In a post I made some four months ago – More Hidden Gems – I explained how the figure of Mars in Botticelli’s Primavera painting also represented St Martin of Tours who, as a Roman soldier, once sliced his cloak in half to cover a naked beggar he met at the gates of Amiens.
A similar motif is presented in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. A female figure steps toward the shoreline offering a cloak to cover and support the naked Venus as she disembarks from her sea journey. The figure of Venus also represents Ecclesia, the Church, and in this instance the Church in need.
The motifs connect in more than one way, but in a biblical sense they refer to the Last Judgment passage in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus said “I was naked and you clothed me.”
Amistice Day, also known as Veterans Day, is commemorated every year on November 11 to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War 1 and German at Compiègne, France, at 5:45am for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War 1, which took effect at eleven in the morning – the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. (Wikipedia)
The feast of St Martin of Tours is celebrated on this day also, and sometimes referred to as Martinmas or St Martin’s Day. The fourth century Roman soldier, who later became a bishop in Gaul, features in Botticelli’s famous Primavera painting. Details at this link.
In my previous post I pointed out connections to the figure of Mars and his “harpe” with St Martin of Tours and the sword he used to cut his cloak in half to cover a half-naked beggar.
However, a sculpture of this scene displayed above eye level on the facade of Lucca Cathedral, and which inspired Botticelli to reference it in the Primavera painting, gives the impression that Martin is about to decapitate the beggar.
Botticelli adopts this illusion to link the figure and his sword to the Three Graces group. Remember, too, that the figure of Mars also represents Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in Florence Cathedral in 1478.
Adjacent to the Duomo is the famous Baptistery of St John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets who was beheaded on the orders of Herod Antipas.
At one time, before the turn of the 15th century, a sculpture of the Three Graces, or Virtues, representing, Faith, Hope and Love, stood above one of the three doors that opened into the Florence Baptistery. So in this scenario, Botticelli’s Three Graces can be understood as symbolic of the Sacrament of Baptism and their diaphanous gowns as the flow of cleansing water associated with the sacrament.
The decapitation theme – suggested by Botticelli’s observation of St Martin’s sword at the beggar’s neck, linked to the beheading of John the Baptist, and the fact that Giuliano de Medici’s head was also cleaved – is portrayed in very small detail below the edge of the sword’s sheath as a head on a plate.
This feature – a head on a plate – is also a link to the East door of the Baptistery, bordered in parts with a series of encircled busts, one of which is Lorenzo Ghiberti the sculptor who designed the door. Ghiberti had earlier designed and sculpted another of the Baptistery doors which became known as the ‘Gates of Paradise’. The commission was awarded as a result of a competition in which Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi were considered finalists. The judges were unable to decide on an outright winner and both men were invited to work together. However, Brunelleschi refused and took himself off to Rome before returning some years later when both men competed again for a commission to design and engineer the famous Duomo for Florence Cathedral. This time it was Brunelleschi who was favoured with the contract.
Botticelli references the Duomo – the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower – with the figure representing the Virgin Mary beneath the dome shape formed by the branches of the trees and representing the two lungs of the Church, East and West, Byzantine and Latin.
Botticelli also extended the themes of water and severed heads to another Florentine sculptor to add to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Sculpture Garden: Andrea del Verrocchio, who was a painter and goldsmith as well.
There are four works attributed to Verrocchio that can be linked to this section of Primavera – (1) The Baptism of Christ, (2) the bronze figure of David with the Head of Goliath, (3) The terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici, and (4) the equestrian bronze statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni.
Mentioned earlier was Herod Antipas who ordered the beheading of St John the Baptist. Sculpted in the rock formation in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ painting is a depiction of Herod the Great, the father of Herod Antipas. Observe that the water flowing alongside the sculpted head has turned red with the blood from the children Herod the Great ordered to be slain in his attempt to find and kill Jesus, the ‘new-born’ King.
Verrocchio’s bronze of David with the head of Goliath at his feet can be compared with the figure of Giuliano whose sword is adjacent to the severed head of the Baptist. However, David is depicted as wearing armour on his upper body while Giuliano isn’t, as was the case when he was attacked and assassinated in Florence Cathedral. But in Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici he is shown wearing a breastplate that depicts the head of a screaming angel which, in fact, is a representation of Leonardo da Vinci, who is also shown as one of the kneeling angels in the Baptism of Christ painting, and was the model for Verrocchio’s David. The stone which David used to slay Goliath was one of five he picked out of a stream. The weapon he used to decapitate Goliath was the Philistine’s own sword.
Verrocchio’s equestrian bronze of the Italian condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni was commissioned by the Republic of Venice in 1483. Although he completed the wax model, Verrocchio died in 1488 before he could he could cast the work in bronze. This was undertaken by Alessandro Leopardi in 1496.
Botticelli has linked the military theme of Verrocchio’s equestrian sculpture with that of St Martin, who served in the Roman cavalry, and also to the equestrian statue of Mars (the Roman military god) that once stood on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence before it was swept away in the Arno River flood of 1333. Botticelli employs word-play in the Primavera, for instance, bridging Vecchio with Verrocchio.
The equestrian and water themes link back to the Three Graces which I touched on in a previous post.
• More on this and the Three Graces in my next post.
Back with more analysis of the iconography in Botticelli’s Primavera and another connection to Lucca and its Cathedral dedicated to St Martin of Tours.
Many stories and legends are associated with St Martin. One famous account records the time when, as a young man serving in the Roman cavalry in Gaul, Martin met a half-naked beggar outside the gates of the walled city of Amiens. Martin took out his sword and slashed his tunic in half and gave one of the pieces to the beggar to cover himself. As Martin slept that night he experienced a dream of Jesus wearing the cloth he had given to the beggar earlier and saying to the Angels, “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, gave me this cloak.” The dream prompted Martin to seek baptism.
Sometime later, Martin became a conscientious objector and informed his cavalry superiors he would no longer fight in an upcoming battle. He was accused of cowardice, but he responded by saying he would go into battle unarmed if necessary. However, the opposing army agreed to a truce and the battle never happened.
From that time Martin dedicated his life to the Church. In 371, the city of Tours required a new bishop. Martin was called to serve but was reluctant to take up the appointment and attempted to hide from the people in a goose pen. He was soon discovered when the geese began squawking.
References to these three legends are embedded in the Primavera painting, and which Botticelli has linked to the figure of Mars, consort of Venus and a military deity of the Roman army.
The harpe* becomes Martin’s sword used to cut his cloak, shown as the figure’s tunic covering only half of his upper body. This lack of cover or protection refers to Martin offering to go into battle unarmed. It also represents the time when Giuliano de Medici, another of the figure’s multiple identities, was assassinated in Florence Cathedral in 1478. He attended the Easter Mass without carrying a weapon or wearing any padded jacket armour to protect himself from attack by his assassins. The padded jackets were worn under metal armour when jousting and packed with goose down, similar to the modern puffer-style coats worn today.
The squawking geese, a warning cry of threat and danger, is symbolised in these ways: the dark cloud above Giuliano’s head; his raised arm referring to the time of the Offertory during Mass when the Body and Blood of Christ is raised by the celebrant before the congregation and a bell is rung. This was the signal for the assassins to attack and slice the head of Giuliano and inflict several stab wounds to his body during the pandemonium that ensued. The shape of the goose is formed by the figure’s raised arm and hand representing the neck and head. The left arm forms the wing, while the exposed chest area is the goose’s body.
The feast known as St Martinmass, celebrated on November 11, is a day when fattened livestock is butchered for the start of the winter season. In memory of St Martin, the traditional meal served and eaten on the day is goose.
A harpe was a sword with a sickle along one edge. In the painting the sickle is alluded to by the blade shape formed on the upper thigh under the figure’s left hand.
The shape also resembles the frame or outline of a musical harp. Here Botticelli has punned the word harpe with harp to link to the form of the man’s fingers, shaped not only to pluck the harp’s strings but also the goose.
The sword’s hilt is tied with strings and crowned, possibly referring to the idiom of one’s goose being cooked after Giuliano failed to put on his body armour to protect himself from attack. This suggests that Giuliano carried some of the blame for his death by not taking sufficient care to guard himself from his enemies in what became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy. The hilt can also be recognised as a goose whistle. Another idiom that connects to this scene is “killing the goose that laid the golden eggs”, symbolised by the Medici golden bezants or oranges. Take your pick.
The body armour reference links to a biblical passage, one of many disguised in the panting. In this instance it echoes the advice given by St Paul to the Ephesians (6:11,14-17): “Put God’s armour on so as to be able to resist the devil’s tactics. […] Stand your ground with truth buckled round your waist, and integrity for a breastplate, wearing for shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the gospel of peace and always carry he shield of faith so that you can put out the burning arrows of the evil one. And then you must accept salvation from God to be your helmet and receive the word of God from the Spirit to use as a sword.”
The Cupid figure is depicted firing a burning arrow in the direction of the Three Graces. Observe the shield (a wasp’s cocoon) on the back of the nearest muse – Simonetta Vespucci (Vespa, Italian for wasp). She pops up again with a shield on her back in another of Botticelli’s paintings, Pallas and the Centaur. So who does the unfortunate Centaur represent, and seemingly in danger of being decapitated after straying into someone else’s garden?
A month ago I posted an item about a crucifix known as the Holy Face of Lucca, explaining its connection to Botticelli’s Primavera. I also mentioned there were more links to Lucca in the painting.
When the Holy Face arrived in Lucca, it was first placed in the church of San Frediano before its translation to the church of San Martino, now referred to as Lucca Cathedral, where it has remained ever since.
On one of the walls in San Frediano is a fresco showing the transportation of the Holy face to Lucca after it had drifted on a boat to the Tuscan port of Luni from Palestine.
Also in the the church of San Frediano lies the body of St Zita. She was a domestic who served a Lucchese family of silk merchants for 48 years. Zita was noted for her piety and aiding poor women of Lucca. After Zita died in 1272 many miracles became associated with her, and 300 years after her death, at the age of 60, her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt. Zita was canonised in 1696.
A story associated with Zita is when she set off one day carrying bread in her cloak to feed the poor. Some jealous servants complained to her master, suggesting she was stealing the bread. When the master of the Fatinelli household confronted Zita and ordered to open her cloak, it was found to be full of flowers.
It is this account that Botticelli has linked to the figure of Flora in the Primavera, seen distributing flowers from her apron. The figure of Flora also represents Simonetta Vespucci, referred to as La Sans Pareille – The Unparalleled One – on an banner image of her painted by Botticelli which Giuliano de’ Medici carried in a jousting tournament he took part in 1475.
By integrating Simonetta and St Zita with the figure of Flora, Botticelli has created a link to the Greek philosopher Plutarch and his book Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans “arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings”.
So now the upright Simonetta-cum-Flora can be compared to the leaning or falling figure of Chloris in the guise of Fioretta Gorini. Likewise, the virtues of Flora as Zita can be compared to the failings and later conversion or change in the circumstances of Fioretta when she became an anchoress, symbolised as being grafted to Flora.
Chloris is the Greek goddess of flowers; Flora is her Roman equivalent. 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.
This transformation from Greek to Roman is also reflected in the life of Plutarch, a Greek who became a Roman citizen.
But Simonetta wasn’t always as upright as portrayed in this scene in Primavera. In an earlier painting by Botticelli – The Birth of Venus – Simonetta is depicted standing off-kilter on a giant scallop, having being blown by the wind to arrive in Florence from the region of Liguria in northwest Italy, which is close to the Port of Luni where the Holy a Face of Lucca sailed into from Palestine.
So why is Simonetta portrayed as both leaning and upright in Botticelli’s two different paintings? Clues to the answer are to be found in the Primavera, one of which is a further link to Lucca Cathedral and introduces another artist Botticelli referenced for composing his painting.
“How can a grown man be born? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” These were questions the Pharisee called Nicodemus asked after Jesus had said to him, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”(John 3:3-4)
Jesus answered Nicodemus, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born through water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
Botticelli referenced this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus in Primavera as a way of highlighting one of the painting’s main themes – rebirth, but not solely in the sense of the Renaissance period of his time. Rather, Botticelli’s aim was directed at highlighting the need for reformation of hearts and souls towards higher values than offered by the rebirth of Greek and Roman antiquity and its pagan overtones.
The wall of mythological figures in the Primavera serve as a facade that masks deeper truths. Art historians are generally in agreement when identifying the nine figures at an individual level, but struggle to recognise the purpose or role of the group as a whole – probably because the artist has deliberately composed an arrangement meant to suggest an overtone of discord which can never be reconciled – that is pagan mythology.
In referencing the Pharisee known as Nicodemus, Botticelli introduces another narrative that could be considered a myth in itself – the account of the Holy Face of Lucca, an ancient crucifix said to have been sculpted by Nicodemus and which miraculously found its way from Palestine to Lucca, a town about 60 miles east of Florence, in 782.
The legend records that Nicodemus fell asleep while sculpting the crucifix. He had completed most of the work except for Christ’s face. As he slept an angel appeared on the scene to finish the feature. Centuries later a bishop by the name of Gualfredo was directed in a dream to a cave in the Holy Land where he rediscovered the crucifix. He loaded the relic on a ship without sails or crew. The ship miraculously drifted out to sea and eventually berthed at Luni in Tuscany. However, every time the people of Luni attempted to board the ship it retreated out to sea again. Another bishop, Johannes of Lucca, dreamt that a ship transporting a holy relic had arrived in Luni and so he made his way to the port accompanied by clerics and many people from Lucca. When the Lucchese arrived at Luni they prayed to God and the ship returned to shore and opened its gangplank for the bishop to board.
The eight-foot-tall crucifix was brought ashore and loaded into a cart drawn by oxen. Once again it made what the people considered another miraculous journey – the cart had no driver – and arrived at the San Frediano church in Lucca. But it’s transfer didn’t end there. Another miracle occurred when the crucifix appeared unexpectedly in Lucca’s church of San Martino. It is still there today.
San Martino, or St Martin of Tours, also makes an appearance in the Primavera painting as one of many identities represented by the military figure standing at the end of the lineup, for which I shall present details in a future post.
In an earlier post I pointed out the iconography connecting St Luke, symbolised as an ox, with the central figure in the painting representing the Virgin Mary. This feature also links with the legend of the Holy Face relic and its journey or translation led by oxen to Lucca. Botticelli puns Luke with Lucca; he also make a comparison with the Holy Face coming to light again after its entombment and rediscovery in a cave with the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion and burial in a tomb carved out of rock.
The medallion worn by the Virgin Mary depicts the deposition of Jesus in his tomb. It is suspended above the Virgin’s swollen belly, indicating her expectancy of new life. In this scenario “new life” represents a resurrection to an everlasting life and how a “grown man” can be born again and so “see” and “enter the kingdom of God”.
The span of life on Earth is sometimes expressed as a journey “from the womb to the tomb”. As for being “born through water and the Spirit”, man is born again through “Mother Church” – Ecclesia – by being baptised with both Holy Water and the Holy Spirit.
The Resurrection scene is disguised in the Virgin’s red mantle. So is Christ’s descent into Hell after his crucifixion. To be able to recognise the Resurrection feature the painting requires to be viewed turned upside down.
The Virgin’s left hand is shaped to draw attention to the highlighted area over her thigh, a “dim reflection” of the head and beard of Jesus as he exits his oval-shaped tomb. He is slightly turned so that his left shoulder and the folds of his gown are prominent and nearest the viewer. The oval entrance represents the open mouth of the large fish that swallowed Jonah for three days before vomiting the prophet onto dry land. The Old Testament account of Jonah and the fish is symbolic of Christ’s Resurrection.
The “dim reflection” of the Holy Face points to a passage in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that refers to resurrection: “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror, but then we shall be seeing face to face” (13:12).
Botticelli has used this reference to paint a portrait and “a dim reflection” created with the aid of a mirror – a self portrait – not of Botticelli but of Leonardo da Vinci, and very likely the red chalk drawing owned by a private collector but brought to public attention in 2020 by the Leonardo scholar, Annalisa Di Maria.
A feature of most Leonardo portraits, and even his figures, is that the model is shown in three-quarter view with a shoulder nearest the viewer, hence Botticelli’s emphasis and detail in the folds of the gown or shroud of the “dim reflection”.
When viewed in its normal position the detail serves to represent the blood-soaked sudarium that covered the face of Jesus when he was wrapped in his tomb. The “agonised” depiction is presented looking downwards and meant to represent Christ’s descent into Hell, sometimes referred to as the Harrowing of Hell. Notice the wing-shaped folds indicating God’s Spirit descending.
That Leonardo’s self-portrait was drawn with the aid of a mirror is for a particular reason why Botticelli has referenced it as representing the Holy Face of Lucca, and not solely to fit with the verse from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
The mirror connection introduces another artist and specifically one of his paintings: Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait, sometimes referred to as the Arnolfini Wedding, or the Arnolfini Marriage.
Art historians are undecided as to which member of the Arnolfini family the “bridegroom” represents – Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, or his cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. Both men were Italian merchants from Lucca but resident in Bruges.
There are other connections in the Primavera painting to the Arnolfini Portrait, the most obvious being the way the two artists identified themselves. Van Eyck wrote his name above the large mirror central in the painting; Botticelli has depicted himself as the Cupid figure above the image of the “Mirror of Justice”, one of many titles associated with the Virgin Mary.
There are more Lucca references in the Primavera which I will explain in a future post.
So far, I’ve provided identities for two figures in the Panel of the Archbishop: René II, duke of Lorraine, and Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, placed either side of the central figure said to portray St Vincent of Zaragosa, hence the title of the polyptych, the St Vincent Panels.
However, Vincent is not all he appears to be. The artist Hugo van der Goes has applied a second identity that links to the two dukes already named.
I pointed out in my previous post that the Duchy of Bar emblem could be recognised in the fish shape on René’s breastplate. There was no indication of the second fish that is part of the emblem. Hugo had also separated from René the group of three hands representing the three eaglets on the Duchy of Lorraine emblem. Like the second fish, the red “bend” or stripe is also absent. The grouping which forms the Duchy of Calabria emblem is also fragmented across two figures. And the figure of Charles the Bold is absent of any coat of arms because his body was stripped naked by scavengers after he was killed at the Battle of Nancy.
So why the missing parts and fragmentation of the emblems? A clue is in the reason for the absent red “bend” associated with the Lorraine emblem, matched by the absent red stripe on the deacon’s vestment when compared with the vestment’s two stripes shown in the Panel of the Prince. The absence also links to Charles’ death and naked state. One or many saw it fit to strip the dead duke of his clothes as their need was greater.
In René’s situation his “coats” are halved or separated, and so missing from his person. Likewise the figure of St Vincent, except in this scenario the portrayal is of another saint – Martin of Tours, the Roman soldier who, on meeting a half-naked beggar on the street, cut his own military cloak in half and gave it to the poor man.
Charles the Bold was baptised with the names Charles Martin.
There are several references to saints in the St Vincent Panels. The figure of the deacon featured in the two central panels has been given at least four identities. This “communion of saints” is an integral part of the main theme expressed in the altarpiece.
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