Monday, May 19, 2008

Serving a Higher Power

Most people know Sandro Botticelli, who died May 17, 1510, for his masterpieces of Renaissance classicism—The Birth of Venus and Primavera. Born in 1445, Botticelli has become, through those two works, associated with a delicate, almost porcelain type of beauty that inspired Robert Downey, Jr.’s character in The Pick-up Artist to complement women with the question, “Did anyone ever tell you that you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Degas?” Few people know that those two works were created for the rich and powerful House of Medici, Botticelli’s patrons. Even Botticelli’s earliest religious pictures, such as his Madonna and Child with Six Saints (aka the Sant'Ambrogio Altarpiece ; above, from 1470) , serve the Medici family, in this case by presenting Lorenzo il Magnifico and Giuliano Medici kneeling in front of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. After studying with Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli no doubt developed a highly secularized, non-aesthetic view of religion, which allowed him to stomach placing such ruthless types as the Medici comfortably within a sacred setting.

Soon, however, Botticelli fell under the influence of the charismatic religious reformer Savonarola. Like Michelangelo, Fra Bartolomeo, and other artists, Botticelli found Savonarola’s brand of reformed Christianity, stripped of the worldly excesses and corruption of the papacy’s connections to secular power, attractive. Botticelli and Michelangelo allegedly threw some of their pagan-themed paintings into Savonarola’s infamous "Bonfire of the Vanities." Regardless of whether Botticelli actually committed any of his works to the flames, it is clear that his subject matter takes on a more serious, deeply religious tone in works such as Lamentation over the Dead Christ with the Saints Jerome, Paul and Peter (above, from 1490). The casual insertion of powerful patrons disappears as the complete focus centers on the dead Savior and the reactions of such world-rejecting aesthetics as Saint Jerome.

Although Savonarola lost control (and his life) in 1498 and the Medici regained their position of influence over society, Botticelli continued to follow the same devotional path. Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity (above, from 1500), one of the few works Botticelli signed, may have been a private work Botticelli painted for his own meditation. As in the years 1000 and 2000, 1500 was a year in which many believed the Day of Judgment was at hand. In the Mystic Nativity, Botticelli abandons all the classical realism and proportion of his early works and indulges in an almost surreal world in which a giant Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus dominate the center of the picture. Episodes from the Gospel of Saint John come to life throughout the painting. After Savonarola’s death, Botticelli simply dropped from view and little is known of his life. That departure from the world helped Botticelli’s memory fade, virtually erasing him from the mainstream of art history (with the notable exception of the work of Giorgio Vasari) until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Between 1900 and 1920, a Botticelli renaissance made him one of the most written about artists of the time. Although the Medici-supported works continue to make Botticelli’s name in our culture, choosing Savonarola over the Medici may have led to a short-term loss but a long-term gain in art history appreciation.

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