of the frescoes depicting the Life of Christ

In my previous post about the Primavera I pointed out a connection between the painting and one of the frescos produced by Botticelli for the Sistine Chapel. In fact, the Primavera is linked to the series of wall frescos in more ways than one as they feature several notable Florentine dignitaries and artists in some of the scenes. So what could be the reason for this?

Giuliano de’ Medici by Sandro Botticlelli

In 1478 Giuliano de’Medici, the brother of Lorenzo the Magnifico, was assassinated while attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence. His brother was also attacked but survived. A bloodbath of retribution followed when the conspirators, members of the Pazzi family and associates, were slaughtered and executed. It is said that Pope Sixtus IV approved of the plot to overthrow the Medici family from power, but not their killing. A month after the event Sixtus IV excommunicated Lorenzo and others and placed Florence under interdict, forbidding Mass and Communion.

It wasn’t until December 1480 that some semblance of peace ensued between Lorenzo, Florence and  Sixtus IV, when a dozen distinguished Florentines travelled to Rome for a pre-arranged public ceremony that saw them plead for forgiveness from the pope for any perceived errors by the Republic. Lorenzo was not among the group. However, in an act of diplomacy and personal reconciliation, he later arranged to send artists from Florence to assist with producing frescos for the walls of the Sistine Chapel: Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugini, Cosimo Rosselli and Luca Signorelli, along with assistants from their workshops including Filippino Lippi.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Pietro Perugini, Cosimo Rosselli and Luca Signorelli
Pope Sixtus IV

Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugini, Rosselli, Signorelli and Lippi are all referenced in the Primavera painting, as is Sixtus IV. One notable Florentine artist at the time, Leonardo da Vinci, was not among the group of painters engaged to fresco the Sistine Chapel, although he is depicted in two of the panels. Reference is also made to Leonardo in the Primavera. From these connections it becomes clear that there is more to understand of the mystery associated with Botticelli’s Primavera other than a presentation of Greco-Roman mythology and its poetic influences.

I mentioned in an earlier post that an underlying narrative in Primavera is the religious period of Lent, meaning “spring season,” and that Lent is a time of reparation and renewal. I also pointed out here that the foremost identity of the figure normally recognised as Venus is that of the Virgin Mary. She has many titles attributed to her, one being Santa Maria del Fiore – Saint Mary of the Flower – the name given to Florence Cathedral known as the Duomo, hence one of the reasons for the dome-shaped backdrop to the figure.

The Duomo in Florence, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – Saint Mary of the Flower

Before the building and naming of the Santa Maria del Fiore, there were two other cathedrals built on the site. The first was dedicated to St Lorenzo (Lawrence), the second to St Reparata. Both saints connect to the Primavera, Lorenzo as a name linked to Lorenzo de’Medici who probably commissioned the painting, and Reparata linked to the narrative of Lent and reparation. The theme of restitution echoes the time when the 12 representatives of Florence repaired to Rome seeking forgiveness for the Republic’s past errors, and also to further reparation made with the work carried out later by the Florentine artists in the Sistine Chapel.

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The question if often asked why the central figure is positioned further back than than those placed either side. But is she? The woman measures the same height as the other figures. A clue to the answer can be found in the pairing of Chloris and Zephyrus. Is the god of the east wind lowering or lifting Cloris? In the Virgin Mary’s case she is being lifted or raised above all others, and assumed into Heaven. She represents the Assumption, and this feature has a connection with the Sistine Chapel.

Covering the whole wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel is a fresco illustrating the Last Judgement, painted by Michelangelo between 1535 and 1541. However, the wall was originally frescoed by Pietro Perugino in the early 1480s showing the Assumption of the Virgin. It also portrayed Pope Sixtus IV kneeling among the group of Apostles. The Chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, on her feast day of that name, August 15, 1483.

A drawing made by Pinturicchio, one of Perugini’s assistants, of the lost Assumption of the Virgin,
Notice the apostle Peter, the first Pope, confirming the legitimacy and authority of Sixtus as Pope.

One of the most intriguing pieces of iconography in the Primavera painting is the arch formation of branches behind the Virgin. It represents multiple connecting narratives which I shall explain in my next post.

Primavera, the painter and the nun

This picture is by the Gabriele Castagnola (1828-1883). Titled Love or Duty, it was painted in 1874, ten years before the Italian artist’s death in Florence. The painting on the easel is a clue to the artist featured in the main picture and his model dressed as a nun.

Love or Duty, chromolithograph by Gabriele Castagnola, 1873, published in Paris by Hangard-Mangué

Although Castagnola was well aware of the account that inspired his painting and its two subjects, it’s unlikely he would have known that another painter, Sandro Botticelli, embedded the same narrative in his famous Primavera painting almost four hundred years earlier.

The picture propped on the easel is known as Madonna with the Child and Two Angels. It was painted in 1465 by the Carmelite priest and artist Fra Filippo Lippi. The original is housed in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Madonna and Child with Two Angels, Fra Filippo Lippi, Ufizzi Gallery, Florence

The artist seated in Castagnola’s painting is Fra Filippo Lippi. His model is Lucrezia Buti, a Dominican novice and the mother of Lippi’s two children, a son named Filippino and a daughter Allesandra. The boy inherited his father’s talent for painting and went on to become one of the most noted Florentine painters.

Fra Filippo met Lucrezia when he was commissioned to produce a painting for the monastery chapel of San Margherita in Prato near Florence. The story goes that Filippo wanted Lucrezia as a model to portray the Virgin Mary. However, during the sittings he fell in love with the young novice and went on to take the extreme measure of kidnapping her while she was taking part in a procession. The friar brought Lucrezia to his house and refused to return her to the Dominican sisters at the monastery. Some years later the couple received a dispensation to marry from Pope Pius II, but seemingly Lippi declined to do so.

The comparison Botticelli makes to this story are the figures of Zephyrus and Chloris. The god of the West Wind came upon the flower nymph Chloris in the Elysian Fields, a place of the blessed. Zephyrus abducted Chloris and raped her. He later repented his crime and married Chloris who had no regrets and became Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. The Roman poet Ovid wrote in Fasti 5: “The goddess replied to my questions; as she talks her lips breathe Spring roses: ‘I was Chloris, who am now called Flora'”. Hence the roses (?) depicted rambling from the mouth of Chloris and her attachment to the figure of Flora.

But Botticelli reinforces the connection between the two abduction accounts by “abducting” detail from two paintings attributed to Fra Lippi and morphing them as models for the figures of Zephyrus and Chloris.

The face of Zephyrus is based on Fra Lippi’s self portrait found in a fresco he painted in Duomo di Spoleto, Umbria. The large ears and shape of mouth are giveaways.

The turned head of Chloris is modelled on the pose of the foremost angel in Lippi’s Madonna and the Child with Two Angels. The nymph’s open mouth links to the mouth of the second angel, while the lifting or support action of the pair of angels is echoed by the lifting action of Zephyrus.

Fra Lippi’s son Filippino Lippi is also part of the Primavera painting. He is the model for the Hermes/Mercury figure. The Cupid or sprite figure is the link between Fra Lippi and his son. It’s barrel shape is a clue to its identity – Botticelli, meaning ‘little barrel’. The link can also be joined to the two Lippi’s in that Botticelli served as an apprentice to Fra Lippi whose son later worked in a similar role in Botticelli’s workshop.

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Filippino was one of the painters who worked alongside Botticelli in producing some of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel. He is portrayed standing behind Botticelli in the Northern wall panel, Temptations of Christ.

Temptation of Christ, Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
(Left) Filippino Lippi and (Right) looking up and standing behind the figure of Sandro Botticelli.

Like Mercury in the Primavera, Filippino is portrayed looking up to the sky, except that in the Sistine Chapel fresco Filippino is focused on the final temptation when the ‘Son of Man’ is led to a height and promised the world if he would worship his tempter. The devil is disguised as a holy man for he quotes Scripture to tempt Jesus during his forty days of fasting and prayer in the wilderness (another Lenten reference). Jesus, the Word made flesh, responds by also quoting from Scripture, and the devil departs, after which, angels appear to minister to Jesus with bread and water.

Detail from the Temptation of Christ, Sistine Chapel

The figure of Christ in his final temptation, his right arm raised as if to dismiss the darkness, his left hand placed in his hip, his blue coat wrapped across his left shoulder, are all features which can be recognised in the figure of Mercury. That Christ has his back to the three angels can be matched to Mercury turning his back on the Three Graces.

There are subtle references in the Primavera to the three temptations of Christ but the second temptation is one in particular that reconnects Filippino to his father in Fra Lippo’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels, and explains why Botticelli’s fresco depicted Filipino looking up in the scene at the second temptation of Christ, just as Filippino is looking up in the Primavera painting. Botticelli has portrayed Filippino as having made the connection to the symbolism in his father’s painting of the Madonna and Child with Two Angels, as an allegory for the temptations of Christ in the desert. 

The relevant passage from Matthew’s gospel (4:3-7) reads: Then the devil took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet if the Temple. “If you are the Son of God” he said “throw yourself down; for scripture says: He will put you in his angels’ charge, and they will support you on their hands in case you hurt your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:11-12). Jesus said to him, “You must not put the Lord your God to the test” (Dt 6:16).

In Fra Lippi’s painting we see the Child Jesus supported with the hands of two angels, the Temple being Mary, Mother of the Church. The prominent rock formation in the background refers to the stones the devil asked Jesus to turn into bread, while the bent knees, symbolic of the act of genuflection, coupled with the Virgin’s praying hands, reflect the response Jesus made to the devil wanting the Son of God to worship him: “You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone” (Dt 6:13). Or, in other words, “Every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall praise God” (Romans 14:11)

More on the Primavera in my next posting.

The Annunciation and the Primavera

The Annunciation by by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

This is one of my favourite paintings, The Annunciation by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci. Today, March 25, Christians celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to the Virgin Mary to convey the message that she would conceive and bear a son who was to be named Jesus.

Sandro Botticelli, a contemporary of Leonardo, also records the event in his Primavera painting. The woman with the central role in the scene is generally assumed to be the figure of Venus, goddess of love. Although there are other mythological identities applied to her by Botticelli, he also makes clear the woman’s foremost identity is that of the Virgin Mary, 

Botticelli does this by referencing a biblical description applied to Luke the Evangelist and a patron saint of artists, that of a winged Ox, and also to a verse from his account of the Annunciation – “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with his shadow” (1:35).

The swelling of the Virgin’s belly represents her pregnancy as well the muzzle of an ox. The eyes are formed by the shape of the strapping across her bosom, and the neckline of her dress is shaped to represent the horns. The straps outlining her bosom also form the wings of the Holy Spirit descending upon her (and refer to the winged ox), while the dark area beneath her left breast depicts the shadow of the Most High.

The reference to verse 35 is indicated by the number of fingers shown on both hands, three and five. While it appears that the numbers are reversed, reading from right to left, this is a pointer to Leonardo’s presence in the Primavera. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote in a mirror style from the right side of the page. Leonardo’s model for the Virgin in his Annunciation painting is a younger version of the same woman depicted as the Virgin in Botticelli’s Primavera.

There are other pointers to Leonardo connected to this figure which I shall explain in a future post as they relate to a separate narrative Botticelli has included in the Primavera.

When the time came for Mary and her new-born child to be purified, as laid down by the Law, she presented him in the Temple at Jerusalem. There, an old man named Simeon announced to Mary that a sword would pierce her soul, “so that the secrets of many may be laid bare”. This is represented by the pointed blade symbols forming a cross over the Virgin’s heart, and the suspended circular medallion depicting the deposition of Jesus in his tomb.

Simeon’s words is another verse 35, but from chapter two of Luke’s Gospel. 

More on the Primavera figure of Mary and her Florentine connection in a future post.

Botticelli’s Primavera, a liturgical season

Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera painting is generally viewed and presented as a garden scene portraying figures from classical mythology, its prominent theme reflecting the season of Spring.

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The figures are usually identified as Mercury, one of the major Roman gods (or Hermes in Greek mythology); the Three Graces (also known as the Charites); Venus (Aphrodite) the Roman goddess of love and her son Cupid (Eros); Flora the Roman goddess of flowers; Chloris, her Greek counterpart; and the wind god Zephyrus.

That the painting can be viewed as representing two levels of identities associated with mythology presents the possibility they masquerade other layers of actors embedded in the scene.

Indeed, there is an underlying narrative which Botticelli has disguised and mirrors the Springtime theme – the religious period of Lent, a shortened form of the Old English word Lencten, meaning “spring season”.

In religious terms the forty days of Lent is a time of purification, reconciliation, reparation, renewal; a time to be born again; a time of rebirth and renaissance; a penitential period of fasting and prayer in preparation for the Christian celebration of the death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday (his Passover) and Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Spring, or Lent, isn’t the only time frame depicted in the painting. In fact, every month of the year is represented in the form of the 12 signs of the zodiac. Some are easy to pick up on, others less so. This astrological pointer to the perpetual motion of life, death and rebirth – and expressed through the four seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – parallels with parts of the continuing cycle of Christian liturgical seasons.

Apart from those already mentioned, other mythological characters and creatures are disguised in the painting in a similar way to the zodiac references.

And then there are the horticultural references. It is said that more than one hundred flowers and plants have been identified. Scent and art historian Caro Verbeek describes the scene as “one big open window exuding the most wonderful and characteristic scents of Tuscany”, and asks the question: “Is there an olfactory iconography to this work of art?” She continues, “It can be argued Botticelli has intentionally added olfactory – yet visually represented – symbols”.

Indeed he has, but not just the sweet scented perfume exuding from the numerous flowers. Sources emitting less pleasant odours are also embedded in the “big window”, wafted with the aid of the figure of Zephyrus, the Greek personification of the West Wind.

As for dating the Primavera, the Uffizi gallery in Florence, where the painting is housed, assigns c.1480. Other estimates range from the late 1470s to the early 1480s. There are details in the painting to suggest it was not started until after Botticelli had returned from Rome during the first quarter of 1482, where he had been engaged by Pope Sixtus IV to fresco some of the walls in the Sistine Chapel.

• More analysis of the iconography in the Primavera painting in my next post.

Roses among thorns

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Sandro Botticelli is the artist whose name will be forever associated with the world famous Renaissance painting known as Primavera that is displayed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. But I doubt if there are many observers out there who realise the Springtime scene was inspired by two other celebrated artists, Jan Van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci.

Jan Van Eyck, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci

A link to Leonardo is understandable; he was a contemporary of Botticelli working in Florence. But Van Eyck, how so?

My next series of posts will deal with revealing the Primavera connections to Jan van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci as well as uncovering a contemporary narrative at a level beyond any first impressions that the painting simply depicts a scene from classical mythology.