“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 also more references in the Primavera to the Cathedral of San Martino which I will explain in a future post.