This image shows detail from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco painted between 1536 and 1541 on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
I have circled two areas of interest. The upper part depicts a muscular St Bartholomew, said to have been martyred by being skinned alive, hence the skinning knife seen in his right hand and the flayed carcass held in his left hand. However, the face depicted on the carcass has been identified as that Michelangelo. It even shows his broken nose.
The second area of interest shows a man in a sitting position being dragged down to Hell by creatures from the underworld. He is usually referred to as The Damned Man or The Damned Soul. He has never been clearly identified although one commentator, Daniel B. Gallagher, writing for the New York Arts journal, has suggested the figure is a “quasi self-portrait, a tortured Michelangelo [who] assumes the role of someone who has gained the world but forfeited himself.”
For sure, there is a relationship between the distorted portrait of Michelangelo featured on the flayed skin and The Damned Man figure, but my understanding is that the man depicted weighed down by evil spirits is not another portrayal of Michelangelo, but of his rival Leonardo da Vinci.
In a previous post I pointed out that Botticelli adapted the Four Cardinal Virtues sculpted on the early 14th century pulpit in Pisa Cathedral and featured them in his Birth of Venus painting.
I explained how the central figure of Venus in Botticelli’s painting represented Ecclesia (the Church) and also both the virtues of Justice and Prudence. The figure about to cover up the naked Venus, sometimes referred to as a goddess of the seasons, represents the two other Cardinal Virtues, Fortitude and Temperance.
My previous post also demonstrated how Botticelli adapted a drawing by Villard de Honnecourt for the woman’s composition. She is shaped to represent a buttress to support the tilting Venus, or Ecclesia in a state of nakedness representing the perceived failings and faults of the Church of the time.
One of Fortitude’s symbols is a lion, as seen in Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit sculpture. In Botticelli’s painting a lion’s head is formed by the shape of the red cloak, it’s mane being the long hair of the woman. The shape is also meant to mirror the head of the horse as in Villard’s drawing, except there is a small difference. The right fetlock of Villard’s horse appears to be growing out of the animal’s forehead or forelock.
This is matched by Botticelli with a similar feature grasped by the woman’s right hand. In this instance it represents a horn attached to the head of the horse and so becomes a unicorn. Both lion and unicorn are often featured as support symbols in heraldic coats of arms.
Another symbol associated with Fortitude is a yoke. This can be recognised as the red cloak’s collar or the mouth of the lion-cum-unicorn whose head is harnessed by the woman’s arms. The harness or bridle, a form of restraint, is also a symbol associated with Temperance.
Fish is another symbol attributed to Temperance; so are water and wine jugs. The lower half of the red cloak represents a fish, it’s tail held in the grip of the woman’s left hand. Protruding from the side of the head is the shape of another fish head formed by the headland.
The jug feature is shaped as a wine sack formed by the section of the red cloak below the woman’s right arm, it’s open spout held in her right hand. A jug handle shaped from the cloak’s collar.
The Pisa connection to the Birth of Venus painting extends beyond the Four Cardinal Virtues that form part of the Cathedral’s pulpit, and the short time Botticelli spent working in the city. More on this in a future post.
In his book, Botticelli, Life and Work, the late art historian Ronald Lightbown records the short period the artist spent working in Pisa, some 50 miles west of Florence.
Commissioned by the Opera del Duomo in January 1474, Botticelli first began to fresco a test piece depicting the Assumption of the Virgin in the cathedral’s Incoronata Chapel, starting in July of the same year. According to the Italian painter and historian, Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli was dissatisfied with the work and left it unfinished, seemingly some three moths after starting.
However, Botticelli’s experience in Pisa was not wasted and his months spent in the coastal town later proved to be a rich source of inspiration for his painting of the Birth of Venus.
The leaning Venus not only connects to the leaning Ecclesia drawing Botticelli utilised from the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, but also to the famous and still standing leaning Tower of Pisa.
Furthermore, a sculpture representing Ecclesia and another figure associated with the naked Venus Pudica, form part of the early 14th century pulpit located in Pisa Cathedral. The complex design and its decoration was sculpted by Giovanni Pisano.
The figure of Eccelasia, or Mother Church, is one one of the support columns for the pulpit. She stands on a pedestal and is depicted wearing a crown and suckling two infants. At her right shoulder are two eagles. Surrounding the pedestal are four figures presented as the Cardinal Virtues, one of which is the naked Venus Pudica representing the Virtue of Prudence. The other Virtues are Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.
While the Venus Pudica corresponds with Botticelli’s Venus, the three remaining Virtues can also be identified in the painting.
It’s important to know that the Four Cardinal Virtues on Pisano’s pulpit are arranged in pairs, side by side and back to back, similar in a way that Villard’s drawing of the mountain bear and swan backs on to the image of Ecclesia. Fortitude and Prudence are paired standing side by side, as are Justice and Temperance. However, Prudence stands back to back with Justice, while Fortitude backs onto Temperance.
In his painting, Botticelli portrayed the woman holding up the mantle as Fortitude. The model is Lucrezia Donati, the same woman Botticelli featured in his famous painting of Fortitude in 1470, one of seven panels representing Virtues designated to decorate the Tribunal Hall of Palazzo della Signoria in Florence.
In a previous post – Fallen angels – I explained that the source for the winged figures left of Venus in Botticelli’s painting was Villard’s drawing representing Pride. Botticelli was also inspired by the same sketch in another novel way. He turned the page over, rotated it 90 degrees, and utilised the “see-through” image to form the upper half of the figure of Fortitude, echoing the back-to back formation of the paired Virtues on Pisano’s pulpit.
Botticelli also picked up on the double-eagle motif at Ecclesia’s right shoulder, which explains why Eagle wings are attached to the two “fallen angels” placed at the right shoulder of the leaning Venus (Mater Ecclesia, Mother of the Church). The bird seemingly speaking into the ear of Ecclesia can also be visualised as a dove representing the Holy Spirit, guiding the Church on its missionary journey.
But Botticelli invites the viewer to see through what appears at surface level and to consider the presentation from another viewpoint or perspective, to turn the page, so to speak, for it is said there are two sides to every story.
And so it is with the Four Cardinal Virtues shown on Pisano’s pulpit sculpture – a compact presentation of biblical events and moral standards ‘written’ in stone by a master craftsman.
To encounter face to face the pairing of Fortitude and Temperance sculpted from a single piece of stone requires the observer to change their viewpoint, as it does with the back-to-back formation of Justice and Fortitude. But the pairing of Fortitude and Prudence can be viewed together face-on. Likewise the pairing of Justice and Temperance.
Botticelli refers to this arrangement in his painting. Already mentioned is the figure of Fortitude. Prudence, in the form of Venus Pudica is placed to her left. The arrangement is contrapposto (opposite) to Pisano’s.
The back-up Virtue to the figure of Venus Pudica is Justice, so therefore Temperance is the Virtue hidden behind or within Fortitude. Both Justice and Temperance can be recognised by one or more of their symbolic attributes.
Justice is usually shown with a balance and scales, sometimes with a sword as well. So the reference to the falcon head and its sickle-shaped beak explained in my previous post represents the sword associated with Justice. As for the balance and scales, these are reflected in the oversized scallop shell. It is not on an even keel and dips to one side, the scale or degree of which is measured by the number of the shell’s ribs either side of Venus.
• My next post will deal with the Virtue of Temperance and how it connects with Villard de Honnecourt’s drawing of the falling man and horse representing Pride.
This drawing is a key element Botticelli incorporated in his composition of the Birth of Venus. It forms the basis for the puffed-up pair of figures generally identified as the wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris.
The horse and its rider falling into an ocean represents Pride, classified by the Christian Church as one of the Cardinal Vices or Seven Deadly Sins. It was pride that caused angels to fall from Heaven.
The drawing is one of many contained in what is known as the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt. Little is known about Villard apart from the notes and drawings collected in his portfolio. Some say he was an architect, perhaps an engineer, but Botticelli gives the impression that Villard was primarily a stonemason engaged in the construction of churches.
Villard himself noted the “virtues of masonry” when he wrote: “Villard de Honnecourt greets you and begs all who use the devices found in this book to pray for his soul and remember him. For in this book you will find sound advice on the virtues of masonry and the uses of carpentry. You will find strong help in drawing figures according to the lessons taught by the art of geometry.”
The phrase “virtues of masonry” is a significant pointer to understanding and discovering other sources Botticelli was inspired by for his composition of the Birth of Venus.
I mentioned in my previous post that Leonardo da Vinci is portrayed as a “fallen angel” in the Sistine Chapel fresco depicting the Testament and Death of Moses. He is shown seated and on trial as a result of an anonymous accusation of sodomy made against him.
A portrayal of Leonardo as a “fallen angel” also appears on the breastplate of a terracotta bust of Giuliano de‘ Medici (right) sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio.
The screaming and fearful countenance is mirrored in another Sistine Chapel fresco – The Trials of Moses – where Botticelli depicted Leonardo as the Egyptian murdered by Moses (Exodus 2 : 12).
The winged figure clinging to Leonardo in flight – Fioretta Gorini – connects to both Leonardo and Giuliano in other ways. Her father was a curaiss maker “a piece of armour consisting of a breastplate and backplate fastened together”. She was also reputed to have been the mistress of Giuliano de Medici and given birth to his son a month after his assassination. The boy, named Giulio, later became Pope Clement VII.
Fioretta was also the subject of a marble bust (below) sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio which was possibly the source and inspiration for Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta, mistakingly identified and titled Ginevra de Benci.
So why did Botticelli pair Leonardo and Fioretta, not just in the Birth of Venus but in some of his other paintings as well? Could it have been because the polymath acted as some kind of guardian angel, a protector or shield perhaps, when Fioretta found herself pregnant? Or was there a more intimate reason?
Fioretta is featured as one of the Three Theological Virtues in Botticelli’s Primavera, the pregnant figure with her back to Giuliano de’ Medici in the guise of Mars. Notice the upper half of her diaphanous dress is shaped in the form of a curaiss, while her legs suggest those of a horse with its tail formed by the extended outline of her shift.
Fioretta is also portrayed as Chloris gripped by Zephyrus on the right edge of the Primavera painting. But could the wind God, or winged angel, be another guise for Leonardo as featured in the Birth of Venus?
• My next post will deal with identifying Botticelli’s source of inspiration for the figure of Venus.
A feature which could be easily overlooked when viewing Botticelli’s painting of the so-called Birth of Venus (it wasn’t given that name until as late as the 19th century) is the cluster of tall bulrushes placed in the bottom left corner of the picture.
Art historians Ronald Lightbown and Frank Zöllner both point out that these species of rushes grow only beside freshwater and not a marine beach. Lightbown suggests Botticelli had not much knowledge of the sea strand, while Zöllner identifies the species as Typha latifoli, and surmises that the presence of bulrushes has an erotic significance and be regarded as phallic symbols.
That Botticelli has planted bulrushes alongside saltwater and not freshwater was deliberate, suggesting other elements and narratives within the painting are not what they appear to be, some clearly hidden or out of sight.
The four visible seed pods among the rushes can be compared with a similar motif present in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting known as the Arnolfini Portrait – the pair of pattens in the bottom left corner of the frame. This would suggest Botticelli was familiar with and probably had sight of the Arnolfini Portrait at some time. The Arnolfini family were wealthy cloth merchants based both in Bruge, Flanders, and also Lucca, Italy. Botticelli included several references to Lucca in his Primavera painting and to the Arnolfini Portrait. So it’s not by chance he borrowed another motif, the pair of pattens, to provide one explanation for the bulrushes.
Van Eyck’s pattens refer to a biblical passage from Exodus. They are arranged to represent the hands of a clock, one pointing to the number 3 position, the other to the number 5 position and so chapter 3, verse 5 of Exodus and the command given to Moses as he approached the burning bush: “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
Notice the four pods of the bulrushes are split into two pairs. Although they are not pointing out of the frame but upwards instead, it can be safely understood that they also reference a passage from Exodus – chapter two, verse two – a passage that describes The Birth of Moses. The verse reads: “She conceived and gave birth to a son, and seeing what a fine child he was, kept him for three months.”
So who was this woman and her son that Botticelli alludes to? The passage from Exodus provides more clues, as do the bulrushes.
When the Hebrew mother could no longer conceal her child – Pharaoh had earlier decreed that all new-born Hebrew boys be drowned – the woman placed her child in a papyrus basket and laid it among the reeds beside the river. Later, the Pharaoh’s daughter and her maids were walking on the bank of the river when they discovered the child in its basket. A nurse was fetched. She happened to be the infant’s mother and was told to take the child and suckle it. “When the child grew up she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son; she named him Moses because, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’.” (Exodus 2 : 10)
That the infant Moses did not join Pharaoh’s family until he had grown is akin to Giulio de’ Medici, son of the assassinated Giuliano de Medici and Fioretta Gorini, being fostered by the family of Antonio Da Sangallo (the Elder) until the age of seven before he was handed over to the Medici family under the guardianship of his uncle Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Back to the bulrushes and the four seeded pods pointing in an upward direction to the winged couple usually described as the wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris. She clings to Zephyr in a manner that suggests she is fearful of falling, despite having wings.
The woman is pregnant, but her swelling is hidden. Instead, Botticelli has exposed and framed the belly of Zephyr. Notice also the grip of the womans hands, and her fingers arranged to represent sexual union.
What is also noticeable is the wing of another bird wrapped around the right arm of Zephyr. Its elongated beak rests on his shoulder. The bird is depicted as a stork, perhaps symbolic of the bird associated with birth, but more likely the Egyptian hieroglyphic representing the soul or spirit.
So are the two flying figures modelled on Giuliano Medici and Fioretta Gorini? Fioretta, yes, but unlikely Giuliano. My understanding is that the flying angel represents Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli set out to identify him by association with Moses and the bulrushes, and the exodus from Egypt.
An early painting by Andrea del Verrocchio depicting the Baptism of Christ has a similar composition to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus except that Christ is the central figure while John the Baptist is the figure on the right with his arm raised in similar fashion to the Hora representing the season of Spring. The two kneeling figures are Leonardo da Vinci, with his back to the viewer, and Sandro Botticelli. But observe the bulrush with its seeded pod alongside the clearwater stream and placed in the left-hand corner of the frame pointing up to Leonardo. Rushes also surround the base of the garment that Leonardo holds ready to cover Christ with after his baptism.
So the bulrushes in the Birth of Venus painting can be understood as a device to make a connection to Leonardo and also find him, as Moses was, among the bulrushes.
There is another link to Leonardo and bulrushes, a drawing that is part of the Royal Collection Trust and described as “a study of a bulrush, with one seed-vessel”. Although the RCT dates the drawing between 1506 and 1512, other sources assign the drawing circa 1480.
As for linking Leonardo with Moses there is a series of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel depicting the life of Moses. Botticelli had a hand in producing some of these when he and a group of painters from Florence were sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Rome to decorate the newly-built chapel as an act of reconciliation and diplomacy between Florence and Pope Sixtus IV in the wake of the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478).
Two of the frescoes depict Leonardo face to face with Moses: The Trials of Moses in which Leonardo is portrayed as the Egyptian slain by Moses; and The Testament and Death of Moses which shows Leonardo in the guise of Joshua kneeling in front of the prophet receiving the baton of command as his successor.
Leonardo features in another part of the fresco (right) as being on trial after an anonymous accusation of sodomy was made against him. He is portrayed as a fallen angel, and for a reason which I shall reveal in my next post.
Before the turn of the 15th century, a marble sculpture of the Three Graces representing the Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope and Love – stood above one of the three doors of the Florence Baptistery dedicated to the biblical prophet John the Baptist. Two sets of triads placed above the other doors depicted the Baptism of Christ and the Preaching of the Baptist. All were sculpted by Tino di Camaino (c.1280 – c.1337) but eventually replaced at the beginning of the 16th century with works by other artists.
Fragments of Tino di Camaino’s Theological Virtues are preserved at the Museo del Duomo in Florence. Two of the fragments, and perhaps even a third, can be linked to Botticelli’s Primavera and the group referred to as the Three Graces.
The inclined head identified by the Museo del Duomo as La Speranza (Hope) can be paired with the head of the figure on the left of the group, Fioretta Gorini. The bust of La Carità (Charity or Love) holding the cornucopia, the “horn of plenty” and a symbol of abundance, is identified with the central figure, Lucrezia Donati. Her head is turned sideways as in the fragment, and the “horn of plenty” is represented by her golden horn hairstyle as explained at this link.
The theme of horns is also featured in the interlocking hands of Fioretta Gorini and Simonetta Vespucci, the third figure in the group, raised high above the head of Lucrezia Donati, possibly suggesting they were rivals for the attention of Giuliano de’ Medici, represented in the figure to the left of the group.
As to the remaining fragment known as La Fede (Faith), there are no obvious features that could be said to match Botticelli’s third figure of Virtue represented by Simonetta Vespucci who is also mirrored in the painting as the figure of Flora distributing flowers.
I suspect Botticelli sourced another sculpture to make a connection to Simonetta and I’ll present my view on this in a future post.
In the meantime, compare the raised arm of Simonetta and the inclined and turned heads of Fioretta and Lucrezia with the heads of the two angels and John’s raised arm in Andrea del Vercocchio’s painting of the Baptism of Christ.
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.
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.
Another source, both text and visual, Sandro Botticelli utilised to structure the Primavera painting was a medieval manuscript known as the Hortus deliciarum (Garden of Delights). It was compiled by Herrad of Landsberg, abbess of the Hohenburg Abbey in Alsace, as a teaching aid for novices in the convent.
In the manuscript’s prologue, Herrad describes herself as being “like a little bee inspired by God” to collect ”from the various flowers of sacred Scripture and philosophical writings” which she brought together in her book and offered “to the praise and honour of God and the Church […] as if into a single sweet honeycomb”.
From this statement it can be seen that Botticelli adopted a similar approach in his composition for the Primavera, sourcing from “various flowers” to create his “garden of delights”.
Herrad’s manuscript was destroyed in 1870 when the library where it was kept was bombed in the German Siege of Strasbourg. Portions of the work had been copied and so it has been possible to reconstruct parts for continued study and publication, including copies of many of the hundreds of illustrations that formed part of the original manuscript.
Botticelli also referenced some of the HD illustrations in the Primavera, the most obvious being the line of mythological figures and bovine allusions which he matched to the drawing captioned: “The Children of Israel Dance before the calf”. It refers to the biblical passage from Exodus (32) when the Israelites melted the gold rings from their ears so as to form an effigy of a golden calf to worship.
In this scenario the gold discs hanging from the trees represent the gold earrings. They also represent the gold or orange bezant coins associated with the Medici bankers, money growing on trees, so to speak. They can be recognised too as the golden apples in the Garden of Hera, which were guarded by the Hesperides and depicted in the Primavera as the Three Graces.
The theme of boundaries and enclosures is one of many threads Botticelli has woven into his “tapestry”. In this instance the line of mythological figures refer to the “pagan wall”, a term used by Pope Leo IX in the 11th century when he issued a bull concerning the independence of Hohenburg Abbey built on the summit of Mount St Odile. At the base of the mount is a mysterious ancient wall standing almost three metres high in places and over ten kilometres long. The pope declared that the area contained within the “pagan wall” belonged to the Abbey, now known as Mt St Odile Abbey.
In the Primavera the “little bee inspired by God” is the painter himself, portrayed as Cupid whose bow is formed as a letter ‘B’. His arrow is directed at the group of Three Graces, the closest target being the woman portrayed as Simonetta Vespucci. The Vespucci name relates to wasps (vespa) and wasps are depicted on the family stemma or coat of arms. Botticelli is blindfolded, symbolic of love being blind, but also representing St Odile, Hohenburg Abbey’s first abbess. She was born blind but after her baptism at the age of twelve she miraculously recovered her sight.
It is said that Botticelli carried a torch in his heart for Simonetta Vespucci, hence Cupid’s flamed arrow and the flame-shaped quiver. But it could only be love from a distance. Bees do not mate with wasps.
Botticelli never married and once when it was suggested he should, he explained that a few days earlier he dreamt he had married and awoke suddenly, struck with grief. He walked the streets for the rest of the night to avoid having to sleep and the dream possibly repeating.
Simonetta was considered the most beautiful woman in Florence and admired by all the people. Even Giuliano de’ Medici expressed a courtly love for the woman when in 1475 he dedicated a jousting victory to Simonetta, nominating her as the ‘Queen of Beauty’. Giuliano entered the arena carrying a banner which pictured Simonetta as a helmeted Pallas Athene. The image had been painted by Botticelli. On the banner was written ‘La Sans Pareille’ (The Unparalleled One). This inscription would be referred to again in other works by Botticelli.
Simonetta (nee Cattaneo) married Marco Vespucci in 1469 when she was 16. She died from a suspected brain tumour in 1476, age 22, just a year after the jousting tournament. Twelve months later Giuliano de’ Medici also died, assassinated in Florence Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1478. Giuliano is one of the identities given to the figure ‘tilting’ at the dark, ominous cloud above him.
Simonetta and the Grace (or Virtue) to her left, Lucrezia Donati, are also shown ’tilting’ in another sense, that of leaning to one side, suggesting perhaps that the Three Graces are dancing in a clockwise direction. While Simonetta may have been awarded the epithet, ‘The Unparalleled One’, she is in fact portrayed leaning parallel with Lucrezia. The reason for this is because Lucrezia, said to have served as a mistress in a platonic sense to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s elder brother, was also awarded a title at La Giostra, that of ‘Queen of the Tournament’. So the ’tilting’ figure at the end of the line represents both brothers, Giuliano and Leonardo, as identified in an earlier post.
Lucrezia Donati is also the model for the Venus figure who in turn is matched to the Donati woman in the Nuova Crónica illustration, pointed out in a previous post, while Simonetta Vespucci is also reflected in the figure of Flora presented as the Florentine symbol of protection, the Marzocco.
There are two other leaning figures on the right side of the painting that relate to the Hortus deliciarum and one of its illustrations in particular, the Ladder of Virtue shown below. The ladder leans right’, grounded in the left corner at the foot of the page and rising diagonally to its opposite corner of the folio.
On the right side of the ladder several characters, mostly men, are shown falling from its steps, unable to resist the attractions and temptations of the world below. On the left side of the ladder one woman makes it to Heaven to receive her crown of glory, while lower down another is encouraged on her ascent by a friendly presbyter.
Botticelli has matched the cleric wearing a blue gown and somersaulting backwards to the the figure of the wind god Zephyrus, aka the painter-cum-cleric Fra Filippo Lippi whose abduction of the Dominican novice Lucrezia Butti and its connection with the Primavera painting was outlined in an earlier post.
Compare the distinctive circular, swirling fold in Zephyrus’ tunic with that of the cleric falling from the Ladder of Virtue. Observe also the similar blue colour of their clothing. See how the colour of the habit worn by the monk above the cleric, particularly the shape of his cowl is matched to Zephyrus’ green wings.
In her exceptional book, Painting the Hortus deliciarum, Medieval Women, Wisdom and Time, Danielle B Joyner describes the cleric as arching over backward toward both his “friend” and the golden dishes of fish and delectables atop the church. Botticelli connects this scene to Fra Filippo Lippi’s relationship with his novice “friend” and his clerical status.
“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.
Disguised within the tree arch behind the figure of the Virgin Mary – who equates with the celestial sign of Virgo – are two more zodiac symbols, Aries and Taurus. In a previous post I revealed another sign, Cancer, as the left arm of the Virgin portrayed as a crab’s leg.
The left side of the arch is Aries, the right, Taurus. To visualise more clearly requires the painting to be rotated. When turned 90 degrees clockwise the shape of a rather bulky Aries the Ram is silhouetted against the sky blue backdrop (A).
Rotating the right side of the arch at 180 degrees, the silhouette (B) produces the bull symbol representing Taurus, its muzzle and two horns pointing in the direction of the Virgin’s left arm.
The reason for the Ram’s bulkiness is that it also represents another bull (C) outlined on its underside, the muzzle and horns pointing downwards to the Virgin’s head.
A third animal is also depicted in the shape at the muzzle end of the ram, the profile of a lion’s head representing the Zodiac symbol Leo, or in terms of constellations, Leo Minor. Leo Major is the profile of the lion’s head formed by the shape of the Virgin’s hair at the right side of her face.
Apart from its zodiac meaning, the bull iconography refers to certain papal bulls issued during the reign of Sixtus IV. Two issued on the same day, 12 May 1479, concerned the Rule of Order dedicated to the Mother of God of Mount Carmel, and the Recitation of the Marian prayer known as the Rosary. In 1983 Sixtus also issued a bull allowing local bishops to permit bodies of executed criminals and unknown corpses to be dissected by physicians and artists. Botticelli has referenced all three edicts in his Primavera painting.
The two bulls issued on the same day in May 1479 connect to another painter referenced in the Primavera painting – Leonardo da Vinci – known for dissecting corpses in his scientific and artistic pursuit of knowledge about the human body.
The two bull silhouettes that form the arch behind the Virgin represent a pair of lungs, while her right hand points shape of the lion’s head mentioned earlier, and representing the zodiac sign Leo – or Leonardo.
The background silhouette feature is also a pointer to a similar detail in a painting by Leonardo supposedly depicting Ginevra de’ Benci. However, the portrait is of Fioretta Gorini, the same woman portrayed as the Virgin Mary in Botticelli’s Primavera.
The silhouette seen in the Juniper tree featured in Leonardo’s painting has two representations, the biblical prophet Elijah, and Saint Gall (as in gallbladder). The reference to Elijah connects to the biblical account (1 Kings 18:16-45) when the prophet challenged the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah said: “Let two bulls be given us; let them choose one for themselves, dismember it and lay it on wood, but not set fire to it. I in my turn will prepare the other bull and not set fire to it. You must call on the name of your god, and I shall call on the name of mine; the god who answers with fire is God indeed.” The outcome was that fire fell on Elijah’s sacrifice but not on the bull offered by the prophets of Baal.
I shall post at another time details about the Rosary prayer depicted in Primavera, but to suffice to say it connects to another Florentine painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the artists who worked alongside Botticelli on the Sistine Chapel frescoes.
When Ghirlandaio completed his time in Rome he was commissioned to produce a series of frescoes in the Sassetti Chapel in the Florentine basilica of Santa Trinita. The cycle of frescoes depicted scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi. One scene, portraying the death of Francis, shows a man dressed in red and blue and with his right hand feeling into the vent or incision on the side of the corpse. He is depicted as Leonardo da Vinci who, unlike the praying friars around him, prefers instead to study the cadaver.
The frescoes were produced between 1483-86. Shortly before completion Ghirlandaio and his workshop started on another cycle of frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella. The cycle of frescoes depicted scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and from the life of St John the Baptist. Both cycles contain references to Botticelli’s Primavera painting.
The Visitation scene from the Baptist cycle is centred on the meeting of the Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth. Standing behind Elizabeth are two women shown as ladies in waiting. The one half-hidden behind the other is matched to Fioretta Gorini as depicted in Primavera.
Fioretta is also shown ‘half-hidden’ and facing the viewer in the group of three women placed at the left edge of the frame. This group is Ghirlandaio’s hat-tip to the Three Graces seen in Primavera who are Fioretta Gorini, Lucrezia Donati, and Simonetta Vespucci. As to why the three women in The Visitation scene are shown with halos, it could be that they have all been portrayed as the Virgin Mary in some of Botticelli’s paintings.
Another scene from the life of John the Baptist that features Leonardo and Fioretta is the panel titled: Zechariah Write’s John’s Name. More details in an earlier post at this link.
I recently read a “bite size” biography of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola who preached in Florence during the Renaissance. Sandro Botticelli gets a mention. The co-authors write that Savonarola’s preaching “profoundly influenced” Botticelli “and turned him from painting pornography to producing works that honoured the God of the Bible”.
Perhaps the authors never really understood that Botticelli had profound knowledge of the Bible before Savonarola arrived in Florence when the friar was assigned to the Convent of San Marco in 1482. Botticelli’s Primavera painting exemplifies this and makes several references to biblical passages embedded in what may appear on the surface to some observers as simply a “painting of pornography” based on figures associated with Greco-Roman mythology.
In a previous post I explained that the dual figure of Hermes (Greek) and Mercury (Roman) also represents the Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano, and how some of the iconography pointed to the assassination of Giuliano and the attack on his brother who managed to escape to the safety of the Duomo’s sacristy after sustaining only a slight wound to his neck.
The attack on the Medici brothers was orchestrated by members and supporters of a rival banking family, the Pazzi, with some support of Pope Sixtus IV for their removal from Florence but not their assassination. The whole affair became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy. Eventually, a settlement was reached between Lorenzo and Sixtus IV.
As part of the diplomacy process Lorenzo arranged for a number of Florentine artists to visit Rome and fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Sandro Botticelli was one of them. References to this commission are found in the Primavera painting, some of which are detailed in previous posts. Not only does Botticelli’s time in Rome provide another link to Lorenzo and Sixtus, it also introduces a painter from an earlier period, Fra Angelico Lippi, to connect to the roles of the father and son painters, Fra Filippo Lippi and Filippino Lippi, depicted in Primavera.
Like Savonarola, Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro) was a Dominican friar and after leaving the nearby convent of Fiesole in 1436 he moved to Florence and San Marco where he began decorating the newly built convent. In 1447 Fra Angelico was called to Rome by Pope Nicholas V to produce frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel. It is this work that Botticelli has sourced during his own period in Rome in 1480-82 to refer to the relationship between Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV, compared to St Lawrence – who Lorenzo was named after – and the martyr’s relationship with a predecessor of Sixtus IV – Pope Sixtus II.
The Medici banking arrangement with the Papal court was complex. There was a hesitancy on the part of Lorenzo de’ Medici to keep financially supporting Pope Sixtus IV and his aggrandizement of the Papal States and his own family. The Pope turned instead to another Florentine banking family, the Pazzi, and this eventually climaxed in what is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy and the assassination of Lorenzo’s younger brother Giuliano de’ Medici.
Lorenzo’s namesake, St Lawrence is one of two martyrs whose lives are portrayed in the Niccoline Chapel in the Vatican. The other is St Stephen. The frescoes were commisioned by Pope Nicholas V and painted by Fra Angelico Lippi.
According to Wikipedia, “St Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of the city of Rome under Pope Sixtus II who were martyred in the persecution of Christians that the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered in 258”. As Archdeacon of Rome Lawrence was in care of the treasury and riches of the Church and distribution of alms to the poor.
The Emperor Valerian issued an edict that all Christians should be put to death. Pope Sixtus II was the first of the martyrs. Valerian then ordered Lawwrence to hand over all the riches of the Church. Lawrence requested that he be given three days to gather the wealth. In the meantime he began instead to distribute the treasures to the poor and suffering people of Rome declaring that they were the true treasures of the Church. For his defiance he was arrested and while waiting in prison for his execution he baptised fellow prisoners before he died a martyr, roasted to death on a gridiron.
St Lawrence is usually depicted wearing a dalmatic and holding a gridiron. Fra Angelico portrayed Lawrence in his dalmatic decorated with a pattern of flames to represent the martyr’s death.
The pattern is repeated on Lorenzo’s tunic in the Primavera, except that the flames are inverted to appear as roots, suggesting that “The love of money is the root of all evils’ and there are some who, pursuing it have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds” (1 Timothy 6:10).
One of the legends asociated with the martyrdom of St Lawrence was the declaration he made while being roasted on the gridiron: “I’m well done of this side, turn me over!” And so another reference why Botticelli’s figure of Lorenzo is shown turned facing away from the Three Graces representing the water of faith through baptism. The biblical reference to wandering souls given any number of fatal wounds can also be be understood in context with the wounds inflicted on Giuliano – twenty – when he was assassinated in Florence Cathedral. Lorenzo escaped with a minor wound to his neck.
A final connection in all of this is the fresco in the Sistine Chapel depicting Pope Sixtus ll, the bishop of Rome who made St Lawrence an Archdeacon of Rome and also martyred by the Emperor Valerian. The fresco was painted by Sandro Botticelli during the time he and other Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV.
Last month, I pointed out that one of the identities Botticelli applied to the Primavera figure reaching up to touch the clouds is the painter Filippino Lippi who, at the time, was part of Botticelli’s workshop and a team of painters engaged to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
The photograph below showing scaffolding and people in the Chapel erecting a temporary display of Raphael’s tapestries on the lower section of the walls gives an idea of the height the artists from Florence had to work at when painting frescoes at the level above the curtained section.
So Botticelli’s portrayal of the figure with his arm raised can also be understood as a depiction of Filippino Lippi perhaps painting a cloud formation in one of the frescoes. His comfortable stance with hand on hip and right arm flexed is balanced, almost statuesque, and reminiscent of the contrapposto style of figure developed by Ancient Greco-Roman sculptors and revived during the Renaissance. It also points to the identity of another Florentine artist, the sculptor Donatello and his famous bronze of the biblical figure of David.
By coincidence this scenario later connects to yet another artist and sculptor from Florence – Michelangelo who, almost 50 years later, was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and just a few years after he had sculpted his own and probably more famous version of David.
Sometime during the four year period painting the vault of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo complained of his physical discomfort and burden in a poetic letter to a friend. He illustrated the poem with a sketch very similar to the stance of the figure portrayed by Botticelli in his Primavera painting. It would not be surprising that Michelangelo at some time may have had access to view and study the painting and had knowledge of its many narratives, even that the reaching figure represented Filippino Lippi.
The mention of Donatello also points to the Primavera figure being portrayed as Giuliano de’ Medici. Both men were entombed at the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, and Lorenzo connects to the name of Giuliano’s brother who is portrayed as yet another of the figure’s identities which I shall explain in my next post. Chapels and churches is another theme to be found in the Primavera painting.
I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den– As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy, Or in what other land they hap to be– Which drives the belly close beneath the chin: My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in, Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin. My loins into my paunch like levers grind: My buttock like a crupper bears my weight; My feet unguided wander to and fro; In front my skin grows loose and long; behind, By bending it becomes more taut and strait; Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow: Whence false and quaint, I know, Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye; For ill can aim the gun that bends awry. Come then, Giovanni, try To succour my dead pictures and my fame; Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.
Tomorrow, Holy Thursday, Christians celebrate the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his Apostles before his crucifixion. The Passover is a day and festival of remembrance for ever in God’s honour before he instigated the tenth plague against Egypt to convince its pharaoh to free the Israelites.
The Passover is referenced in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. The male figure with his back turned to the Three Graces is said to represent Hermes/Mercury, messenger to the Greco-Roman gods. The figure also has other identities. Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the de facto ruler of Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent, is another.
In his monograph on the life and work of Botticelli, Ronald Lightbown describes the figure of Mercury as inspired by a passage from The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil: “Mercury, despatched by his father Jove to Aeneas, first ties his winged shoes to his feet, then takes his caduceus, and by its power drives off the winds and the turbid clouds as he descends to earth.’
So how does the Passover and Giuliano de’ Medici fit in with this section of the painting? The passing cloud and the raised caduceus are clues.
Giuliano was assassinated while attending Mass in the Duomo cathedral in Florence. His head was sliced by a sword and he was stabbed several times. The signal for the time his killers planned to strike was during the time of Consecration when a bell was rung as the consecrated host was raised and held high before the congregation, hence the raised arm of Giuliano.
The Catholic belief is that the consecrated host is the True Presence of Jesus, echoing the time at the Last Supper when he took some bread, broke it and shared it with his Apostles, saying: “Take it and eat, this is my body” (Matthew 26:26).
The raising of the Host, symbolic of Jesus being raised on the Cross, can also be compared to the raising of the caduceus, the cloud being the darkness that came over the whole land at the time of his death. The caduceus with its two entwined dragons or serpents also represents the time when the Israelites complained to Moses and so God sent fiery serpents among the people. Their bite brought death to many. The people repented and God instructed Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. He added: “If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live” (Numbers 21:8), which is why some Christian crosses and the crucifix are depicted with the image of a serpent.
As a mythological representation the dragons are seen as a sign of peace after Hermes/Mercury saw two serpents engaged in mortal combat. Hermes/Mercury separated them with his wand and brought peace between them.
The stance of the man, also relates to part of the Passover description in Exodus. “You shall eat it like this [the Passover meal]: with a girdle round your waist, sandals on your feet, a staff in your hand. You shall eat it hastily; it is a Passover in honour of Yahweh” (12:11).
And then there are the strands of dark clouds which the figure is reaching up to with his wand. The elongated shapes can be likened to lentil seed pods and therefore recognised as a cloud formation known as Stratocumulus lenticularis. Here Botticelli is punning on the word Lent (meaning Spring) and Lint, the fluffy substance derived from bits of fabric, and then extending the pun to refer to Lintel, the load-bearing beam placed above windows and doors. This then connects to another biblical passage relating to the Passover when Moses instructs the people to “Take a spray of hyssop, dip it in the blood [from the slaughtered animal] that is in the basin, and with the blood from the basin, touch the lintel and the two door posts. Let none of you venture out of the house till morning. Then, when Yahweh goes through Egypt to strike it, and see blood on the lintel and on the two door posts, he will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to enter your homes and strike” (Exodus 12:22-23).
In this scenario we can understand the figure as reaching up to touch the lintel with blood, and probably his own because the man also represents Lorenzo de’ Medici who suffered a slight wound to the neck during the assassination attempt. He managed to escape death by reaching the sacristy and fastening the bronze door to keep out “the destroyer” from entering and striking again. As to the clues for also identifying the figure as Lorenzo de’ Medici, I shall explain in a future post as it connects to the time Botticelli spent in Rome engaged in frescoing some of the walls in the Sistine Chapel.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
• 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.
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.
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.
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.
Filippino was one of the painters who worked alongside Botticelli in producing some of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel. He is portrayed looking up and standing behind Botticelli in the Northern wall panel, Temptations of Christ.
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.
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)
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.
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.
This photograph was taken during a recent exhibition of the work of Sandro Botticelli held at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. It shows two mirror versions of the Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John.
A third version, housed at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, is similar to the version shown on the right in the photo which is in a private collection. The mirror version is kept at the Uffizi Gallery (Galleria Palatina) in Florence. I posted about the Birmingham version (right) in October 2019 at this link and revealed that the Baptist figure is a reference to Leonardo da Vinci and connects to a thumb print recently discovered on one of his drawings.
There are variations in each painting, most notably in the detail behind the Madonna, but they do not affect the underlying narrative Botticelli embedded in the original version, likely to be the one in Birmingham which the gallery dates at some time in the 1480s. The two versions in the Paris exhibition are dated at 1505, five years before the death of the artist.
I pointed out here in one of my earliest posts about the St Vincent Panels that this trio of faces represented the painter Hugo van der Goes (right), his half-brother Nicholas (back) and Thomas Vaseem, prior of the Red Cloister monastery, an Augustinian community that both brothers belonged to.
A pointer to the face at the back being Hugo’s half-brother is that only half of his head is visible. This also suggests a separation of some kind between the siblings – a subject present elsewhere in the Panels. In a recent post I explained why the coats of arms belonging to René II, duke of Lorraine had been “halved”.
The group of panels are also arranged in a half-and-half or mirrored formation, better understood when brought together, especially the two central panels.
Hugo has also applied more than one identity to some of the figures, but in these situations better understood when separated. For instance the figure of Thomas Vaseem has four identities which link to different narratives. In a way, it is similar to an index or a cross referencing system located at the end of a book. The figure relates to a number, so in this instance the “father” figure relates to both Hugo and his half-brother Nicholas. The figure of Hugo then relates or connects to other scenarios or narratives.
A second identity given to Vaseem is the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger. There is a stone bust of Seneca similar in features to Vaseem which Hugo has sourced to introduce the narrative on the philosopher famed for his stoic approach to life, as likely Vaseem was also. The sculpture is part of what is known as the double Herm of Seneca and Socrates. The two philosophers are joined at the back of the head (another example of half and half). In a similar way Hugo has attached himself to the representation of Seneca, except that the heads are cheek-to-cheek. Here Hugo is proclaiming he has something in common with Seneca.
In another post I pointed out that Hugo along with the two men on his right, Dante and Virgil, had all been exiled in at sometime during their life. Seneca, too, was exiled to Corsica for a period by the Roman emperor Claudius. Later in life he committed suicide on the orders of Nero. This is another connection with Van der Goes who attempted to take his own life by cutting his throat with a sickle when in a state of manic depression. It was Vaseem who cared for Hugo after other brothers from the Red Cloister community who were with him at the time, including his half-brother Nicholas, prevented him from self-inflicting any fatal wound. It may have been the case that Hugo’s attempt at self-harm was somewhat half-hearted and a cry for help, rather than a serious intention to commit suicide.
Socrates, the other head on the Herm, also committed suicide. The herm, with its back-to-back heads is also suggestive of Janus, the double-headed Roman god of transitions, duality, doorways, new beginnings and endings (particularly of conflicts).
In the same post I explained that the line of men to the left of Vaseem all had a connection to stones, and that the men on the right were grouped as exiles. The figure of Vaseem, now also identified as Seneca, is a link between these two groups, a transition figure, both a stone sculpture and an exile. He cross references both groups.
A helm was also used as a boundary marker. Jan van Eyck made use of this varied motif as a marking point of transition in two of his paintings: The Arnolfini Portrait, and in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
Helm also refers to a helmet, and here Hugo transitions the meaning to the red hat of the saintly figure in front, indicating what generally is assumed to be a depiction of St Vincent of Zaragosa is actually a representation of more than one saint. This “duality” or morphing process explains the ”twin” or mirrored appearance of seemingly the same saint shown in both central panels. Each “Vincent” has more than one saintly identity that form a “Communion of Saints”, a narrative which cross references with another major theme in the Panels, the Nicene Creed.
Van Eyck’s central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is titled Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In another sense it depicts the “Communion of Saints”
The image below is the frontispiece of a manuscript titled Crónica dos Feitos da Guiné written by the Portuguese chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zuara.
The manuscript was commissioned by Portugal’s King Afonso V and records the recollections of his uncle Henry the Navigator and Portugal’s maritime exploration during the first half of the 15th century.
The original manuscript was completed in 1453 but a century later declared missing or lost. However, in 1839, an intact and preserved copy was rediscovered in the Royal Library of Paris. The Paris Codex includes the frontispiece shown above. It is presented as a representation of Henry the Navigator. Since its discovery the portrait has served as the basis of multiple other images depicting Henry.
That the portrait was of Henry was seemingly confirmed with the rediscovery in 1882 of the St Vincent Panels at the monastery of St Vincent de Fora in Portugal. In what is known as the Panel of the Prince is a mirror image of that shown in Zuara’s Chronicle of Guinea.
For almost a century Infante D. Henrique was the general consensus of researchers and historians for the identity of the figure wearing the Burgundian style chaperon and that the illustration in the Zuara chronicle was the source for the mirror image in the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.
But in the 1980s two researchers presented a new suggestion for the identity of the figure in the Panel of the Prince… King Edward of Portugal. This raised the question as to which of the two representations was painted first, and was the Paris Codex version added later. The frontispiece is an intact folio and part of the original manuscript. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility the illustration was painted on a reserved blank page at a later date.
So was the Paris Codex image produced after the completion of the St Vincent Panels? If so, this could place a question mark over the completion date of the St Vincent Panels and possibly the accepted attribution to Nuno Gonçalves. My understanding is the the St Vincent Panels panels were produced by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes who included his own image in the Panel of the Prince, above and to the right of the figure considered to be Prince Henry.
Henry, or his brother Edward, is moustached. There is a written record that Edward was moustached at some time in his life. Most images of Edward depict him with a full beard but his tomb effigy portrays him as clean-shaven. Henry’s effigy is also without a beard or moustache. Bearing in mind it is highly unlikely Hugo ever set eyes on Edward before the King died of the plague in September 1438, so if Van der Goes is the originator of the St Vincent Panels, where did he locate his source for the image of Edward or Prince Henry?
A clue to the source is portrayed in the panel itself. Some researchers believe the figure on the extreme left of the back row is the painter of the panels Nuno Gonçalves. It’s not. It’s the artist Petrus Christus who took over the workshop of Jan van Eyck after the Flemish master died in July 1441.
If Hugo van der Goes is the painter who produced the St Vincent Panels, then this could be the work and the artist that the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer referred to in his diary after visiting Ghent and wrote, “another great painter was driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Hugo wasn’t mentioned by name, but historians generally agree Münzer was referring to Van der Goes.
Hugo has mirrored several references and themes from the Ghent Altarpiece in the St Vincent Panels, so it should be no surprise to find the work of Petrus Christus is also reflected in the panels, particularly the Panel of the Prince.
There are at least five references to the works of Petrus Christus in the panel, but one in particular relates to the image of KIng Edward / Prince Henry. A pointer to this work are the unusual silver sleeves of the bald-headed man standing behind the figure believed to be St Vincent. The sleeves protect his forearms because he is portrayed in one guise as a falconer. Silver and falconer are pointers to the silver-point portrait, Man and his Falcon by Petrus Christus.
Elements of this drawing are incorporated into the Edward/Henry portrait. The face in the drawing is a younger version (but let’s discard Henry and replace him with the brothers’ father instead, King John I of Portugal, because the panel image is, in fact, a double portrait which I shall explain in a future post).
The low eyebrows and hooded eyelids can be matched, so can the thin upper lips and pronounced lower lips. But perhaps the most telling feature is the strong similarity of the ears. Hugo has adapted the firm brim of the hat to feature instead as the moustache, while Hugo adapts the falcon at the shoulder into an image of himself standing just behind the man in the chaperon representing John and his son Edward.
There are more elements in the drawing that link to other features and figures in the panel but better discussed as a separate topic in a future post.
So who is the man with the falcon in the silverpoint drawing? He bears a remarkable resemblance to the Burgundian duke Philip the Good who in 1430 married Isabella, daughter of King John I and sister of Edward. Compare the silverpoint drawing with two paintings of Philip by Rogier van der Weyden. Observe the large and similar ear, the low eyebrows and hooded eyes, the thin upper lip and full lower lip. Could the falcon dawng be a depiction of Philip the Good?
If so, then the kneeling woman in the Panel of the Prince could be said to be Isabella with her mother Philippa standing over her, and her father John, brother Edward and husband Philip all represented in the figure wearing the chaperon. This intimate connection could suggest that the painting may have been originally commissioned by Isabella herself. She died in December 1471. Petrus Christus died sometime in 1475 or 1476. Hugo van der Goes closed his workshop around 1477 and joined the Roode Klooster as a lay brother where he continued painting until his death, thought to be around 1482.
The date attribution for the silver point drawing is 1450. It’s kept at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt.