More hidden gems in Botticelli’s Primavera

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.

Equestrian statue of St Martin and the Beggar at the entrance of Lucca Cathedral

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.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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?

Detail from Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli, c1482, Uffizi, Florence

More on this in a future post.

A prophetic painting?

This detail is from a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio. It depicts the Infant Jesus with his mother Mary. On the left are Pope Clement I and St Peter; on the right, St Sebastian and St Paul.

The altarpiece was painted in 1479 and is displayed in San Martino Cathedral in Lucca, Italy

The model for St Sebastian is another artist, Sandro Botticelli (right). The Virgin is portrayed by Fioretta Gorini, said to be the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated by members of the Pazzi family on Easter Sunday, 1478. Fioretta gave birth to a son a month after Giuliano’s death.

The boy was named Giulio and later adopted by the Medici family. He went on to become a cardinal in the Catholic Church and eventually Pope, taking the name Clement (VII) in honour of St Clement.

This is another painting that links to Botticelli’s Primavera which I will explain in future post.

The Order of Things

At surface level, the January folio of the Très Riche Heures represents a banquet celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, but there are other scenarios within the scene that connect to the date of the event, January 6, and the meanining of the word epiphany.

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

For instance, one of the identities given to the kneeling figure in the right hand corner is King Richard II. January 6 is the date of his birthday.

Pol Limbourg, depicted leaning on the seat behind the Duke of Berry, is one of three brothers associated with illustrating many of the folios in the manuscript. He is named after St Paul the Apostle, who experienced his ‘epiphany’ moment on the Road to Damascus. St Paul’s conversion is celebrated on January 25.

Another reference which links to the Richard II figure is the Epiphany Rising, the failed rebellion against Henry IV of England in January 1400. Thomas Blount the knight at the table folding the napkin, was one of ‘rebels’ executed. Henry IV is the figure dressed in black placed immediately above him.

The ‘Rising’ theme is extended to the tablecloth. It represents the burial shroud of Jesus, and his resurrection or ‘Easter Rising’.

The Resurrection theme extends to the five five figures front of table. Each of them are linked to the three guards and three women featured in the Van Eyck painting titled Three Marys at the Tomb. In fact there are several other references to paintings by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

The Three Mary’s at the TombMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

From these examples we can see how Bathélemy d’Eyck has taken his lead from the Van Eyck brothers to build his composition very much in the ‘jig-saw’ style used by Jan and Hubert in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where four identities are applied to each rider. In the January folio the number of identities applied to each figure are usually two, but in the case of the napier in red and white, there are four. This likely a hat-tip to Jan and Hubert van Eyck as the figure behind the napier is Jan and one of the identities given to the napier is Hubert van Eyck (d.1426). The three others are Thomas Blount (d.1400), Amery of Pavy (d.1352), and Geoffroi II de Charny (d.1398) who was the son of the seated Geoffroi de Charny.

The biblical Epiphany story relates how three Wise Men from the East followed a star to Bethlehem to seek out a new-born king and “do him homage”. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Hence the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas and New Year. So is Bathélemy paying homage to Jan and Hubert va Eyck. Hubert died in 1426, Jan in 1441. The folio is likely to have been painted sometime in the 1440s and probably as a work of homage after Jan had died, hence several pointers to paintings by the Van Eycks.

The Wise Men of Magi rmade their journey on camels, led by the light of the Star of Bethlehem. The Star and camels are also referenced in the painting.

The star is introduced by way of Geoffroi de Charny (mentioned in the previous post), a French knight who, along with the French king Jean II, founded the chivalric Order of the Star, sometimes referred to as the Company of the Star, in 1351. Geoffroi de Charney is the bald-headed figure seated opposite the Duke of Berry who also doubles up as King Herod.

Detail from folio 394 of Grand Chroniques de France showing the inception of the Order of the Star.

There is an interesting folio (394) which forms part of the Grandes Chroniques de France (14th century) that shows the inception of the Order and some of the knights feasting at table. There can be little doubt that both illustrations were used as a source by Barthélemy for the composition of the January folio. The similarity of the table scene speaks for itself, but the group of knights approaching the French king is echoed in the group of figures huddled together behind the seated Geoffroi de Charney who is dressed in the same colours and style adopted by the Order of the Star.

A banquet reception for members of the Order of the Star, (Grand Chroniques de France).

As well as being father and son the two Charny figures are connected in two other ways. Charney senior was the first recorded owner of the claimed burial shroud of Jesus, now known as the Turin Shroud. It later passed into the possession of his son, hence the representation of the shroud as the tablecloth. Charney senior also wrote three works on chivalry, the most acclaimed being the Book of Chivalry. However, recent scholarship suggests that this treatise may have instead been written by his son to commerorate his father’s death, in a similar way that Bathélemy d’Eyck has honoured Jan and Hubert van Eyck with his painting of the January folio.

More revelations about the January folio in my next post.

Identifying Pol Limbourg

How subtle is some of the detail identifying Pol Limbourg with the Conversion of St Paul, one of the listed feast days on the January calender from the Très Riche Heures.

Pol is wearing a ‘voyager’ cap. It’s flap represent a tongue. The legs of two riders behind him represent the ears of a hare. For hare, read hair. Notice how clean-shaven Pol is. His temple and the side of his face are lighter in tone than the rest of his face complexion. The hare’s ears are also meant to represent scissor blades. Pol has had a haircut and his beard shaved. A warm, wool hat covers his head.

These are all pointers to a verse in the Acts of the Apostles (18:18) mentioning St Paul having his head shorn: “Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken.”

As for the tongue reference we move on to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and the verse 13 : 1 which reads: “If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, then I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.” The rather large tongue represents “all the eloquence of men”.

For cymbal, read symbol, those on Pol’s blue collar which doubles up as a hat to help identify the man below. The bell shape of Pol’s collar, is also symbolic of the bell shape feature which distinguishes the capital that tops a Corinthian style column. Two Corinthian columns support the fireplace mantle further along the “Straight Street”.

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
A plowman’s lunch
Richard the Redeless
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list