There has never been an exhibit devoted to the entire career of
Sandro Botticelli, one of the most beloved artists of the Italian Renaissance— until
now. This exhibit, spanning five decades of one of the most creative lives in
western Christendom, is just a few hours away in Williamsburg.
Botticelli made “a lifelong effort to make visible the invisible
beauty of the Divine,” writes curator John T. Spike. This passion plunged the
artist into a debate between those who believed classical pagan literature and
art could enrich the Christian experience, and others who excoriated ancient
influences. Botticelli began firmly in the camp of the Florentine Platonists
around the Medici family who drew upon classical sources, but he ended his
career influenced by the opposite viewpoint, put forward by the severe
Dominican friar Savonarola, who consigned many luxurious objects, including
some Botticelli pictures, to the “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
It is worth the trip to the Muscarelle Museum at the College of
William & Mary just to see one work from Florence — “St. Augustine in His
Study,” a detached fresco from the Ognissanti Church never before loaned to the
The saint’s study overflows with books and scientific instruments
enjoyed by the humanist scholars of 1480, while St. Augustine, gazing toward
the armillary sphere that represented the cosmos at that time, has his eyes
fixed on slender rays of golden light emanating toward him. According to
legend, Augustine was penning a letter to St. Jerome asking for advice on the
souls in Paradise, but unaware that his friend and fellow Doctor of the Church
had just died in Bethlehem. The light that suddenly fills the study tells him
that only grace reveals deeper truths, as he hears Jerome’s voice scolding him
for trying to grasp the heavenly mysteries with earthly reason.
Yet the picture celebrates such human reason. The needle of the
clock behind Augustine points to the 24th hour, traditionally the time when
Jerome appeared to him. The Vespucci coat of arms is in the painting’s frame. Three
decades hence, Amerigo Vespucci was the Florentine explorer who named our
continent. Geographer and physician Paolo Toscanelli made a map showing a
spherical world that had inspired Christopher Columbus on his first voyage of
discovery in 1492; he trained Vespucci.
Hanging nearby in the Muscarelle is the Crucifix from Prato,
painted on a shaped wooden cross that imitates the outlines of a sculpture. Described
in the catalog as one of Botticelli’s “greatest works of sacred art,” yet
almost unknown until now, the painting represents Christ’s unblemished
perfection as described by St. Augustine who wrote that Christ is “beautiful in
life and beautiful in leaving this life.”
Works by other artists who shaped Botticelli’s art or who carried
on his work in his workshop enrich the exhibit. It begins with Fra Filippo
Lippi, Botticelli’s early teacher, whose two-sided masterpiece of the “Madonna
and Child” from Palazzo Medici might have been made for a private home. The
tender embrace of mother and child with cheeks touching comes from a Greek icon
prototype, here translated into the full bloom of Florentine naturalism.
Two decades later, we come to the gemlike “Madonna of the Book”
by Botticelli, possibly the first-ever representation of the Virgin and Child
reading together. The luxurious picture using costly ultramarine blue and gold
must have been for a wealthy patron. Fortunately it escaped the Bonfire of the
Vanities when Savonarola blasted artists for portraying Mary as a wealthy
A credit to Spike’s original scholarship is the light this
exhibit sheds on Botticelli’s late work, between the tragic execution of
Savonarola in 1498 and his own death in 1510. The “Madonna and Child with the
Young Saint John the Baptist” from the Pitti Palace in Florence (where it hangs
so high on a wall that it is difficult to read) exemplifies the very different
purposes of Botticelli’s late works from the elegance of his earlier style.
Painted in a simple color scheme of blue, red and green, the figures are
tightly enclosed in a rectangle as the Virgin bends and seems to hand the
sleeping Child to little St. John the Baptist.
Without a doubt, the three figured group is intended to remind us
of a Deposition from the Cross, and so Botticelli has invented a way of
prefiguring the Passion in the Holy Family group, as the Child emerges out of
the body of Mary into the arms of his young cousin, the Baptist whose reed cross
makes an X above Christ’s head.
“Botticelli and the Search for the Divine” will be at the
Muscarelle through April 5.
Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.
Find out more
Go to Muscarelle.org.