holy days

 ... God in the Arts - exploring symbols of the Christian faith

 Editor:  Michael Burgess (Parish Pump, UK) considers a famous masterpiece of the Nativity by Botticelli, now found in the National Gallery, London.’

what hope, at the turning of the year?

A few years ago, one of the Sunday magazines printed a Doom Directory. It surveyed the possible ways in which the world might come to an end - nuclear disaster, famine, global warming and so on. The cover showed a man bearing a placard, ‘The end of the world is at hand’: he was at a bus stop peering down to see the times of the last buses!

The speed at which we are using the earth’s resources has put humanity’s very survival at risk. It is a bleak thought to consider as one year ends and another begins. Where can we place our hope and find any assurance? we ask ourselves. Do we need to think of the last buses on our earthly journey?

This painting was painted in Italy at a time when there was similar speculation about the end of the world. A mesmerising priest called Savonarola had preached in Florence about portents of this end time, and the final battle that would take place. His own end was gruesome and horrific as the church authorities silenced his voice, but his influence lingered on among people. Nowhere more so than in Botticelli, who painted this ‘Mystic Nativity’ in 1500, two years after Savonarola’s death.

At first glance, it looks a typical Epiphany scene, for the wise men are shown to the stable by an angel. But everything is basic and rudimentary. The wise men do not wear luxurious clothing, they have no servants, they bear no gifts. The stable is just a thatched roof propped against the mouth of the cave, with Joseph oddly hunched at one side. The babe kicks a leg into the air as Mary and the animals watch on, looking from the inside of the cave.

But then look above the scene. There is a long inscription from Botticelli: it announces that he painted this Nativity at the end of 1500, to provide a key to the violent and confused times in which he lived. At the bottom little demons scramble back to the underworld, and those who have been through the battle of life are comforted by angels, and there are more angels engaged in an ecstatic dance above the stable with olive branches and scrolls in their hands.

At the heart of it all is the simple nativity scene.

Botticelli seems to be making a heartfelt statement about his faith in the light of all that he had experienced and seen around him: his distress at the suffering war had brought, and his sense of doom that war was a portent of worse things to come. But the painting also shows his calm resignation that as one century turned into another, and one year into another, there is a birth which can be the pivot of that turning. A birth which is a sign of a future, a sign of new life, a sign of love. We can come through, he says, if we realise where our hope and trust should be placed - not in the pursuit of power which leads to death and destruction, but in a birth that leads ultimately to a heaven of victory and dancing and celebration.

The painting is not about winter, it is about spring: a season of hope and new life. We can draw the curtains across this nativity scene and shut out the light and springtime. But then, says Botticelli, chaos and war and greed will flourish. Go to the stable with the wise men, open the curtains, invite the Christ-Child in, and all will be transformed.

Savonarola had preached the same message a few years earlier, ‘If you wish to be at rest, seek Christ. Come to this crib, seek none but Him, and you will find rest. Be well assured that you will never have peace until you come to this crib and to this light of faith in Christ.’