'Mystic Nativity' by Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli

'Mystic Nativity', 1500, Oil on canvas, 108.6 x 74.9 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought 1878, NG1034, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Apocalypse Now

Commentary by

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:9)

We ended the previous commentary with reference to Sandro Botticelli’s cryptic inscription along the painting’s top. It is in Greek, incomprehensible to most of Botticelli’s contemporaries. Botticelli wanted—needed?—to be mysterious. Here it is:

THIS PAINTING AT THE END OF THE YEAR 1500 IN THE TROUBLES OF ITALY I ALEXANDER, IN THE HALF-TIME AFTER A TIME, WAS PAINTING IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE ELEVENTH [CHAPTER] OF SAINT JOHN IN THE 2ND WOE OF THE APOCALYPSE IN THE LOOSING, FOR THREE-AND-A-HALF YEARS, OF THE DEVIL. THEN HE WILL BE BOUND IN THE 12TH AND WE WILL SEE HIM ABOUT TO BE BURIED SIMILAR TO THIS PAINTING.

Revelation 11 tells of two witnesses who testify for three-and-a-half years and are then killed by the beast coming up from the abyss (v.7). ‘The Second Woe has been and gone. Look, the Third Woe is coming soon’ (v.14, own translation).  

Botticelli was painting in Florence, at the beginning (in our modern calendar) of 1501. The French had invaded in 1494 and again in 1499. From September 1494, the Dominican mystic and preacher Fra Girolamo Savonarola had relentlessly threatened God’s punishment of the city. Savonarola and his follower Fra Domenico da Pescia preached for almost exactly three-and-a-half years until they were burnt at the stake in May 1498. Here, perhaps, had been the two prophets foreseen in Revelation 11. The banderoles of Botticelli’s heavenly angels bear the words of Savonarola’s own hymns to the Virgin.

The Mystic Nativity certainly recalls Revelation: in the open heaven (4:1), the twelve angels for stars above the Virgin (12:1), and those defeated devils (12:8). But the tone is so different: Botticelli’s angels have a playful grace, his devils are almost risible. There are hints of ‘Woe’ to come: the donkey bears on the neck the mark of a cross; the cave and swaddling-clothes portend burial. Yet the painting as a whole radiates joy.

Here was an artist, working in personal and civic turmoil, who could look through and beyond it to a depiction—so uplifting—of its resolution. It is as if he could see dreams as strange and as wise as the dreams of Joseph.


Read next commentary