BOTTICELLI (religious paintings and last works, from 1488 to 1510).

In 1491, Botticelli, together with Lorenzo di Credi, Ghirlandaio, Perugino and Baldovinetti, was appointed jury of a project competition for the façade of the Florence Cathedral, a competition sponsored by Lorenzo the Magnificent. He also had a commission, together with Ghirlandaio, to decorate with mosaic an area of the vault of the chapel of Saint Zenobious in the same Cathedral, a commission that was never carried out. But from 1490, the city of Florence was under tension listening to the voice of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, his preaching against the desecration and corruption of the Renaissance, his incitement to penance, his announcements of apocalyptic punishments, it was all a call to a severe medieval religiosity. The hypersensitive Botticelli couldn’t escape to this suggestive preaching which also reached other artists such as Lorenzo di Credi, Bardo della Porta, Il Cronaca and, finally, even the young Michelangelo. But there were facts in Savonarola’s preaching and his party that Botticelli couldn’t share: thus the anti-Medici position, the hatred of classical culture, the condemnation of the entire refined civilization hitherto dominant in Florence, all accompanied with bonfires of vanities, including books and paintings. Certain family-related reasons must also contribute to Botticelli’s psychological crisis.

St. Augustine in His Cell, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1490-1494, 41 x 27 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This small devotional painting shows St. Augustine as an scholar. The worn-out quills and crumpled pieces of paper on the floor are signs of his intensive studies. Under the red bishops cloak the saint is wearing the habit of an Augustinian hermit, even though he was never a monk. As a result it is assumed that the painting was produced for a prior of Santo Spirito, the only Augustinian hermit monastery in Florence. As in many of Botticelli’s late works, it is inspired by the preaching of Girolamo Savonarola.

In 1493, Botticelli’s older brother Giovanni, from whom he had taken the nickname Botticelli, died. Meanwhile, his other brother, Simone, almost the same age as Sandro, was returning from Naples and was going to live in Botticelli’s house. Simone and his other brother Antonio, the gilder, convinced Sandro, who was single and whom they had judged unpredictable and disorderly as artists are usually believed to be, to acquire in the name of all the men of the family, a property located outside the city walls on the area near the gate of San Frediano, a property that included a house and vineyards, olive and fruit trees. Sandro paid for this property that he bought in 1494 from the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, 156 gold florins. Because of this property, between 1497 to 1498, Botticelli had disputes with an adjoining owner, a certain Filippo di Domenico del Calzolaio, a dispute that ended with a reciprocal declaration before a notary not to offend each other again. The declaration was guaranteed by a certain Antonio di Migliore Guidotti, an ardent follower of Savonarola.

Portrait of Lorenzo di Ser Piero Lorenzi, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1490-1495 or ca. 1492, 50 x 36,5 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, USA). Lorenzo di Ser Piero Lorenzi was Professor of Philosophy and Medicine in Pisa, whose reputation reached its height at the end of the 15th century.

In this decision to make Sandro buy something solid such as that property, his brothers could also be influenced by the fact that the artist, having lost the great patronage of the Medici and even being frowned upon by this precedent, would see his commissions decrease and as a consequence, fall in misery. At the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, his son Piero was, in effect, deposed from power in 1494 and his relatives Lorenzo and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco rose up against him, calling themselves Popolani (partisans of the people), but with the sole purpose to find a way to succeed him in power. Lorenzo and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco also were enemies of Savonarola and ultimately contributed to his downfall and execution. Botticelli continued to have a patron in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici, but his brother Simone, an ardent Piagnone (or “weeper” as the Savonarola’s followers were called) reproached him for maintaining this association with the opposing party.

Portrait of Michelle Marullo, tempera on canvas transferred from wood, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1490, 49 x 35 cm (Private collection, Guardans-Cambó collection, Spain). Michele Marullo (1453-1500), known as Tarcaniota, a Greek humanist, was a guest of the Medici’s between 1489 and 1495. Later, in 1496, he returned to Florence and married the woman poet Alessandra Scala. He left Florence in 1490 and soon after he died by drowning into the river Cecina. This painting can be considered an ideal portrait of a scholar, a forerunner of those portrayals of philosopher-heroes that would later develop during the 17th century, e.g. those by Luca Giordano.

Meanwhile Botticelli had made some smaller works such as Saint Augustine in his cell (Uffizi), a painting owned by the Vecchietti in the 16th century and in which preciousness is combined with a shocking feeling of tormented loneliness. Also in the Portrait of Lorenzo Lorenzi (today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), the incisive and insightful definition of the portrait does not exclude a subtle insight into the personality of the learned professor of the University of Pisa, who was an acquaintance of Pico della Mirandola (a nobleman and philosopher) and even with Savonarola, and who ended up committing suicide in 1502. Severe in appearance is the Portrait of Michelle Marullo (Cambó Collection, Barcelona) a professor from Naples, who in Florence was the guest of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici from 1489 to 1494. With an angular, convulsive rhythm, it’s a Madonna and Child and the Young St. John the Baptist that is in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, while the Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, recalls the work of Rogier van der Weyden in the most painful arch drawn by Christ’s body. An equally dramatic, anguished vision, although now in vertical format and more closed, emerges from other Lamentation over the Dead Christ of the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan, perhaps identifiable with a Pieta remembered as being located in Santa María Maggiore in Florence. We must also mention the mystical tension in the Last Communion of St. Jerome at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as well as the grandiose, excited convergence of the groups in the unfinished Adoration of the Magi at the Uffizi.

Madonna and Child and the Young St. John the Baptist, tempera on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, 1490-1495, 134 x 92 cm (Palazzo Pitti, Florence). We see the Virgin solemnly handing the Christ Child down to the young John the Baptist for him to embrace. This is a devotional scene that positively forces the observer to his knees. Its sentimental character reflects the emphatic piety of the devotional ambient of the early 1490s in Florence. The painting was executed with the assistance of some members of Botticelli’s workshop. It must have become extremely popular with the public, for several surviving replicas produced by the workshop are known.
Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1490-1495 or 1492, 140 x 207 cm (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). The stylistic changes in Botticelli’s late works are especially striking in the two paintings depicting the theme of the “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” (in Munich and Milan, for this last see picture below). Botticelli was reacting in these pictures to the new religious sensibility reigning in Florence at the time. In this interpretation of the scene, the body of Christ is lying lifelessly on a fine cloth on his mother’s lap, and she has fallen back in a swoon against the shoulders of his favorite disciple, John. The two Marys are gently supporting the head and feet of the crucified man. Mary Magdalene is fearfully and sorrowfully gazing at the crucifixion nails. St. Jerome, St. Paul and St. Peter (right) are observing the moving scene. The fervent gestures and postures of the figures express their grief at the death of Christ, a religious emotion intended to include the observer. The pathetic expressions of the characters observed in the last works of Botticelli were a novelty in his art and were most probably influenced by Savonarola’s preaching in Florence, which began around the time this work was executed. In fact, Botticelli started to abandon the allegorically inspired themes that had made him a favorite of the Medici court, and focused more on intimate and painstaking religious reflection. Originally the painting was in the church of San Paolino in Florence. After being restored in 1813 it was purchased by the King of Bavaria.
Lamentation over the Dead Christ, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1490-1495, 107 x 71 cm (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan). In these religious-themed paintings, Botticelli was reacting to the new religious sensibility in Florence. As in the earlier “Lamentation” in Munich (see picture before), here the scene is brought vividly close to the observer, in order to create sympathetic feelings. The group of mourners in front of the dark rock tomb is arranged in the form of a cross. At its top is Joseph of Arimathea. He is gazing painfully up to heaven as he holds out the instruments of Christ’s Passion: the nails and the crown of thorns. The Virgin Mary sits at the center, vertically, with the dead Christ on her lap, his body appearing extremely small. The Three Marys are circling the inner group expressing despair. Mary Magdalen is embracing Christ’s feet with sorrow. St. John sits above The Virgin Mary and cradles her head in an attempt to soothe her pain. The painting was originally kept in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence.
The Last Communion of St. Jerome, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1494-1495, 34,5 x 25,4 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This small panel painting was intended as a private devotional picture. It was probably commissioned by the wealthy wool merchant Francesco del Pugliese, a follower of Savonarola. The subject of the work is the moment in which St. Jerome receives the sacred Host from the hands of his companion, St. Eusebius, for the last time before the former’s death. Botticelli has opened one of the walls of the hut and has depicted the events in a bare room covered with wickerwork. According to apocryphal tradition, the saint died in a monastery close to Bethlehem. The painting, which is designed for the observers’ spiritual edification, presents an exemplary view of the saint’s modest way of life. Botticelli seemed primarily interested in the figure of St. Jerome. The saint has a considerably larger head than the other figures. Even the features of the old man, already bearing the signs of the impending death, are far more strikingly modelled.
Adoration of the Magi, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1500, 108 x 173 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This is a late painting by Botticelli which shows the influence of Leonardo’s unfinished work of the same subject. In the asymmetry and sweeping quality of this work, appropriately left unfinished, it appears that Botticelli was the only Florentine artist older than Leonardo to appreciate the potential force of his example and attempt with some effort to equal it.

We find in the latter a sense of powerful movement of the masses that recalls the Dantean visions; Botticelli was, in fact, a passionate admirer of Dante, whose “Divine Comedy” he began to illustrate ca. 1481 commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici. The drawings on parchment (today in Berlin and in the Vatican Library) prepared to be illuminated in color, certainly translate Dante’s virile sobriety through the very distinct sensitivity of Boticelli’s art, but they are, indisputably, of a high illustrative quality.

Portrait of Dante, tempera on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1495, 54,7 x 47,5 cm (Private collection). The striking profile of the poet, which has been drawn over in black, clearly contrasts with the light background. In accordance with traditional depictions, Dante is wearing a red cloak and red cap above a white bonnet. Botticelli was surely familiar with Domenico de Michelino’s fresco of Dante in Florence Cathedral, as this was the first to show the poet with a laurel wreath on his head.
Dante: Illustrations for the Divina Commedia, drawing on parchment, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1480s-1505, 320 x 470 mm (Manuscript [Reg. lat. 1986], Biblioteca Apostolica, Vatican City). In his Divine Comedy, Dante imagined Hell as being an abyss with nine circles, which in turn divided into various rings. Botticelli’s cross-section view of the underworld is drawn so finely and precisely that it is possible to trace the individual stops made by Dante and Virgil on their descent to the center of the earth. This colored drawing on parchment shows the Map of the Abyss of Hell. This is one of the extant 92 drawings that were originally included in the illustrated manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. Botticelli’s design implied that the entire thematic sequence of each canto was to be illustrated by its own full-page drawing, which was an ambitious conception, unprecedentedly on its day. Most of these illustrations were not taken beyond silverpoint drawings, many were worked over in ink, and only four pages are fully colored. The manuscript eventually disappeared and most of it was rediscovered in the late 19th century. Botticelli was able to illustrate the first 19 cantos (out of 100) of the Comedy. Although the printed and illustrated book was rapidly replacing the traditional and very expensive illuminated manuscript in the last decades of the 15th century, the grandest bibliophiles were still commissioning manuscripts and continued to do so well into the next century.
Dante: Illustrations for the Divina Commedia, drawing on parchment, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1480s-1505, 320 x 470 mm, (Manuscript Hamilton 201, Staatliche Museen, Berlin). Although several remarkable illustrated Dante manuscripts exist, certainly the most famous illustrations for the Divina Commedia are the superb drawings Sandro Botticelli planned for this de luxe manuscript commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. Although they have remained unfinished, they constitute a pinnacle of the art of book illustration in the Quattrocento. This almost completely colored silverpoint drawing gives us an impression of the magnificent way in which all the miniatures were to be produced. It is an illustration to the Inferno, Canto XVIII. The main figures, Dante and Virgil, are emphasized by their vibrantly shining robes. While journeying through the ditches of Hell, here in the eighth circle, they first encounter the souls of procurers and seducers being tortured by devils, and then those of sycophants and prostitutes, who are being made to suffer while immersed in ordure. Dante and Virgil are each shown six times, descending through the 10 chasms of the circle via a ridge. For these illustrations. Botticelli was using continuous narrative, where recurrent incidents were shown, usually unframed and in the margin below the text. Thus the principal figures of Dante, Virgil and Beatrice often appear several times in an image. This illustration is a silverpoint drawing on parchment, completed in pen and ink, colored with tempera, and is one of the four fully colored existing pages of the manuscript.
Dante: Illustrations for the Divina Commedia, drawing on parchment, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1480s-1505, 320 x 470 mm, (Manuscript Hamilton 201, Staatliche Museen, Berlin). This illustration corresponds to the Paradise, Canto XXX, where Dante and Beatrice are carried upwards in a river of light, from which fly sparkles which Botticelli depicts as little putti. They disappear in the meadows of flowers along the banks on either side. The one on the right had not been retraced with ink and was a preliminary drawing carried out in silver point. Botticelli never completed the illustrations for the Divine Comedy. However, the drawings are of such artistry and beauty, that they have been described as “central to Botticelli’s artistic achievement” and no less important than his Primavera. Each page was first drawn with a metal stylus, leaving lines that are now very faint. The next stage was to go over these lines with a pen and black or brown ink. Most of the pages were not taken beyond these stages, which are often found together on a page, with only some areas inked over. Other pages have not yet been inked at all. Only four pages fully received the final stage of coloring in tempera, though others are part-colored, usually just the main figures.

In 1495, thanks to a letter from Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici’s wife, dated November 25, we know that Botticelli was expected at the Villa del Trebbio, in Mugello, to execute some paintings (perhaps frescoes), but we know nothing more about it. In 1496, Botticelli painted a Saint Francis in the dormitory of the convent of Santa María di Monticelli (Florence), which has now disappeared. In July of that year, when Michelangelo (who at that time was considered suspicious in Florence) had to write a letter from Rome to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, he addressed it to Sandro Botticelli. In 1497, Botticelli made, in collaboration with assistants, certain decorative paintings in the Villa di Castello a property of Lorenzo; but nothing is known about them either.

From that same period is the splendid Calumny of Apelles of the Uffizi, acquired by a certain Antonio Segni. This painting is an allegory of a famous ancient painting by Apelles described by Lucian and later by Alberti. On the other hand, other scholars relate this work to the calumnies that led to Savonarola’s excommunication (1497) and, later, to his martyrdom. Be that as it may, in this painting the serene beauty of the rich porticoes adorned with statues and bas-reliefs contrasts with the dramatic meaning of the allegory. The figure of the King, badly advised by Ignorance and Suspicion whom fill his ears with bad calumnies, has before him the beautiful but false Calumny (served by Fraud and Perfidy), which drags an innocent man, while the whole group is preceded by the grim Envy. Then comes, represented as a witch, Remorse and, finally, the naked, abandoned Truth. The agitated linearism of the figures represented in a rhythm that either encircles and harasses, or on the contrary delays and abandons, stands out even more in contrast to the static beauty of the environment, with its pilasters and powerful arches, up to the green see expanse under an immaculate blue sky. In this painting, we return to the old contrast, already admired in Botticelli’s Judith, between the serene and eternally imperturbable nature, and the painful human drama; although, once again, all of this is projected in the fantastic distance and the allegorical beauty of the myth.

The Calumny of Apelles, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1494-1495, 62 x 91 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Botticelli’s theme was drawn from a famous painting by the Greek artist Apelles, described in classical sources by Lucian. Apelles produced his painting because he was unjustly slandered by a jealous artistic rival, Antiphilos, who accused him in front of the gullible king of Egypt, Ptolemy, of being an accomplice in a conspiracy. After Apelles had been proven to be innocent, he dealt with his rage and desire for revenge by painting this event. In his interpretation of the subject, Botticelli created a lavishly decorated architectural backdrop for the figures, a throne room very elaborately decorated with sculptures and reliefs of classical heroes, creatures from ancient myth, and battle scenes. The extensive reliefs around the room contain some quotations from earlier paintings of Botticelli, including the paintings of the story of Nastagio degli Onesti, and his Return of Judith to Bethulia. The palace is beside the sea, which can be seen, flat and plain, through the open arcade. In the main scene, an innocent man is dragged before the kings throne by the personifications of Calumny, Perfidy, Fraud and Rancor. They are followed to one side by Remorse as an old woman, turning to face the naked Truth, who is pointing towards heaven. The nakedness of Truth places her in a relationship with the innocent young man, whose folded hands are also an appeal to a higher power. It is often speculated that Botticelli had a specific slandered individual in mind, perhaps himself, or Savonarola. In 1502, some years after the probable date of the painting, an anonymous denunciation to the authorities accused Botticelli of sodomy. The figures are personifications of vices or virtues, or in the case of the king and victim, of the roles of the powerful and the powerless.
The Calumny of Apelles (detail), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1494-1495, 62 x 91 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The king is sitting on a raised throne and has the donkey’s ears of King Midas symbolizing his rash and foolish nature. He is flanked by the allegorical figures of Ignorance (to his right) and Suspicion, who grasp the king’s donkey ears as they eagerly whisper the rumors into them. The king’s eyes are lowered, so as he is unable to see what is happening; he is stretching out his hand searchingly towards Calumny.
The Calumny of Apelles (detail), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1494-1495, 62 x 91 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Rancour (Envy), a bearded and hooded man clothed in black, holds his hand towards the king’s eyes to obscure their view and is dragging Calumny (in white and blue) forward with his right hand; as a symbol of the lies which she has spread, she is holding a burning torch in her left hand, while she is pulling her victim, an almost naked young man, by the hair behind her with her right hand. His innocence is shown by his nakedness, signifying that he has nothing to hide. In vain he folds his hands so as to beseech his deliverance. Behind Calumny, the figures of Fraud (arranging Calumny’s hair) and Perfidy (in red and yellow) are studiously engaged in hypocritically braiding the hair of their mistress with a white ribbon and strewing roses over her head and shoulders. In the deceitful forms of beautiful young women, they are making insidious use of the symbols of purity and innocence to adorn the lies of Calumny.
The Calumny of Apelles (detail), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1494-1495, 62 x 91 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Remorse, represented as an old woman in black, turns her hidden face to face the naked Truth. The figure of “Truth” is clearly derived from the own artist figure of Venus in his Birth of Venus canvas. She is a naked beauty, an effective opposite to the personification of Remorse, an old, grief-stricken woman in threadbare clothes. Truth, like the innocent youth, is almost naked as she has nothing to conceal. The eloquent gestures and expression of the only towering figure in the painting are pointing up towards heaven, where a higher justice will be seek out.

The same happens in The Outcast, from the Pallavicini Collection in Rome, a mysterious allegory in which the aching sense of the human nature is clear against the firmness of the background stage. This is much more solemn, with architectures appropriate to preside over hectic scenes, in the Story of Virginia (Carrara Academy, Bergamo) and in the Story of Lucretia (Isabella Stewart Museum, Boston), which are identified with the panels painted by Botticelli in 1495 for a new house acquired by the Vespucci.

The outcast, tempera on wood, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1496, 47 x 41 cm (Collection Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi, Rome).
The Story of Virginia, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1496-1504 or 1500-1504, 85 x 165 cm (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy). The panels on the subjects of Virginia and Lucretia (see picture below) were produced to be hung together. The classical writer Livy wrote the stories of these two Roman heroines. The beautiful, virtuous Virginia (whom Botticelli represents here with long blond hair wearing pink and green clothes) becomes the victim of an intrigue of the dastardly decemvir Appius Claudius, and despite her innocence is to be condemned to a life of slavery. In order to avoid this disgrace, she is stabbed to death by her father. The events lead to a revolt against Rome’s tyrannical decemvirs. Botticelli structures the dramatic scene, in which Virginia is stabbed to death by her father Virginius, by means of a lively grouping of vehement gestures (to the right of the painting). The sorrowful faces of the mourning women are typical of Botticelli’s late style. Virginius is turning his head to the right, creating a link to the next scene, and this is a characteristic trick of Botticelli’s which he frequently used to connect various episodes with one another. The events depicted by the painting are read from left to right: Virginia, in the company of other women, is violated or assaulted by Marcus Claudius, who wants to force her to yield to Appius Claudius Crassus; he carries her to the tribunal presided by Appius Claudius who declares her a slave; her father and husband plead for clemency (center). The father, to preserve the family honor, kills her and prepares to flee on horseback (right). This story is developed within a setting of classical architecture, in which the figures are agitated and painted with vibrant colors.
The Story of Lucretia, tempera on oil on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1496-1504, 84 x 180 cm (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts, USA). The topic of the painting focused on revolt against tyranny, a popular theme of discussion in the volatile Italian republics. While her husband is away, the virtuous Lucretia is raped by Tarquinius, the king’s son (to the left inside the building). On the right, under the arcade, we see how she is found unconscious by her husband and his companions. In order to save her honor she takes her own life. On the heroines bier in the center of the picture, Brutus is calling on the army to take revenge. The soldiers are rushing up in front of the triumphal arch and the statue of David which is placed high on a column. The revolt will lead to the fall of the kingdom of Rome. Above the scene in which Lucretia is pestered by her rapist, Botticelli shows a relief featuring Judith, the biblical heroine who freed her people from Holofernes’ siege. Both women, Lucretia and Judith, were considered to be republican symbols of freedom. The soldier’s revolt takes the center stage, and the preceding episodes are grouped around it.

Meanwhile, Sandro had gone to live with his brother Simone in the house of his nephews Benincasa and Lorenzo, in the Santa Maria Novella neighborhood. Times were agitated and referring to the Mystical Nativity in the National Gallery in London, a writing by Sandro dated 1501 mentions “the tumults of Italy” with other prophetic references (perhaps referring to Savonarola). In this Nativity, where men and angels embrace, peace is fostered after the reign of the Antichrist. It is a stylistically agitated painting, of a hurtful and exasperated quality, an expression of a violent religious pathos. Also in the Mystical Crucifixion of the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we find a complex allegory not entirely decipherable, but always inspired by Savonarola, with a Magdalene hugging the Cross while the city of Florence appears in the background.

The Mystical Nativity, tempera on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1500-1501, 109 x 75 cm (National Gallery, London). There is no documentary evidence to prove whether or not Botticelli was one of Savonarola’s followers. But certain themes in his later works, like the Mystic Nativity, are certainly derived from the sermons of Savonarola. It has been suggested that this picture, the only surviving work signed by Botticelli, was painted for his own private devotions, or for someone close to him. It is certainly unconventional, and does not simply represent the traditional events of the birth of Jesus and the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi. Rather it is a vision of these events inspired by the prophecies in the Revelation of Saint John. Botticelli has underlined the non-realism of the picture by including Latin and Greek texts, and by adopting the conventions of medieval art, such as discrepancies in scale, for symbolic ends. The Virgin Mary, adoring a gigantic infant Jesus, is so large that were she to stand she could not fit under the thatch roof of the stable. They are, of course, the holiest and the most important persons in the painting. The angels carry olive branches, which two of them have presented to the men they embrace in the foreground (see detail below). These men, as well as the presumed shepherds in their short hooded garments on the right and the long-gowned Magi on the left, are all crowned with olive, an emblem of peace. The scrolls wound about the branches in the foreground, combined with some of those held by the angels dancing in the sky (wearing the colors of faith [white], hope [green] and charity [red]), read: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men’ (Luke 2:14). As angels and men move ever closer, from right to left, to embrace, little devils scatter into holes in the ground (see detail below). Above the stable roof the sky has opened to reveal the golden light of paradise. Golden crowns hang down from the dancing angels’ olive branches. Most of their scrolls celebrate Mary: ‘Mother of God’, ‘Bride of God’, ‘Sole Queen of the World’. The puzzling Greek inscription at the top of the picture has been translated: ‘I Sandro made this picture at the conclusion of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time according to the 11th chapter of Saint John in the second woe of the Apocalypse during the loosing of the devil for three and a half years then he will be chained in the 12th chapter and we shall see […] as in this picture.’ Like the end of the millennium in the year 1000, the end of the half millennium in 1500 also seemed to many people to herald the Second Coming of Christ, prophesied in Revelation. It has been suggested that the painting may be connected with the influence of Girolamo Savonarola, whose influence appears in a number of late paintings by Botticelli.
The Mystical Nativity (detail), tempera on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1500-1501, 109 x 75 cm (National Gallery, London).
Crucifixion, tempera on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1497, 73,5 x 50,8 cm (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA). This severely damaged painting is an expression of the fears that arose as the new century came closer. Behind the Cross, in the dark clouds, are devils throwing flames. At the top left. God has sent out angels in order to protect the city of Florence. Repentance will be needed in order to procure salvation, as is made clear by the figure of Mary Magdalene at the bottom of the Cross embracing it. The city of Florence is seen in the background, spread out in bright light under a clear sky. Within the city walls, we can identify the dome of the Cathedral, the Campanile, the Baptistery and the Palazzo Vecchio.

During the last years of his life, Botticelli produced much less; perhaps his art, now so disturbed, no longer attracted customers; perhaps he was feeling tired. In 1502, as Elizabeth d’Este, Duchess of Ferrara, was looking for a great painter in Florence, she got the news that Perugino and Filippino Lippi were too busy, but that Botticelli was available and did not have so much work, and he himself declared willing to serve her. Botticelli’s charges for sodomy date from November of that same year, which didn’t seem to have been carried out. Botticelli, cited in 1494 by Luca Pacioli as skilled in perspective, was remembered in 1503 by Ugolino Yerino in the poem De illustratione urbis Florentiae among the most famous painters, along with Giotto, Taddeo Gaddi, Pollaiuolo, Filippino, Ghirlandaio and Leonardo. In 1503 Botticelli appeared in the Books of the Company of Painters as a debtor of some social contributions, which he paid in 1505, undoubtedly with the payment he received from the Scenes from the Life of Saint Zenobius (today in London, New York, Dresden). In 1504 he participated, with some of the best artists, in discussions about where Michelangelo’s David should be placed. There is no further news about Botticelli until the year 1510, when he was buried, on May 17, in the cemetery of the Church of the Ognissanti in Florence.

Baptism of St. Zenobius and His Appointment as Bishop, from the series of Scenes from the Life of St. Zenobius, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1500-1505, 66,5 x 149,5 cm (National Gallery, London). Botticelli depicted the life and work of St. Zenobius (337-417), the first bishop of Florence, on four paintings. In the first scene, St. Zenobius is shown twice: he rejects the bride that his parents intended him to take in marriage and walks thoughtfully away (to the left). The other episodes show the baptism of the young Zenobius and his mother, and on the right his ordination as bishop by Pope Damasus. Some art scholars consider this group of paintings as possibly Botticelli’s latest surviving works. The somewhat stark style of the panels, with contorted figures in anguish and an interest in the architectural backgrounds, is typical of Botticelli’s last years. Various degrees of participation in the painting by Botticelli’s workshop assistants have been suggested. The panels were possibly commissioned by a religious institution in Florence to be set into wood paneling around a room.
Three Miracles of St. Zenobius, from the series of Scenes from the Life of St. Zenobius, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1500-1505, 65 x 139,5 cm (National Gallery, London). This panel includes three scenes, and reads from left to right. St. Zenobius saves two men who are possessed by devils. After praying for them in front of the cross, he blesses them, and little devils disappear out of their mouths (left). According to legend, this occurred inside a church, and Botticelli depicts it as a chapel. Its walls are open, so that the observer can see what is happening. In front of a house entrance, he is restoring to life the child of a pilgrim to Rome (center). On the right he is healing a blind man who is kneeling before the bishop with his little dog.
Three Miracles of St. Zenobius, from the series of Scenes from the Life of St. Zenobius, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1500-1505, 67,3 x 150,5 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In front of an astonished crowd, St. Zenobius raises a young man already lying on his bier from the dead (left). He also saves a man who fell from his horse while transporting the relics (skeletal remains) of saints (center). The scene in the interior of a building in the background shows St. Zenobius healing his sick deacon. The latter gets up immediately in order to use the water St. Zenobius has blessed to bring a dead relative back to life (right).
Last Miracle and the Death of St. Zenobius, from the series of Scenes from the Life of St. Zenobius, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1500-1505, 66 x 182 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, Germany). In the Dresden panel a single miracle is shown in three scenes. A child is run over by a cart while playing (left). His mother, a widow, wails as she brings the dead child to St. Zenobius’ deacon (middle left). By means of a prayer not depicted here, St. Zenobius is able to revive the child and restore him to his mother (center). On the far right, the bishop, who has meanwhile turned old, blesses those praying by his deathbed.

 

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