On February 7, 1497 the Piazza della Signoria, the civic heart of the city of Florence, erupted into flames as piles of artworks, books, mirrors, fine clothes, and musical instruments were stacked high and lit on fire. Known as the Bonfire of the Vanities, these pyres were the result of years of preaching by the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola who petitioned Florentine citizens to sacrifice all objects that might tempt one to sin, to redress what he deemed the corrupt and vice-ridden aspects of their lives. In his sermons, Savonarola warned the Florentines that the apocalypse was approaching and claimed that their city could become the New Jerusalem (the abode of the blessed in Heaven) if the citizens would only repent. In a city that had become known for its wealth, intellect, and beauty, such a public destruction of valuable objects represented a huge reversal, or a dramatic re-invention, of their civic identity.
Savonarola criticised pagan and mythological artworks in particular. One of the many artists specialising in these genres was Sandro Botticelli, perhaps best known for his poetic mythological paintings of beautiful lithe goddesses in the Primavera (Springtime) and the Birth of Venus (late 1470s–early 1480s), painted for the Renaissance palaces and villas of Florence’s elite. Less well known are his smaller religious “Savonarolan” works from the 1490s, such as the so-called Mystic Nativity (1500), arguably the most personal, complex, enigmatic, and powerful of all his works.
At first glance, Mystic Nativity looks like any number of Renaissance representations of the birth of Christ: the Virgin Mary kneels before the Christ Child, attended by the Ox and the Ass. Joseph rests at the left while the shepherds and magi approach from either side. At second glance, the work becomes more unsettling and its “mystical” characteristics come to the fore. The magi bear no gifts for the Child, perhaps suggesting that devotion is their true offering. They are also missing their traditional crowns, wearing instead garlands of olive, a symbol of peace and hope. The nativity takes place not in a stable but in a cave of the type more commonly associated with Christ’s tomb. At the bottom of the work, three angels inexplicably embrace three men, seeming to raise them up from the ground while seven devils behind them attempt to flee to the underworld. At the top of the composition, 12 angels, suspended mid-air, dance in a circle holding olive branches and above them heaven opens in a golden dome. The key to understanding these curious inclusions is an inscription, in Greek, at the top of the canvas which translates as:
This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I, Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh [chapter] of Saint John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three and a half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth [chapter] and we shall see [him buried] as in this picture.
Here, the “troubles” Botticelli alludes to must refer to the recent invasion of the French into Italy in 1494 and the fear that they would sack the city of Florence. He interprets these events in the light of the biblical Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of John, which foretells the end of the world and Christ’s Second Coming. Accordingly, Botticelli’s work is not a straightforward nativity at all but an apocalyptic interpretation of contemporary events and a warning that he and his fellow Florentines would be judged and what was at stake was nothing less than their souls.
The “troubles” of Italy provided Savonarola an opportunity to step into the political vacuum caused by the expulsion of the Medici rulers of Florence. The preacher met with the French king on behalf of the city and persuaded him to leave peacefully. Following this coup, Savonarola’s power grew, and on Assumption Day, 1496, he preached to a packed congregation, which may have included Botticelli himself, in the Cathedral of Florence. The preacher described his vision of a heavenly crown adorned with 12 ribbons inscribed in Latin with the unique mystical qualities or “privileges” of the Virgin Mary in which she is described as the “mother of her father” the “daughter of her son” and the “bride of God” etc. … Exactly these mystical qualities were originally inscribed on the now abraded ribbons held by the 12 dancing angels at the top of Botticelli’s painting. Savonarola went on to explore the 11th and 12th chapters of Revelation—the precise chapters mentioned in Botticelli’s inscription. Revelation describes a series of prophetic visions of fantastical beasts and culminates in the Second Coming of Jesus. Chapters 11 and 12 describe extraordinary events including the opening of the temple of God in heaven, a woman (often associated with the Virgin) who brings forth a man child (associated with Jesus) who will rule all nations and the great dragon (interpreted as the devil) cast out of heaven. Savonarola interpreted these visions as emblematic of the city of Florence, identifying the dragon with the city’s contemporary tribulations and the beast’s defeat as marking the end to this period of upheaval.
In his Mystic Nativity, Botticelli translated aspects of both the Apocalypse and of Savonarola’s visionary sermon into paint, connecting the glory of Mary with the imminent coming (or Second Coming) of Christ on Earth. The inscribed scrolls held by the three embracing angels at the foot of the composition which proclaim, in Latin, “peace on earth to men of goodwill” also reinforce this reading. The inscriptions, together with the embracing gestures, the prevalence of olive branches and the fleeing devils, some of whom have been impaled by their own weapons, all suggest a coming together of the celestial and the earthly and the era of peace expected to follow Christ’s return to Earth. The scattering and impalement of the devils however remind us that this vision of joy and love has been achieved through suffering and death, suggesting that this nativity might also be understood as a kind of “Mystic Rebirth.” Speaking to things yet-to-be-seen, Botticelli’s work was an attempt at envisioning the spiritual hopes of his contemporaries in concrete visual terms.