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Botticelli comes to Virginia

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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 United States.

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 woman.

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.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017