|Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, ca. 1480-85 i
Associate Professor of Art History
New London, CT 06320
(This essay was written in 2003.)
The Cult of the Virgin as the Image of Salvation
The cult of the Virgin accelerated after 1400 at a time when Renaissance humanism sanctified the natural order and humanized the sacred. This humanist reconciliation of sacred and profane is particularly clear in the explosion of paintings of the Madonna and Child. As a more human object of prayer and the soul’s most powerful intercessor, the Madonna offers a reassuring image of hope and salvation. Her loving embrace of the Christ Child transferred directly to the fifteenth-century worshipper who prayed for her mercy, her love, her forgiveness. It was the growing power of Mary which helped fueled the proliferation of Madonnas in Renaissance art from large altarpieces to small paintings for the home. Not surprisingly, the inscriptions accompanying these paintings direct the patron’s prayers to the powerful Virgin, not the Christ Child who appears more as an attribute of her importance. The inscription on the frame to one mid-fifteenth-century Dutch Madonna is typical.
Hail Queen of Heaven, Hail, Mistress of angels, Hail Root [of Jesse] whence the world’s true light was born. / Blessed art thou, O Virgin Mary, who didst bear the creator of all things, thou didst bring forth him who made thee, and remaineth forever a virgin. ii
Mary’s importance as intercessor and as personification of Christian salvation hopes also explains her appearance in almost every fifteenth-century Italian tomb sculpture where she hovers in the celestial sphere above the portrait of the deceased. While Christ is hardly ignored in Renaissance images of the Madonna and Child, the focus is on Mary.
The Praise of the Virgin and the Magnificat of Luke
The Madonna of the Magnificat is named after the song of praise which Mary sings the first chapter of Luke. When the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is pregnant with Jesus, he also tells her that her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, has also been divinely impregnated with a special child, John the Baptist. Mary hastens to Elizabeth's house and is greeted by her thus.
"Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb..."
And Mary said, 'My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call be blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away." [Luke 1: 42, 46-53]
This text was singled out as a major reading in the liturgy of the Western Latin church as early as the sixth century. As the only Biblical text celebrating Mary, the text took on greater importance in the later middle ages (1200-) and Renaissance as part of the growing cult of Mary (described in the early handout on the late middle ages). Central to this cult was the equation of Mary with the Church. At a time when the church was struggling to unify and consolidate itself institutionally, the maternal, tender Mary endowed a powerful institution with a "universal" human face. Luke's hymn of praise captured the ambiguity of the late medieval and renaissance Mary. She was at once a lowly handmaiden, an ordinary, accessible, human figure, and an object of universal praise and adoration, lifted up institutionally to a place of enormous power. In its ability to speak to the new spiritual needs of late medieval Christians and the institutional needs of the late medieval Church, Luke's text appeared everywhere, in Christian ritual, music, literature, preaching, popular devotions, and art.
Luke's text reminds us that praise and adoration were primary goals of late medieval and Renaissance religious culture. Like other sacred figures, Mary was "praised" in media, thematic imagery, and aesthetic choices. She was praised in media as the cult object of numerous Gothic cathedrals, stained glass windows, sculptures, tapestries, paintings, and ivories. She was praised thematically with an imagery of triumphal ascension, Apocalyptic victory over the devil (the Madonna clothed in the sun, standing on the moon), coronation, enthronement, immaculacy (gardens, mirrors, etc.), mystical marriage, divine wisdom (books), and ecclesiastical reference. And she was praised aesthetically in a late Gothic material aesthetic of luminous materials (precious metals and stones) and in a later Renaissance aesthetic of imaginary natural forms possessing divine beauty.
By including a Bible open to Luke's Magnificat, Botticelli reminded his viewer that most if not all Renaissance images of the Madonna are, in part, geared toward praise and exaltation. Thus he placed Mary on a sumptuous, throne-like chair which appears at the lower right. He surrounded her with beautiful angels who attend to her reverently, gaze at her in rapt adoration, and crown her with a golden, starry crown. He set her in front of a fertile, green landscape with a flowing river. He made her as physically beautiful as he could in line with his aristocratic ideal of female beauty: an elongated, milky-white body with delicate fingers, soft, malleable limbs largely devoid of any underlying skeletal structure, and long, flowing, reddish-blond hair. The surrounding angels are all (homoerotic) variations on this theme of perfect beauty and, as such, mirror and elaborate it throughout the composition. Botticelli also set her beneath a blazing disc of divine light which shows how God "hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden". More importantly, this solar brilliance and the starry crown refer to Mary's familiar role as the triumphant Woman and Child of the Apocalypse, described in Revelations 12: 1-2, 5.
"And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth ...
And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne".
As a crowned, enthroned, solar figure, Botticelli's Madonna is both the human mother of Christ and the future Queen of Heaven whose triumphal ascension, apotheosis, and coronation suggest the institutional triumph of the church. It matters not that these smaller paintings of the Madonna and Child were all private devotional works, intended for the home. An official Roman Catholic imagery of Mary circulated throughout private devotional literature and imagery, as we would expect. While private devotional art for the home was obviously not geared toward official liturgical spaces and institutional values, it was never separated from them either.
Material Aesthetics: Late Medieval Gold vs. Renaissance Natural Forms
From the early fifteenth century, artists working in the new "Renaissance" style avoided the artisanal aesthetic of the late Gothic with its delight in tooled gold leaf and real jewels decorating the picture surface (as seen in Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi). To paint haloes and jewels and luminous skies in three dimensions (as opposed to using gold leaf) allowed the new "artists" to show off their new talent, their ability to represent precious materials rather than use them.
As a slowly spreading humanism gradually redefined attitudes toward nature and the body, artists were increasingly self-conscious about designing beautiful bodies as another way to represent the divine without recourse to late medieval gold leaf, gold paint, and jewels. By the sixteenth century, the tension between a late medieval, artisanal aesthetic of sumptuous materiality and a Renaissance aesthetic of natural beauty, formed in the "divinely" creative mind of the artist, appeared explicitly in writing on art. The mid-century Florentine painter and art theorist, Vasari, mocked those "old-fashioned" artists in the late fifteenth-century like Pinturrichio who still used a lot of gold leaf. For Vasari, the use of gold leaf was a sign of artistic incompetence and signaled a lack of artistic intellect.
This larger shift from medieval to Renaissance aesthetics is worth mentioning here because Botticelli's Madonna of the Magnificat uses a fair amount of flat, golden paint for the Virgin's crown, the solar disc, the light radiating from the heads, the trim on the draperies, and the highlights in the hair. While this may be gold-colored paint rather than paint mixed with gold dust, these golden highlights have a strikingly flat, ornamental quality which suggests at least some of the qualities of a late medieval material aesthetic lying on the picture surface. On the other hand, Botticelli confines the use of golden paint to decorative highlights which do not interfere with the image's larger, "natural" qualities and its Renaissance aesthetic of beautiful "natural" bodies, draperies, and landscape motifs. We might use this painting to show how a new aesthetic of Renaissance beauty gradually displaced a late medieval aesthetic without completely extinguishing it in the fifteenth century. As late as the 1480s, vestiges of a late medieval aesthetic still appealed to wealthy patrons. And if kept to a minimum, they could still work alongside a new Renaissance aesthetic of "natural" beauty without disrupting it.
We should also note something so basic to the theme of the Madonna and Child that it is easily overlooked. The cult of Mary emerged in Europe after 1100 as Western spirituality placed a new stress on the humanity of Christ and other sacred figures. In late medieval art before 1340, the Madonna and Child were usually shown as impersonal, enthroned rulers presiding over ecclesiastical spaces. With the coming of Renaissance humanism and naturalist aesthetics, the Madonna and Child became the most popular religious image in church and in homes in part because it imaged Christ’s humanity and accessibility simply and directly, enfolding it within a loving, maternal humanity. As a spiritual and aesthetic subject, the Madonna and Child lay at the cutting edge of Renaissance humanist Christianity and humanist aesthetics.
Already in the 1430s and 40s, it was possible for an artist gifted at depicting human sweetness like Fra Filippo Lippi to work up a subspecialty in small, devotional images of the Madonna and Child. Lippi painted about ten such works. His most gifted pupil in this regard was Sandro Botticelli who painted more than twenty small Madonnas. In doing so, Botticelli fueled the appetites of Tuscan collectors for devotional paintings of the Madonna and allowed an artist of the next generation like Raphael to paint some fifty works on this subject. In late fifteenth-century Venice where the cult of the Virgin was profoundly imbedded in civic identity, the long-lived Giovanni Bellini painted eighty small Madonnas and a dozen larger altarpieces between 1450 and 1510.
Humanism and the Aesthetics of the Circle
With the exception of Donatello and the della Robbia brothers, round formats were not common in Italian painting until the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century when they appeared in hundreds of small, devotional paintings and sculptures produced by Botticelli, iiiSignorelli, iv Ghirlandaio v Leonardo (Vitruvian Man), Michelangelo, vi Raphael vii and many others. At the same time, Italian painters and architects depicted or designed a dozen round churches using as classical models the circular temple at Tivoli and, above all, the Pantheon in Rome**. viii
The return of the circle and of a new circular aesthetics depended on the spread of humanism in later fifteenth-century Italy and on the return to classical notions of nature and natural beauty. At the same moment when Christian art was significantly infused with classical imagery and when landscape began to emerge in portraits, mythological scenes, and religious art, the circle took on a new appeal in European aesthetics.
In classical, medieval, and Renaissance cosmology until Kepler, the universe was always said to be spherical or circular in shape. So were the orbits of the planets, the shape of the planets, the cycles of the seasons and of day and night. One tradition for the cosmic circle went back to Aristotle's On the Cosmos. For Aristotle, the straight line was infinite, temporal, unbounded, and unsuited to the divine, in contrast to the circle whose bounded, symmetrical quality made it the perfect form for divinely order.
Furthermore, circular motion must be primary. That which is complete is prior in nature to the incomplete, and the circle is a complete figure, whereas no straight line can be so. An infinite straight line cannot, for to be complete it would have to have an end or completion,
the body which revolves in a circle is not endless or infinite, but has a limit. ...
... The activity of a god is immortality, that is, eternal life. Necessarily, therefore, the divine must be an eternal motion. And since the heaven is of this nature (i.e., is a divine body), that is why it has its circular body, which by nature moves for ever in a circle.
The shape of the heaven must be spherical. That is most suitable to its substance, and is the primary shape in nature. ...
... circular motion has in itself neither source nor goal nor middle. There is no absolute beginning nor end or mid-point of it, for in time it is eternal and in length it returns upon itself and is unbroken. If then there is no climax to its motion, there will be no irregularity, for irregularity is the result of retardation and acceleration.
Also important was a more metaphysical Platonic tradition in which the circle symbolized the perfect unity of the celestial sphere and of all the lesser spheres and levels of cosmic being all the way down to the material world of the terrestrial sphere. (In classical cosmology, everything in the heavens was immaterial.) For Plato, the cosmic circle represented a perfect, all unifying divine love radiating through the cosmos. This was echoed by the Florentine Platonic humanist, Ficino, whose ideas would have been known directly to Botticelli since they were both working for the Medici at this time. Botticelli could have also seen Ficino’s treatise On Love (Latin ed., 1469; Italian ed. 1474).
Beauty is the splendor of the divine goodness, and God is the center of the four circles
… the ancient theologians located goodness in the center and beauty in the circle. Or rather goodness in a single center, but beauty in four circles. The single center of all is God. The four circles around God are the Mind, the Soul, Nature, and Matter. The Mind is a motionless circle. The Soul is self-moving. Nature is movable in another but not by another. Matter is movable by another and in another. …
The center of a circle is a point, single, indivisible, motionless, From it many lines, which are divisible and mobile, are drawn out to the circumference, which is like them. This divisible circumference revolves around the center as its axis. ... Who will deny that God is rightly called the center of all things since He is present in all things, completely single, simple, and motionless? But all things produced from Him are many, composite, and in some way movable, and as they flow from Him so they flow back to Him, in the manner of lines and a circumference.
In this way, Mind, Soul, Nature, and Matter, proceeding from God, strive to return to the same, and from every direction they revolve in toward Him as best they can. … Clearly it is proper that created things collect themselves to this their own center, to this their own proper unity, before they cling to their creator, in order, as we have now often repeated, to be able, by clinging to their own center, to cling to the center of all things…. ix
While classical ideas on the circular cosmos continued in Medieval and Renaissance science and in cosmic images including zodiacal diagrams, cathedral floors, and even the famous Round Table of King Arthur, the rise of a linear sense of time and history in early Christian writing and the attack on classical circular notions of time suppressed a larger interest in circular aesthetics until the rise of Renaissance humanism. The Golden Legend (ca. 1270-90) even singled out the circular form of the ancient Roman temple, the Pantheon, as an image of Roman imperial arrogance and a false Roman pantheism. x
Despite the lack of any strong circular aesthetics in the middle ages, one medieval version of Plato’s metaphysical circle seems relevant for Italian Renaissance circular paintings and sculptures. This was use of Plato’s circle to allegorize the immaculate conception of Christ, seen as the center of the universe. One example appears in the most famous medieval poem of court love, the Romance of the Rose.
This is the substance of what Plato wrote,
But certainly he could not say enough;
For he could never fully understand
The mystery that could not be explained
Till comprehended in the virgin womb.
Yet doubtless she whose womb was swollen thus
knew more of it than even Plato could;
For just as soon as she perceived she bore
That comfortable weight, she knew that it
Must be that marvelous, eternal sphere
Whose center would be fixed in every place
But whose circumference would nowhere be;
She knew it was the mystic triangle
Whose angles superpose in unity
So that the three are one and one is three.
Triangular the circle is, or else
The triangle is round, that found a home
Within the virgin. Plato did not know
So much as that xi
The medieval tradition applying circular metaphysics to the Incarnation is probably the most important medieval contribution to Renaissance circular aesthetics since most Renaissance tondo paintings and sculptures depicted the Madonna and Child.
While medieval science and metaphysics continued classical notions of the cosmic circle, the Christian hostility to circular time prevented the emergence of a larger circular aesthetic in the middle ages. It was the rise of Italian humanism to a certain cultural dominance after 1470 which allowed the circle to recover its classical ties to the divine and to nature. (Needless to say, the humanist revival of pagan circular time and aesthetic forms did not mean the end of medieval Christian linear time. New forms coexisted and mingled with traditional ideas.)
The new humanist equation of the circle with a perfect beauty and with nature appears clearly in Alberti’s lengthy treatise on architecture, written in the mid-fifteenth century. In discussing the various forms of classical temples, Alberti writes,
It is obvious from all that is fashioned, produced, or created under her influence that Nature delights primarily in the circle. Need I mention the earth, the stars, the animals, their nests, and so on, all of which she has made circular. xii
In sharp contrast to the later medieval views expressed in the Golden Legend, Alberti and later Renaissance architects like Leonardo, Bramante, Michelangelo, and Palladio saw the spherical Pantheon as a sublime model worthy of Christian architectural emulation. The same humanist praise for the circle appeared around 1517 in an important letter on High Renaissance aesthetics written by Raphael whose own self-conscious forays into the aesthetic complexities of circular compositions were meant to surpass those of Botticelli.
"Aside from the weakness of the pointed arch, it [the Gothic manner] lacks the grace of our style, which is pleasing to the eye because of the perfection of a circle. It may be observed that nature herself strives for no other form". xiii
While some patrons ordered up a few circular Madonnas in the early fifteenth century, Fra Filippo Lippi's round Madonna and Child for the Medici shows an indifference to the circular format and to the larger appeal of the circle. In this early tondo Madonna, Lippi made no attempt to arrange his composition in a circular manner. On the contrary, he developed an early Renaissance perspective box with a striking rectilinear grid of verticals and horizontals and forced those rectilinear forms into the round format.
That Botticelli saw the circular format as an opportunity to develop a larger circular aesthetic is clear from the composition of his Madonna of the Magnificat. And with his unique artistic gift for intertwining softly flowing patterns on the surface of his paintings, Botticelli was perfectly suited to explore the aesthetic appeal of the circle and give it a new importance in Renaissance art. He painted at least ten circular works, of which the Madonna of the Magnificat was the most subtle and beautiful.
By bending and elongating his figures around the edges of the composition and arranging gestures, limbs, and draperies, Botticelli designed a composition which build up circular rhythms in natural forms, above all, human bodies. And by doing this discreetly, he preserved a sense of natural form. The result is a composition which redefined the circle as the most divine and the natural of forms, in line with classical cosmology, religion, and aesthetics.
Here, the striking landscape at the center of this composition is particularly important. While it may appear conventional and decorative, as just another landscape background in fifteenth-century Italian art, it has a distinctly circular space thanks to the Apocalyptic rainbow which defines an oculus or window through which the landscape appears. For any humanistically educated viewer, the circular landscape in a circular painting of the Madonna and Child would have profoundly connected to ideas of the sacred, circular geometry of the cosmos, the world (microcosmos) and the human body (the latter visualized in Leonardo's famous drawing of a naked man in a circle and square).
The circular cosmos in Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat may have also suggested humanist accounts of the birth of Christ as restoring a lost cosmic harmony and unity. This is more likely once we see the sunrise in Botticelli’s landscape. While strengthening circular notions of cosmic time and space in the painting, the sunrise suggests the Christian theme of the Golden Age, renewed at Christ’s Virgin birth, which Christian writers, especially Renaissance humanist writers, allegorized in Virgil’s famous Fourth Ecloque on the return of the Golden Age when a virgin gave birth during the reign of Augustus.
If we look further, we see a number of other circles in the painting, the starry crown, the circular floral carving on the throne (which united nature and the circle), the rainbow, a natural and visionary form, and the cosmic sun. Indeed, the painting is packed with circular imagery, showing how Botticelli went far beyond mere aesthetics to a deeper meditation on the sacred circle mingling thematic and aesthetic elements.
In making the circular format into as a compositional challenge, Botticelli's painting also shows the growing self-consciousness of the Renaissance artist and the increasingly willingness to flaunt artifice within the new naturalism of the fifteenth century. At the same time, it reminds us that this naturalism was always a higher naturalism, ordered or structured in one way or another, as a divine reality.
i Deimling, pp. 26, 28-29
The painting is in the Metropolitan Museum
, illustrated in From Van Eyck to Bruegel
, eds. Maryan Aynsworth and Keith Christiansen, New York, 1998, p. 253, with the inscription translated on p. 252.
iii Deimling, pp. 19, 26, 56, 68, 69
v Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi);
vi Doni Madonna; Virgin and Child (sculpture);
vii Alba Madonna (Washington); Madonna del Sedia (Palazzo Pitti)
viii Examples include the central building the Ideal City
painted in Urbino, ca. 1470-90, Cole, Virtue and Magnificence
, pp. 76-77), Leonardo's drawings of round or centrally-planned churches; the temple in Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin
(Santi, Raphael, p. ); Sangallo's S. Maria delle Carceri
(1485); Bramante's San Pietro in Montorio
, nicknamed the Tempietto
, (1502-10, Partridge, Renaissance Rome
, p. 48); Bramante's design for St. Peters
(Partridge, ); Peruzzi's Palazzo Orsini
(CD); Michelangelo roughly circular town square, the Campidoglio
(Partridge, pp. 28-29); Palladio's Villa Rotunda
(Wundram 186-190), Palladio's Tempietto Barbaro
(Wundram 234-6); and Scamozzi, Villa "La Rocca Pisana"
ix Ficino, On Love, trans. Jayne Sears, new ed., pp. 47-48
x Jacobus da Voragine, The Golden Legend
, “All Hallows” (Nov. 1) New York: Arno Press, 1969, p. 641.
Yet since it was not possible for the each and every god to have a temple, the Romans, the better to show forth their folly, erected one temple higher and more wondrous than all of the others, dedicated it to “all the gods,” and called it the Pantheon which name means “all the gods,” … For the priests of the idols, in order the more fully to delude the people, pretended that they had received a command from Cybele, the mother of all the gods, that if they wished to obtain victory over every people, they should erect a magnificent temple to all her children. The foundation of this temple was circular, to signify the eternity of the gods
‘ Lorris and De Meun, The Romance of the Rose, p. 405. Though I haven’t yet checked, this looks like an early Christian idea.
xii Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. Joseph Rykwert, et al, MIT Press, 1988, p. 196 (Bk. 7, ch. 4)
xiii Ibid, 295.