The infant Christ reaches up towards the Virgin Mary, oblivious of his visitors – the Three Kings on the left and the shepherds on the right. The golden dome of heaven has opened up and is circled by 12 angels holding olive branches entwined with scrolls and hung with crowns. In the foreground, three pairs of angels and men embrace; among their feet demons scuttle for shelter in the underworld through cracks in the rocks.
The Greek inscription mentions ‘the troubles of Italy’, a reference to the invasion of the French, who took Naples in 1494 and Milan in 1499, and to the civil strife in Florence itself. Botticelli associated these events with the turmoil mentioned in the biblical Book of Revelation, which talks about the end of the world and Christ’s second coming. The period of upheaval it described would end upon Christ’s return, when the devil would be buried, as in this picture.
Christ’s birth is celebrated as the glorious revelation of God on Earth in this unique and colourful image by Botticelli. No fewer than 20 angels – all carrying leafy olive branches, a symbol of peace – preside over the revelry.
The event takes place in a glade within a forest; the stable where, according to the Gospel writers, Christ was born, is represented imaginatively as a thatched roof pitched over the opening of a rocky cavern. The infant Christ reaches up towards the Virgin Mary, oblivious of his visitors – the Three Kings on the left and the shepherds on the right, who have been ushered towards him by angels. The golden dome of heaven has opened up and become visible from earth; it is circled by 12 angels holding olive branches entwined with scrolls and hung with crowns which swing as they dance.
The meeting of the divine and the human in the newborn Christ is shown symbolically in the dance-like embrace of three pairs of angels and men who form a rhythmic frieze in the foreground. Among their feet, winged demons and horned little devils scuttle for shelter in the underworld through cracks in the rocks. This is an unusual sight in a nativity scene but it is key to the understanding of Botticelli’s mystical creation, as revealed by the inscription at the top. In this, Botticelli interprets contemporary political events – which he calls ‘the troubles of Italy’ – in the light of the biblical Book of Revelation, which foretells the details of the end of the world and Christ’s second coming. The ‘troubles’ are probably a reference to the invasion of the French, who took Naples in 1494 and Milan in 1499, and to the civil strife in Florence itself. Botticelli has associated these events with chapter 11 of Revelation, which describes the invasion of the Holy City by Gentiles and the devil being unleashed. Christ’s return to earth would bring an end to this period of upheaval and the devil would be buried, as in this picture.
The apocalyptic message of the inscription reflects the teachings of Girolamo Savonarola, the popular and radical preacher whose sermons were causing a stir in Florence from the 1490s. After the death of Lorenzo de' Medici and the expulsion of his son Piero, Savonarola’s power in the city – now leaderless – grew even stronger, and Botticelli is thought to have been a keen follower. Savonarola saw the French invasion as divine retribution for the moral demise of the Italian states and was equally critical of what he saw as the overly luxurious lifestyle of the citizens of Florence. He isolated the city from its closest allies, particularly the Pope, and was eventually publicly executed in 1498.
After the political turbulence of the previous decade and the death of his spiritual and moral guide, Botticelli in this picture looks forward to the fulfilment of peace and to man’s reconciliation with God, as initiated by the Incarnation and expected to be achieved fully, according to the Book of Revelation, with Christ’s return.
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