In Botticelli’s Primavera the source for the grouping of Zephyrus, Chloris and Flora is attributed to words written by the classical Roman poet, Ovid.
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.
However, there are other words by Ovid which Botticelli adopted to make a clear statement as to the method he intended to use to illustrate and link the several narratives in the Primavera painting, hinted by the transformation of Chloris in to Flora.
Ovid’s first words in his narrative poem Metamorphoses are: “I intend to speak of forms changed into new identities…”
The poet’s declaration is a clear explanation as to why Botticelli incorporated more than one identity into the Primavera figures, particularly with the so-called figure of Mercury which portrays several people.
From this it can be understood that Primavera is not simply a painting only to be observed and analysed or understood in the context of Greek and Roman mythology. It transcends beyond these limits – transforming and changing our perceptions of what we see and understand before us. It is revealing, yet mystical, inspiring a sense of spiritual mystery.
I wonder if any art curator would ever consider aligning these two paintings on a gallery wall? If so, for what purpose? That Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait was completed in 1434, and Botticelli’s Primavera some fifty years later, reflecting both Northern and Italian Renaissance styles of painting, could be a reason; that the two paintings relate to marriage could be another.
While art historians have generally focused on literary sources of ancient poets to identify and understand the Primavera figures and the painting’s composition, the wellspring and source of inspiration dates to just a decade before the birth of Botticelli – to Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait.
This would indicate that Botticelli had seen the Van Eyck painting at some time, and also had knowledge of Jan’s own inventiveness and rationale behind the painting’s composition and narratives.
Having already revealed several identities applied by Botticelli to the standing male figure in the Primavera painting, it would not be unreasonable to assume that other figures in the scene represent more than one person. There is a transforming or changing theme running through the painting and its many narratives.
Perhaps the most obvious hint of this are the two women on the right of the frame representing Chloris, the Greek goddess of flowers and her Roman equivalent Flora. Chloris is seen being lowered alongside Flora by Zephyrus the West Wind. In fact, Chloris is depicted as being grafted to the thigh of Flora. Observe the cleft-shaped, right hand of Chloris. Flora’s thigh is shield-shaped (a stemma), suggesting shield-budding.
A further transformation feature is that Flora also represents a lion and the heraldic symbol of Florence, the Marzocco. In turn, Chloris is presented as a lamb or a goat (a sacrifice offered to the gods). When the two elements – lion and lamb, or goat – are combined or grafted they form the basis of a beast known in Greek mythology as a Chimera.
To complete the transformation a third creature is required, that of a serpent. This is represented by the scaled pattern on Flora’s arms, the serpent’s head being her left hand. Chimera is another term associated with horticulture grafting.
In an earlier post I pointed out that Zephyrus, the West Wind, also represented the painter Fra Filippo Lippi, and Chloris as Lucrezia Buti, the Dominican novice he abducted to use as a model to represent the Virgin Mary in his paintings.
The Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna mirrored this section of Primavera in his painting titled Parnassus, except that for the West Wind he depicted the painter Leonardo da Vinci in the guise of Pegasus, the winged horse that Bellerophon rode to Lycia on his mission to slay the monstrous Chimera. Leonardo is another identity Botticelli applied to the Zephyrus figure.
In the Parnassus painting, the two figures nearest to Pegasus are Chloris and Flora. The serpent is the ribbon gripped by Chloris’ left hand, and her right hand gripping the thumb of Flora’s right hand is the graft feature.
The head of the lamb is formed by the shape of the dress at Chloris’ shoulder, turned towards the wind created by Pegasus’ wing, just as Chloris turns her head towards the wind (hot air?) blown from the mouth of Zephyrus in the Primavera painting.
Note also the brown-coloured profile at the side of the arch above the two women. It represents Donatello (pictured right), the sculptor commissioned to create a new version of the Marzocco between 1418-20, to replace the weather-beaten version erected in the late 14th century.
*There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven... (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
In my last post I pointed out a connection in Botticelli’s Primavera with a fresco panel of The Visitation in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio. In fact, there are several links.
One in particular couples with the Fioretta Gorini portrait by Leonardo da Vinci and confirms the silhouette feature I pointed out connecting the biblical prophet Elijah and the miracle on Mount Carmel in the Primavera painting.
The silhouette of Elijah’s profile in the juniper tree to the right of Fioretta is matched by the shape of the summit of the rock formation (representing Mount Carmel) behind the heads of Elizabeth’s two servants.The two women appear to both represent Fioretta Gorini; the woman nearest, with a more rounded face as she looks in Leonardo’s portrait, and the half-hidden figure as in Botticelli’s portrayal of the Virgin in Primavera.
That Ghirlandaio has depicted a shaped stone formation to make reference to Fioretta Gorini, may also be a pointer to the marble bust of Fioretta sculpted by Andrea Verrocchio.
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 came across a report published at artnet news that an Italian researcher, Annalisa Di Maria, had discovered a new drawing by Leonardo da Vinci portraying Jesus Christ. Experts have still to support Annalisa’s claim, but they may be interested to know the drawing is referred to in Botticelli’s Primavera.
I shall reveal more about this in a future post.
In my first post of a series intended to reveal the alternative narratives in Primavera, I pointed out that the painting was inspired by two other artists, Leonardo da Vinci and, in particular, Jan van Eyck.
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 abd 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 assasinated 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.
One of the more unusual features in Botticelli’s Primavera is the figure of Mars shown facing out of the frame. Art historian Barbara Deimling suggests the figure represents Mercury and “its direction of movement leads not into an empty space but on to the painting of Pallas and the Centaur, which originally hung to the left of Primavera, over a door”.
In his monograph on Botticelli the late Ronald Lightbown also nominates the figure as Mercury and suggests it is his steel cap that gives “the clue to his role in the garden about which there has been so much confusion”, and that “he wears a winged helmet because he is the guard who keeps entrance to the garden”, and “why the harpe [sword] is so prominent and why he wears a military cloak, why he stands with his back to the other figures expelling the intrusive clouds with his caduceus…”
Botticelli also presents the figure as Mars, superstitiously viewed in earlier times by the Florentine people as a protector of the city. According to the chronicler Giovanni Villani, a statue of Mars on horseback stood on a pedestal at the Ponte Vecchio, looking East. In 1300, it was temporarily moved while repairs were carried out on the old bridge. However, when the statue was returned to the bridge it was placed facing North. This did not go down well the people and Villani records their words: “May it please God that there come not great changes therefrom to our city”.
Thirty-three years later Mars was unable to protect Florence from disaster when the Arno river flooded and the rising waters overwhelmed the city defences. Even the statue of Mars was swept away in the flood, never to be seen again. Villani describes the event: “And when Mars had fallen and all the houses between the Ponte Vecchio and the Carraia bridge had come down and all the streets on both banks were covered with ruins, to look at the scene was to stare at chaos.”
No attempt was made to replace the pagan statue. Instead, the Florentines focused on a new symbol of protection and status – that of a lion – the Marzocco.
So Botticelli’s figure of Mars attempting to sweep away the rain clouds can be viewed as a pointer to the time of the Great Flood of 1433 and the earlier time the statue was turned from facing East to North.
However, there was another unfortunate event associated with the statue of Mars at the Vecchio bridge – the murder of a young nobleman named Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti, killed on Easter Sunday in 1215. This links to Botticelli’s figure of Mars when identified as Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated while attending Mass in Florence Cathedral on Easter Sunday, 1478.
Botticelli sourced the Buondelmonte narrative to form the basis of Primavera’s composition and the painting’s principal theme of reconciliation and peace associated with the city of Florence.
Botticelli’s pairing of Giuliano de’ Medici with the statue of Mars, an assassination and a drowning, could be see later as somewhat prophetic, when Giuliano’s nephew, Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (Piero the Unfortunate), died by drowning as he attempted to cross the Garigliano River while attempting to flee from the aftermath of the Battle of Garigliano in 1503.
The Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna portrayed Piero as Mars in his painting Parnassus (1497), a parody of Primavera and a tribute to Botticelli. The image on Piero’s breastplate is that of Botticelli, suggesting that Mantegna was fully aware of the disguised narratives Botticelli had embedded in Primavera.
So here’s how Sandro Botticelli gave clues as to the identity of one of the Three Graces in his Primavera painting being Fioretta Gorini, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. Fioretta is the muse depicted back to back with the figure generally described as Mars, but who Botticelli has applied several other identities, one being Giuliano.
There is a terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici displayed at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. It was created by the Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio between 1475 and 1478. Giuliano is depicted wearing a cuirass, armour made in two pieces to protect the chest and back. It is emblazoned with an unusual gorgon-type feature, a winged head of a man screaming in fear. There is a separate narrative to this feature but suffice to say at this stage the screaming head is modelled on Leonardo da Vinci, an apprentice in Verrocchio’s studio at the time.
The cuirass links to Fioretta Gorini in that not only was she the daughter of a cuirass maker but also the subject of a painting by Leonardo that is mistakingly identified by some art historians as Ginerva de Benci, painted sometime between 1474 and 1478. Fiorretta also links back to another work by Verrochio, a marble bust known as the Lady with a Bouquet of Flowers, dated between 1475 and 1480, and housed at the Bargello Museum, Florence.
The woman in both works is almost identical and it has been speculated that Verrocchio’s sculpture was the inspiration for Leonardo’s painting, hence its stony appearance, softened only by the rolling curls of her golden hair. But there may be another reason for Fioretta’s blank expression, one which connects to the death of Giuliano who was assassinated on April 26, 1478, Easter Sunday. This would also date the painting sometime afterwards.
Verrocchio’s two sculptures and Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta are all referenced in Botticelli’s Primavera. His linking of the three works in this way confirms the Fioretta portraits by Verrocchio and Leonardo are one and the same woman.
However, unlike the Leonardo portrait and Verrocchio’s marble bust that show Fioretta with a curled hairstyle, Botticelli has portrayed her with hair that flows loose. The strands represent snakes and refer to the Gorgon known as Medusa whose stare could turn people into stone, therefore linking to the gorgon feature on Giuliano’s breastplate. Notice also the form representing a breastplate, or the front section of a cuirass, underneath Fioretta’s diaphorous dress.
The mention of stone is also a pointer to the marble bust of Fioretta made by Verrocchio, but to confirm what type of stone –marble – Botticelli introduced another clue which relates to a disclosure made in a previous post, that the painting refers to the Council of Florence in 1437, an ecumenical “congress” between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church governed from Constantinople (Istanbul).
In this scenario the group of Three Graces are portrayed as flowing water used for baptism into the Christian faith. They also represent the three water features that meet at Istanbul, namely the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, and the Marmara Sea. The central figure of Lucrezia Donati represents the Golden Horn; Simonetta Vespucci, the Bosphorus; and Fioretti Gorini, the Marmara Sea whose name is taken from Marmara Island “a rich source of marble” and the Greek word mármaron, meaning marble”.
The marble bust of Fioretta shows her holding a small bouquet of flowers. This is echoed by Botticelli with the gold-leaf, petalled brooch worn by Fioretta. It refers to her name meaning “little flower”. It also links back to another painting by Botticelli, the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, which shows Leonardo da Vinci wearing a gold leaf on his chest, pictured right.
There are two other references in Primavera on the relationship between Leonardo and Fioretta which I shall post on at another time.
This group of three dancing females in Botticelli’s Primavera painting are usually referred to as the Three Graces or Charites and are given various names and roles in Greco-Roman mythology. But in this scene they can be clearly identified and in at least two roles they represent.
Left to right, they are Fioretta Gorini, said to be the mother of Pope Clement VII, son of Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated a month before his child’s birth; Lucrezia Donati, a platonic love of Giuliano’s brother Lorenzo de’ Medici; and Simonetta Vespucci, Botticelli’s Venus and a beauty all of Florence admired.
The same three women are portrayed in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
In my next post I shall explain the iconography that identifies Fioretta Gorini, the daughter of a cuirass maker, frequently portrayed as the Virgin Mary in many of Botticelli’s paintings – as she is in Primavera – and also as the figure of Chloris.
This cherry and white blossom tree stands on the street outside my home. I took a photo of it today as it reminds me of some of the ‘grafting’ features in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. For instance, notice the ‘cleft’ shape of Chloris’ right hand as she is about to be grafted onto the thigh of Flora. Narratives are also grafted onto the thighs of the other figures. More on this in future posts.
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.
I stated in my last post that there was more to Botticelli’s Primavera other than being a presentation of Greco-Roman mythology and its poetic influences. However, the translation of mythological identities from Greek to Roman is a key to understanding the major narrative in the painting.
The mergence of the figure of Chloris with Flora, her Roman counterpart, is an example of this, brought together by Zephyrus the Greek god of the east wind, or his Roman equivalent, a favourable wind called Favonius.
The scene is an allegory of Greco-Roman coalescence, Greek language and Latin language, Orthodox Catholic Church and Roman Catholic Church, a marriage or unification of the Catholic Church following its several schisms during previous centuries, including the Great East-West Schism that happened during the eleventh century.
It points to the Council of Florence, the seventeenth ecumenical council between the “two lungs” of the Church that began in Basel (Switzerland) in 1431, reconvened at Ferrara (Italy) in 1438 and then moved to Florence in 1439, concluding in 1445.
Among many of the issues under discussion by the Council was papal primacy and the jurisdiction of bishop of Rome over the whole Church. This was resolved and agreed when a final decree, a papal Bull of Union with the Greeks, was issued in July, 1439. It officially reunited the Roman Catholic Church with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, so ending the East-West Schism (until the next time).
Papal primacy and authority is also expressed in another sense in the Primavera. The painting makes reference to the reconciliation of Lorenzo de’Medici and the city of Florence with Pope Sixtus IV following what is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, as mentioned in the previous post.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity is characterised by the term Byzantium. Although centred on Constantinople which was considered the “cradle of Orthodox Christianity”, “it orientated towards Greek rather than Latin culture”, hence the papal bull reference to “Union with the Greeks”.
The most familiar Byzantine reference to be seen in the Primavera are the orange balls that appear as fruit of the orange trees. In heraldic terms they are known as roundels, depicting gold bezants, the currency associated with the Byzantine Empire. They can also be understood as the orange balls that appear on the coat of arms or “stemma” associated with the Medici banking family. A mythological representation is that they are the golden apples in the Garden of Hesperides given as a wedding gift to Hera, wife of Zeus, and Queen of the gods, and of marriage, family and childbirth, Juno being her Roman equivalent.
So what appears on the surface to be oranges can also be a lead into other themes embedded in the painting. For instance, understood in terms of being associated with the Medici coat of arms, the word “stemma” can be linked to the positioning of the stem-like arms of the figures in the painting. Generally they act as pointers to other narratives and an aid to identification.
In an earlier post I mentioned that the twelve signs of the Zodiac can be identified in the painting. For example the left arm of the VirginMary, fragmented in places and its hand showing three fingers, is meant to represent a crab’s leg and so the sign of Cancer. Her right hand is also a telling pointer which I shall explain at a later stage.
The lonic image of Flora is symbolic of Florence’s heraldic lion, the Marzocco. Her left thigh is shaped as the shield that Donatello’s famous lion rests one of its paws on, except in Flora’s portrayal the flower on the shield is a rose and not the “Fleur de Lys”. There is a reason why Botticelli has used a rose which connects to another narrative in the painting and I shall explain in a future post.
The Primavera is saturated with symbols.
“The term symbolism is derived from the word ‘symbol’ which derives from the Latin symbolum, a symbol of faith, and symbolus, a sign of recognition, in turn from classical Greek σύμβολον symbolon, an object cut in half constituting a sign of recognition when the carriers were able to reassemble the two-halves…” (wikipedia)
Reassembling two halves reconnects to earlier mention of the Council of Florence and the “two lungs” of the Church coming together. And if we take a fresh look at the arch formation of trees behind Mary, the Mother of the Church, we can see they are shaped and presented as two lungs, left and right. This leads on to other Church connections in the painting, particularly Pope Sixtus IV, which I shall explain in a future post.
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 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)
This is one of my favourite paintings, The Annunciation by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci. Today, March 25, Christians celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to the Virgin Mary to convey the message that she would conceive and bear a son who was to be named Jesus.
Sandro Botticelli, a contemporary of Leonardo, also records the event in his Primavera painting. The woman with the central role in the scene is generally assumed to be the figure of Venus, goddess of love. Although there are other mythological identities applied to her by Botticelli, he also makes clear the woman’s foremost identity is that of the Virgin Mary,
Botticelli does this by referencing a biblical description applied to Luke the Evangelist and a patron saint of artists, that of a winged Ox, and also to a verse from his account of the Annunciation – “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with his shadow” (1:35).
The swelling of the Virgin’s belly represents her pregnancy as well the muzzle of an ox. The eyes are formed by the shape of the strapping across her bosom, and the neckline of her dress is shaped to represent the horns. The straps outlining her bosom also form the wings of the Holy Spirit descending upon her (and refer to the winged ox), while the dark area beneath her left breast depicts the shadow of the Most High.
The reference to verse 35 is indicated by the number of fingers shown on both hands, three and five. While it appears that the numbers are reversed, reading from right to left, this is a pointer to Leonardo’s presence in the Primavera. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote in a mirror style from the right side of the page. Leonardo’s model for the Virgin in his Annunciation painting is a younger version of the same woman depicted as the Virgin in Botticelli’s Primavera.
There are other pointers to Leonardo connected to this figure which I shall explain in a future post as they relate to a separate narrative Botticelli has included in the Primavera.
When the time came for Mary and her new-born child to be purified, as laid down by the Law, she presented him in the Temple at Jerusalem. There, an old man named Simeon announced to Mary that a sword would pierce her soul, “so that the secrets of many may be laid bare”. This is represented by the pointed blade symbols forming a cross over the Virgin’s heart, and the suspended circular medallion depicting the deposition of Jesus in his tomb.
Simeon’s words is another verse 35, but from chapter two of Luke’s Gospel.
More on the Primavera figure of Mary and her Florentine connection in a future post.
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.
Sandro Botticelli is the artist whose name will be forever associated with the world famous Renaissance painting known as Primavera that is displayed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. But I doubt if there are many observers out there who realise the Springtime scene was inspired by two other celebrated artists, Jan Van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci.
A link to Leonardo is understandable; he was a contemporary of Botticelli working in Florence. But Van Eyck, how so?
My next series of posts will deal with revealing the Primavera connections to Jan van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci as well as uncovering a contemporary narrative at a level beyond any first impressions that the painting simply depicts a scene from classical mythology.
Here’s an interesting match. The detail on the left frame is from Andrea Mantegna’s painting Parnassus, dated 1497, although it could be later. The section on the right is part of the San Barnaba Altarpiece painted by Sandro Botticelli c1488.
The Parnassus was commissioned by Isabella d’Este. It was Mantegna’s first painting for the Marchioness of Mantua’s studiola. He produced another a few years later in 1502, Triumph of the Virtues. Isabella was into mythology themes with an allegorical bent, yet I doubt if she really understood or knew what Mantegna had surreptitiously embedded in the Parnassus painting; and probably neither did her court poet Paride da Ceresara who is said to have suggested the theme. Supposedly also an alchemist and astrologer, Paride may have made some sense of the mythological aspect, but Mantegna made sure he added his own narrative to the painting which seemingly has escaped the notice of art historians along the way.
Mantegna was in his mid-sixties and probably considered by some as past his prime. Isabella, some forty years younger, was keen to exhibit the work of a new generation of famous artists in her studiola. But initially she had to make do with Mantegna who had been employed as the Mantua court artist since 1460. Mantegna put forward the name of Sandro Botticelli as available for commissions but Isabella rejected the idea as the Florentine artist was no longer seen as the ascending star he once was, though he was still in his mid-forties. Isabella’s sights were set on brighter stars, Leonardo da Vinci in particular, but she was never able to commit the polymath to produce any paintings for her, other than to sketch her portrait when he visited the Mantua court on his way from Milan to Venice.
Mantegna was not a man who easily let go of a grievance he may have held for any slight against him. Like Botticelli, he had reached a high plateau of fame, and though Isabella may have viewed him as “old school” he was still more than capable of producing a master stroke, or two.
Apart from any mythological wellspring used to inspire the composition, Mantegna sourced work from two other artists, principally the “out of fashion” Botticelli, but also some pieces by Leonardo. Choosing “Botticelli” can be viewed as a retort to Isabella’s dismissive response of the “little barrel”, and while all her pleading and persuasive charms used to entice Leonardo to produce a painting for her studiola came to nothing, it was Mantegna who came up trumps. He created not only a permanent place for the polymath in the studiola, but also incorporated a painted portrait of the sketch Leonardo had made of Isabella when he visited Mantua.
The composition of the Parnassus painting is based on Botticelli’s Saint Barnabas Altarpiece which was commissioned by the Florentine Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries and installed in the Church of San Barnaba around 1488. The right half of the main section shown above depicts John the Baptist, St Ignatius of Antioch and the archangel Michael. Two other angels are placed behind the three standing figures.
Andrea has taken these figures and other elements and transformed them into a new creation for the Parnassus painting.
St Michael is stripped of his armour to become the half-naked figure in the red-winged hat; St Ignatius is transformed into the bearded horse, his wings and jewelled necklace replacing the winged shape and precious stones of the bishop’s mitre; and the Baptist and the angel immediaely above him become the two figures at the end of the line of Muses.
The two Muses represent a Chimera, a mythological hybrid creature usually depicted as a lion with the head of a goat protruding from its back. The Chimera’s tail is sometimes shown as a snake. So the inclusion of the Chimera in the Parnassus can be understood as being inspired by the portrayal of the two back-to-back angels above the trio of saints. Mantegna formed the head of a young goat within the windswept dress shown on the back of the Muse in white. The snake is represented by the ribbon held by the dancers, while in the altarpiece it can be interpreted as the right arm of the angel drawing back the ermine tailed curtain.
The two golden-haired Muses at the front of the line depict Isabella d’Este and her sister Beatrice with their heads turned admiring the statuesque figure representing multiple identities from Greek mythology, Hermes and Bellerophon, alongside the winged horse Pegasus. The figure with its flowing gold and shell-shaped drape is also a pointer to Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus, but in this instance Mantegna is revealing one of its hidden gems, that the west wind figure of Zephyrus actually represents Leonardo da Vinci in flight. As to the maiden clinging to his body, well that’s another story. A similar motif appears in another famous Botticelli painting, Primavera, where Leonardo is depicted as the wind from the East, an ill wind. It is in this painting that we see where Mantegna has borrowed another pairing, the figure of Flora and the woman gripped by Eurus, the East wind, matched with the two Muses next to Pegasus. As for connecting the faces of the two other Muses to the St Barnabas painting, these are adapted from the golden frieze of cherubs representing Botticelli and his brothers.
Other connections between the St Barnabas section and the Parnassus panel are the three nails held by one of the angels. This motif is matched to the grouping of three feet by three different Muses. The tower of caves with their dome-shaped entrances, along with the descending stream of water, is matched to some of the architectural features in Botticelli’s painting: the rondo and door features in the dome, the water feature with the fluted column. The angel’s head covered by a wing and the red drape can be compared to the red winged hat of Hermes, “the messenger of the gods”, whose caduceus can be likened to the staff of the prophet John the Baptist. (Hermes also represents Leonardo’s assistant Salai, while Leonardo is portrayed in the guise of Pegasus). The red jewel seen on the bishop’s episcopal glove is replicated between the eyes of Pegasus, suggesting St Ignatius’s focus is on the jewel. However, the heart in his hand represents his own which was removed to serve as a relic after his martyrdom. When the heart itself was opened it was claimed the name of Jesus Christ was written in gold letters inside.
Another version of the legend is that the heart was cut into several pieces for distribution as relics and that each piece had the name of Jesus inscribed in gold. The latter version relates to the group of rocks in the foreground of the Parnassus painting. The Acts of the Apostles records that Antioch was where the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians. This connects to the passage from Luke (19:34-39) when Jesus, seen as the Messiah, was greeted by the crowd with shouts of acclamation praising God. The Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Master, check your disciples” but he answered, “I tell you, if these keep silence the stones will cry out.”
The pile of rocks represent the Christians at Antioch proclaiming Jesus from the heart. The shape of the heart of Ignatius appears on the uppermost rock. It is also incorporated as part of a paw print which points to the manner of his martyrdom when the Roman emperor Trajan sent him to face two lions in the Colloseum.
The lion’s paw-print is another reference to Leonardo da Vinci and his thumb print recently discovered on one of his drawings illustrating the internal parts of a female body. Leonardo was known for dissecting cadavers for scientific research. Botticelli was aware of this and in the predella attached to the St Barnabas Altarpiece is a panel depicting two men removing the heart of St Ignatius. The younger man on the left is Leonardo da Vinci.
The left half of both paintings can be matched in a similar way I’ve explained for the right halves. But there are other references in the Parnassus painting that connect with two other Botticelli paintings and also to other works associated with Leonardo. I hope to explain these in a future post.