Already long before I came to England I had decided to spend some time in London, experience several of its cultural attractions and catching up with a friend of mine. However, as my stay in England hurried to its close I realised that rather than meandering the many sites of London, it would be a better use of my time to hang out with my friends in York until the very end. Of course, since I'm writing my master's dissertation on an office dedicated to Edward the Confessor, I felt compelled to at least visit his grave in Westminster Cathedral. An equally strong incentive was the National Gallery's collection of art by Sandro Botticelli, one of my favourite artists of all times. I knew, therefore, I could not omit London in my itinerary, but I decided to spend only one night in the city rather than the weekend I had envisioned in the planning.
I arrived in London at around noon Thursday March 24 and caught up with my friend who's studying Latin at King's College. We met at the foot of Nelson's column and went to the National Gallery, where we meandered the various exihibiton halls for about an hour or two, focussing on the Medieval and Renaissance works of art. There is a tremendous amount of treasures to admire in the National Gallery, and to me it was a true delight to behold masterpiece after masterpiece of historical craftsmanship. Some works I knew I would come across, others I discovered by chance, and I was very pleased to find several works of Andrea Mantegna (1430/1-1506) whose art I have come to admire more and more.
The National Gallery.
For me the main attraction was Botticelli's The Mystic Nativity, a painting that has enchanted me ever since I came across it in a book last autumn. The painting dates from 1500/01 and contains rather unusual iconography for a nativity, particularly because it deals not only with the birth of Christ but anticipates also the Second Coming of Christ. This anticipation is most evident in the writing at the top of the painting, which speaks of the troubles in Italy and awaits the time when the Devil will be chained as foretold by Saint John in the Revelation.
"The troubles in Italy" refers to the time of civil unrest following the expulsion of the Medici family from Florence. During the 1490s the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola had gained control over the city and established something strongly reminiscent of a theocratic dictatorship. Savonarola was reportedly a very charismatic figure and greatly influenced Botticelli, an influence that can be seen in The Mystic Nativity due its several allusions to a sermon by Savonarola. Since this is the only painting Botticelli ever signed it must have had a particular significance for him. It is likely to presume that the apocalyptic mood of the 1490s and Savonarola's execution in 1498 still affected him greatly when the painting was composed.
The burning of Savonarola. Contemporary painting by an unknown artist.
The Norwegian historian of ideas Trond Berg Eriksen exhibits a disturbing schadenfreude in his book Veien til Toscana (the Road to Tuscany), where he commends the Florentines for their perfect irony when burning the, already hanged, friar in Piazza della Signoria where his bonfire of vanities had taken place the year before. Eriksen also comments that Savonarola destroyed Botticelli who was such a lover of art and women. This may of course very well be true on a psychological level. It is beyond doubt that Savonarola's rule was a very hard rule, the rule of an iconoclast who preached penitence and impending apocalypse, and this can disrupt the minds of the best among us. Personally, however, I find Eriksen's singularly negative portrayal of Savonarola's influences to be narrow-minded at best, especially since it is evident from this painting that Botticelli's art did not diminish, but changed direction dramatically. I do not wish to commend Savonarola, nor do I seek to condemn him, but I do think that he responded to certain contemporary anxieties by which he must be understood and, to a certain degree, respected.
Girolamo Savonarola. Painting by Fra Bartolomeo, c. 1498.
It may of course be that I am positively biased towards Savonarola because I have a particular affection for the Mystic Nativity, or perhaps because as a Christian I acknowledge his virtues if not his methods and ideas. It may also be that I like the painting due to its apocalyptic foreshadowing that seems almost to yearn the liberation from mortal bondage and the union with God at the Second Coming. The Mystic Nativity illustrates the victory of life over death, God's conquest of demons and the heavenly concord so conspicuously absent in that troublesome era of Florentine history.
The Mystic Nativity resonates in me for various reasons; I can't discern them all and I don't know which reason is the most important. I would, however, like to think that what I appreciate the most is its message of hope for the righteous and salvation for mankind. I became particularly consumed by the painting around Christmas, suitably enough, and wrote a short poem on the subject. Being the constant exhibitionist I would like to share this poem with you. It is mainly a response to Botticelli's portrayal of the vanquished demons, pointing out that although Death no longer held sway over mankind, evil was still to be found even after the birth of Christ, a point that Botticelli probably acknowledged to be true of his own day and age.
So with an alleluia men and angels
Unite in an embrace to celebrate
The Word succumbed to substance, flesh of light
Born of a virgin to redeem this world, Selah!
Praise! Day of Jubilee and victory of Life,
Dance in effulgent splendour to adore
The little child upon whose fragile shoulders
Death pauses for a while and then retires,
Too old and soon defeated.
Yet the demons
Hides in the cracks of earth to shun the splendour,
Plucks darkness by its root to deck their visage
Whispering "we are not yet defeated."
- December 24-25 2010