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.