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Inscription

The original Greek inscription above the painting (not shown) reads:

I Sandro painted this picture at the end of the year 1500 during Italy's troubles in the half-time after the time according to the 11th Chapter of the Revelation of St John in the second scourge of the Apocalypse when the Devil is set loose for three and a half years. Then he will be chained as in the 12th Chapter and we shall see Heaven clearly as in this picture.

An optimistic message for the half millennium predicting Christ defeating the Devil and an end to the current years of chaos.

 

 

1445 - 1510

Symbols

The Angels painted in red, white and green, denote faith, hope and charity.

Kings and Shepherds on the left and right respectively,wear similar clothes - reflecting Savonarola's egalitarianism.

The Virgin is painted larger than life in archaic style different from his earlier more sensual representations attacked by Savonarola.

The Devil is copied from a devotional handbook. There are seven of them in a reference to Revelations.

Angels and men Embracing are a common motif in last judgement scenes.

The Mystic Nativity illustrates the emotions unleashed at the last major milestone in the Christian calendar. The half-millennium in 1500 was widely thought to herald the Second Coming of Christ. It was a period of great nervousness, with hope, fear and hysteria combined - a time when omens and prophesies abounded.

At first inspection the painting appears to depict another typical Christmas scene, however it is loaded with symbolism and the millennial prophesies of Savonarola, the demagogic Dominican friar. The amazing accuracy of these prophesies brought him to power between the expulsion of the autocratic Medici family in 1494 and his ultimate overthrow and execution in 1498. He linked the French invasion of Italy in 1494 to the coming Apocalypse and, to ensure Florence's salvation he stressed the avoidance of worldly excess, lighting the original Bonfire of the Vanities.

Botticelli, a Florentine artist and follower of Savonarola, links Italy's troubles in 1500 - foreign invaders, disease and conflict - to the dawning of the "half-time after the time", or the half-millennium. The new century seemed to have brought the Apocalypse, as foretold in the Book of Revelation, and the seven devils in the painting reinforce this message.

The painting might be a personal prayer for peace, symbolised everywhere by the olive branches held by all the figures except the Holy Family. Indeed the three Magi are not crowned with the customary gold but with olive branches in the same manner as the shepherds.

A nostalgia for the Middle Ages pervades the work and it appears to be painted in a deliberately anachronistic way. As if reversing time, the laws of perspective are themselves reversed: the Virgin, the figure furthest away, is the largest, and the figures diminish in size the nearer they are. The creator of the sophisticated and complex Primavera and Birth of Venus here divides the surface into three simple horizontal layers, using colour purely for pattern. He also uses the same colours favoured by the medieval painters, particularly the Sienese.

The Mystic Nativity is part of the National Gallery London collection.
Reference: '100 Great Paintings Duccio to Picasso' by Dillian Gordon, National Gallery Publications, 1981

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