The crowds watched the thick black smoke rising up into the Florentine sky. They watched with a sense of self righteousness as the flames turned irreplaceable manuscripts, ancient scriptures, antique and modern paintings, priceless tapestries, as well as mirrors, and musical instruments into a heap of smoldering ash.
It's the 7th of February 1497. This is the evening of the notorious 'Bonfire of the Vanities'. Among the crowds is Florence's celebrated Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, who burned several of his own paintings that evening.
The 'Bonfire of the Vanities' was orchestrated by the charismatic and fanatical Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola, who was known for his apocalyptic sermons. After the ruling Medici dynasty was overthrown in 1494, Savonarola effectively had the city of Florence captivated, both politically as well as spiritually. Florence, at the time, was a city of extreme wealth. The citizens were patrons of the arts and culture. On that fateful evening Savonarola called upon the people of Florence to burn all objects associated with vanity, temptation and sin. Sandro Botticelli was among his most ardent of followers.
It is against this backdrop and the fervent speech Savonarola delivered on the eve of Christmas in 1493, that Sandro Botticelli created the beautiful painting 'Mystic Nativity'.
This 42.7 inches by 29.5 inches, oil on canvas painting was created in Circa 1500-1501 and was probably commissioned by a wealthy patron in Florence.
The 'Mystic Nativity' depicts a scene of joy and celebration of earthly and heavenly delight. This is the only painting that Botticelli ever signed. Along with his signature it has an inscription in Greek within a gold band right at the top of the painting. This is very unusual for a nativity painting. The inscription predicts Christ's Millennium, or second coming, as stated in the Biblical text.
Heaven opens in a great golden dome. The gold symbolizes the untarnished, unchanging nature of heaven as gold doesn't tarnish like silver. Botticelli added the gold by using an adhesive layer made of oil mixed with resin, and then just patted it down on to the surface of the canvas which made it shine like a jewel. He learnt this craft when he apprenticed with a goldsmith as a boy.
We see a circle of twelve angles dancing below the golden dome. They represent the twelve hours of the day and the twelve months of the year. The angles are dressed in robes representing their virtues. 'Faith' in white, 'hope' in green and 'charity' in red. They hold olive branches, the traditional symbols of peace. Below them we see three angels dressed in the same symbolic colors of faith, hope and charity sitting on the roof of the manger reading a book. It is believed that through this Botticelli wanted to indicate to the viewer that his painting has a deeper meaning which needs to be read into.
At the center of the painting we see the holy family who are depicted much larger than the other figures to emphasize their importance. Mary adores the baby Jesus who is lying on a white sheet which reminds the viewer of the shroud in which his body will be wrapped one day.
The manger in the background behind the virgin, foreshadows the tomb in which Christ will be buried. We see Joseph who appears to be resting. On the right side are the shepherds in rustic clothing who have come to worship Christ on the day of his birth. On the left are the wise men, they carry no gifts and are dressed simply to stress humility and simplicity in the Christian lifestyle.
The foreground shows the second coming of Christ, the 'Last Judgement'. Here we see the same three angels embrace three men, seeming to raise them up from the ground. They hold scrolls which proclaim in Latin "Peace on earth to men of goodwill".
Behind them we can see seven devils, symbolic of evil fleeing to the underworld, some impaled on their own weapons. Through this painting Botticelli is asking the viewer to think not only of Christ's birth but also of his return.
The 'Mystic Nativity' is painted on canvas. Normally Botticelli would have used a wood panel to paint on. Perhaps, keeping in mind the social, religious and political environment of the time, he feared that the painting may need to be rolled up and hidden.
Savonarola's excesses earned him the disdain of Pope Alexander VI. He was eventually excommunicated from the church. In 1498 the disgraced Savonarola was burnt on the stake.
Botticelli died twelve years later in 1510. The 'Mystic Nativity' remained hidden for over three centuries until it was bought by an English art collector and taken to England. It finally emerged from obscurity and was displayed in Manchester in 1857.
Today it can be seen at the National Gallery in London.
References: National Gallery, London.