'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

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Mercy and Truth are Met Together

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She brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron (Revelation 12:5)

Sandro Botticelli’s The Mystic Nativity is a patently joyous painting. From an opening in heaven, golden as the sun, a circle of twelve dancing angels links heaven and earth. These—and all the painting’s angels—wear white, green or red, for the cardinal virtues faith, hope and love. Between them they hold olive branches, symbols of mercy and of peace. On each branch flutters a ribbon with a Latin or Italian inscription in praise of the Virgin Mary: ‘Sanctuary beyond words’, ‘Mother of God’, ‘Virgin of Virgins’, ‘Wondrous Bride of God the Father’, ‘Virgin Mother’, ‘Hope of Sinners’, ‘Queen over All’, ‘Only Queen of the World’. From the branches hang small crowns.

In the central register, an enormous Mary kneels before the infant Jesus. Beside them sits Joseph, elderly and balding. He might almost be asleep, for he was a man, like his namesake in the Old Testament, who dreamed dreams (Matthew 1:20, 2:13). Behind the stable and a darkly mysterious wood, the Sun of Righteousness is about to rise. On each side of the Holy Family, more olive-bearing angels present visitors: the shepherds certainly, and perhaps the Magi. The olive on the left bears another banderole, ‘Behold the lamb of God’.

In the foreground register three angels and three humans embrace. Once more the angels’ ribbons speak for them: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to everyone of good will’ (Luke 2:14). Scurrying away into crevices from this wonderful scene is an assortment of tiny devils, their evil aims defeated.

‘Mercy and truth are met together’, says the psalmist; ‘righteousness and peace have kissed each other’ (Psalm 85:10). It would be hard to envision a lovelier depiction of the joy of heaven to earth come down.

So far, so good. But the scene is the Nativity. Why is this picture not nestling among the Christmas commentaries?

Well, it would be, if Botticelli himself had not written a cryptic inscription along the painting’s top. We come back to his inscription in the next commentary. For the moment we can simply relish his disclosure of joy in heaven and on earth.


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