Noel as we know it?

So the third Sunday of Advent has crept up on us and the panic/excitement of Christmas has begun to take hold.

Singing choirs of angels from Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Some looking a little uncertain about those descant notes…

As with my Halloween post, what better way to enjoy this festive season than to look at some Christmassy themes in Art History. Tra la la la la indeed.

As I’m sure you can imagine – there is a wealth of artworks to choose from that feature the birth of Christ and they all look the same right…?

Well,… not quite.

You have your basic essentials yes, Mary, Joseph and Baby, not forgetting their trusty donkey munching on some hay in the background.

But quite often there are small but significant adjustments. Some scenes, for example, show the holy family in a cave whilst others depict them in a barn/ruined building.

Why? The cave was more typical in Italian paintings of the 1400s and has certain connections with Saint Francis of Assisi (Italy) whose life shared many parallels with Jesus’. The barn/ruined building, however, was (generally speaking) used by artists from the Netherlands in the 1400s during what is known as the Northern Renaissance.

Why does this matter? Well, when Italian artists of the late 15th century began to look more closely at art from Northern Europe, they began to include these typically ‘Netherlandish’ features. This would suggest an artistic dialogue between the Netherlands and Italy, especially in Florence during the second half of the 1400s.

Aside from that, it’s also quite interesting to play spot the difference as you wander past endless paintings of the Holy Family in a gallery.

If you find yourself strolling, by chance, through the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, you may well come upon one particular Nativity scene in room 57.

Introducing: The Mystic Nativity by Botticelli

Botticelli_Mystic Nat.jpg

Look closer and things perhaps don’t appear as they usually do.

You have a strange concoction of barn and cave for the Holy Family. Three pairs of angels embrace along the bottom of the scene as strange demons scurry around their feet, apparently popping out of the ground like daisies. And what is going on in the sky?

This Nativity is actually celebrating Christ’s birth as well as his Return to Earth, what is known as the Second Coming, the Day of Judgement or Apocalypse.

The demons are actually fleeing into their holes and the angels are celebrating a new era of peace on Earth. The branches and twigs everyone is holding and/or wearing are not due to a bit of over-keen gardening. They are olive branches to symbolise peace.

Sandro Botticelli Natività mistica Mystic Nativity, 1501

The Greek text at the top is prophetic and refers to the Book of Revelations (the last section of the New Testament which speaks of Jesus’ return, you know: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, I am which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” etc etc)

So this painting shows both the beginning of Christ’s life on Earth as well as the End of Days when He comes to Earth a second time. The beginning and the end in one painting.

There is, however, another layer to this Nativity/Apocalypse scene and for this we have to look into when the painting was made.

Botticelli painted this in Florence around 1500 following a particularly turbulent ten years in the city. Florence in the 1490s looked a little like this:

Italy was at war with France. The French had invaded Naples and Milan and were on their way to Florence via Pisa. They posed a very real threat to the Florentine Republic way of life.

The ruling and extremely powerful Medici family had been exiled from Florence, leaving a rather large Medici-shaped hole in the city’s society.

A passionate and severe dominican friar called Savonarola openly preached to the Florentines about the city’s misfortunes being part of God’s punishment for people’s sins and that the Apocalypse was imminent.

Rather scary profile of the notorious Savonarola. Why so serious?

The Florentines and other followers of Savonarola were convinced the end of the world was indeed nigh.

Sav. advised people to rid themselves of their vices and burn their luxury items and any objects of vanity. These included paintings, drawings, books, jewellery, clothes, wigs – you name it, it probably got chucked in a fire. There were huge bonfires in the central public square where people would gather to burn their belongings, an event now known as the Burning of the Vanities.

One fan of Savonarola was, you guessed it, Botticelli.

He threw many of his drawings and some paintings on to the fires and turned away from his signature Seductive Venus paintings towards more intensely religious paintings.

Interestingly, Botticelli’s new hero had a vision of a crown consisting of 12 prayers being offered to the Virgin by the people of Florence.

Remember the painting and the party in the sky?

Botticelli_sky detail.jpg

Well, if you count, you’ll find that there are 12 angels who all hold scrolls on which prayers are written. And look – there are also crowns dotted around at the bottom of some of the olive branches. So this painting also depicts Sav’s strange vision together with everything else.

The death of Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria, Florence in 1498

Savonarola eventually got himself into trouble with the Church, was excommunicated and then hung and ironically burnt on a bonfire himself in Florence’s central piazza in 1498.

There’s even a marble slab on the floor today to mark the spot of his execution.



SO – if you’re still with me, what is it that are we looking at here?

This mysterious Mystic Nativity isn’t just a standard Nativity but actually shows three different things in one frame.

1. The Nativity. The birth of Christ, Son of God made Man.

2. Christ’s Second Coming, the Apocalypse.

3. A somewhat fervent friar’s apocalyptic vision.

Painted during immense religious and political upheaval in Florence, this painting contains so many cryptic symbols and layers, not forgetting a rather zealous friar, that it could almost serve as the beginning of the next Dan Brown ‘Da Vinci Code’ adventure, don’t you agree?


2 thoughts on “Noel as we know it?

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