Image: Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi) and Assistants, The Adoration of the Child, c.1500, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina
4So Joseph also went up from Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the City of David called Bethlehem, since he was from the house and line of David. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to him in marriage and was expecting a child.
6While they were there, the time came for her Child to be born. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son. She wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
“Vapor” by the Liturgists
The more I understand of a work of art’s history, the more I wrestle with my preconceived ideas about what makes a work ‘great’ and what about it truly captures my imagination. The Adoration of the Child is included in a highlights tour of the museum and one I’ve shared with groups because it’s a historically significant piece by one of the masters of the Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi), whose famous works included The birth of Venus (c. 1486) and Primavera (late 1470s-early 1480s).
After his success as a mythological painter, Botticelli became a follower of a spiritual reformer, Savonarola, a modern day Florentine John the Baptist, who preached against the political corruption of the church and pandering to families like the Medici. As Botticelli grew serious in his Christian convictions, he began painting almost exclusively religious subjects like The Adoration of the Child. Although he would often use the same model as his muse, Simonetta Vespucci from his mythological paintings, his later works like The Adoration of the Christ Child (c. 1510) show a shift in imagination from his earlier work.
The round painting, called a tondo, symbolized perfection, completeness or wholeness. Here, Botticelli shapes the holy family, Mary, Jesus and Joseph, into a circle of perfection. We see this in the curved devotional posture of Mary, the curling baby Jesus and even in Joseph’s weary sloped bend. Even in their humanity and the humbleness of their surroundings, Botticelli suggests that this is God’s view and it’s perfect, whole and the Son rises as a holy offering.
Next, we see that Botticelli uses visual symbols that we might expect from a Renaissance master to identify Mary with her youth and beauty to show her purity, is garbed with her signature colors of green, blue and red. Joseph, clearly exhausted and leaning on his shepherd’s crook, has been aged to show his maturity so that he dies before Jesus begins His ministry at thirty years old.
In John 6:35 Jesus answered, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never hunger, and whoever believes in Me will never thirst.” We read that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which literally means “House of Bread.”
The Adoration of the Child serves as one great offering plate of spiritual food for a hunger that can only be satisfied by God: We see wheat for the roof, bound with a scarlet cord, the wheat detail of the picture frame, the wheat that Jesus lays on as if he’s on a dining plate and the grain of wheat that is caught falling over the Christ child to foreshadow Jesus’ words, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
We often speak of time as a linear or chronological phenomenon in terms of past, present and future. So how do you at least hint at the broad implications of redemption visually? Botticelli uses the broken stone walls of the stable as an architectural device to show the significance of the first Christmas, when, with Jesus’ birth, the fullness of God became a man. That first Noel has also broken into his, Botticelli’s, present, and carries forward that same everlasting joy into the future. The esemplastic power of that first Christmas breaks into every tribe, tongue and nation and continues to break forward into eternity.
Although Botticelli knew Jesus was a Hebrew born in Israel and that He would have had dark Middle Eastern features, Botticelli imagines the Holy Family in his own time and space in Florence and with Florentine features to communicate the universal message understood by Christians around the world: that Jesus comes to us all, that He sees us all right where we are in our time and place.
Here we have Botticelli’s version of an upside-down kingdom: We see the magi portrayed as Florentines who, like all past, present and future kingdoms, rulers and principalities of the earth, are coming to worship the Lamb of God. By imagining Mary, Joseph and Jesus struggling to find hospitality in his own country, Botticelli is reminding his countrymen that God’s ways are not like earthly kingdoms.
From the Old Testament even until today, there is a persistent belief that Jesus the Lamb of God will stop being the Lamb and will return as a Lion. However, we see in Revelation 5:4-10 that when we look for the Lion of Judah, a title of victory, we see the Lamb is on the throne. Jesus never stops being the Lamb. The Jews expected a Messiah who would come as a king who would overthrow foreign powers and lead God’s people into political victory. They were tired and angry at being occupied by foreign powers and wanted a king who restored their way of life. They longed for ‘the old days’ when they were in control. Instead, God choses a poor girl, a family that needed refuge in another country to escape violence. They rejected the Lamb who came to serve the poor, oppressed and hungry. Instead of hard words and death to their enemies, he said hard words and death to their way of life: Love your enemy. Deny yourselves and take up your cross. You must be born again. Welcome the foreigner and be generous without complaining.
Our Advent reflection ends with a mother in prayer. Here, Mary labors in prayer, having just labored to give birth to her Hope for the world while Jesus, whose gaze transcends the Italian master's time and place, watches us. Are we in a state of beholding Jesus too? Are we becoming people who do the will of God in our time and place?