Sunday 3 March 2013

The Angelic Visions of Botticini and Botticelli

Francesco Botticini, 1475-6, Assumption of the Virgin, Tempera on wood, 228.6 x 377.2 cm, London, National Gallery.

Botticini’s Assumption was used as the altarpiece in the burial chapel in S. Pier Maggiore, Florence. It shows Matteo Palmieri, a civil servant, depicted kneeling on the left; on the other side is his widow, Niccolosa, clothed in the garments of the Benedictine order, who owned the church. The wide vista view behind Matteo shows both Florence and Fiesole, as well as a farm that was his property. At the rear of his widow are hamlets of Val d'Elsa, a portion of her dowry. According to Rolf Bagemihl, all the versions of Matteo’s will reflect the complete trust that he placed in his wife, and she was involved in the only agreement about the chapel made in 1476. The painting took Botticini two years or more to finish, and its iconography was closely guided by Palmieri’s theological ideas. [1] Palmieri was a noted Humanist who had progressive ideas, not always accommodated by the Church. His La città di vita ("The City of Life”) of 1465 was pronounced heretical, and after his death his body was removed from the Church of San Pier Maggiore and an effigy of the humanist burnt at Cortona. Palmieri’s heresy “was that was that the souls of all incarnate humanity derive from the angels, in particular that third part of the angelic host which took neutral ground during the Fall of the Rebel Angels”.[2] Angels are ranged in nine choirs, divided into three hierarchies. The highest of these represent Councillors (Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones), the middle represent Governors (Dominions, Virtues and Powers); then follow the Ministers (Principalities, Archangels and Angels). Unusually, saints have been incorporated into the ranks of angels, an addition probably reflecting Palmieri's theological speculations. Interestingly, given the similarity of their names, Vasari assigned the picture to Botticelli, not Botticini, and he said that the more famous painter and Palmieri were condemned. 

Sandro Botticelli, The Mystical Nativity, c. 1500, Tempera on canvas, National Gallery, London.  

 It is instructive to compare Botticini’s altarpiece with Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, a painting from his late period, about 1500 executed during a time of great religious ferment in Florence. The religious trouble was caused by the activities of Girolamo Savonarola who led a popular uprising in the city. Note that this painting is entitled a Mystical Nativity, and is not a conventional representation of the birth of Christ. What is also strange about this scene is the size of Mary, who almost towers up into the roof of the manger; the extraordinary size of Mary probably refers to Ecclesia, or the Church itself. Botticelli’s altarpiece is also apocalyptic because it refers to the last days of humankind before the second coming of Christ and the Last Judgement. In fact, it might be taken to refer to that subject since the inscription in Greek on the painting talks about the Book of Revelation as written of by St John the Evangelist. The inscription at the top reads: “I Alessandro 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 him burying himself as in this picture.” The theme of this altarpiece is mystical, hence its name. It is a very good example of complex theology expressed in a symbolic language, and Botticelli could not even have begun to conceive it without the influence of the preacher who believed that Florence should be scourged and cleansed in order to be saved. This apocalyptic mood is also captured in one of Botticelli’s last pictures- the Crucifixion at Harvard. 

Sandro Botticelli, Crucifixion, c. 1497, Tempera on canvas, 73,5 x 50,8 cm, Harvard Art Galleries, Cambridge, Mass..

[1] Rolf Bagemihl, “Francesco Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece”, Burlington Magazine, Vol. 138, No. 1118 (May, 1996), pp. 308-314, 309.
[2] Ibid. 131.

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