Art exhibit puts Botticelli's spiritual journey in historical framework

IMAGE: CNS photo/Muscarelle Museum of A

By Carol Zimmermann

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (CNS) — The culture wars of today have
nothing on those from Renaissance times.

In Florence,
Italy, in 1497 — after people had been repeatedly warned that some instruments, books,
sculptures, paintings and clothes could lead them away from their faith — thousands
of these items were thrown into a huge pile in the center of the city and burned
in the famous Bonfire of the Vanities.

the works of art said to be set afire were some of the paintings of nudes or characters
from mythology by Sandro
Botticelli, who was a contemporary and friend of Michelangelo and Leonardo da
Vinci and who painted a number of religious images and the famous paintings
“Birth of Venus” and “Primavera.”

current U.S. exhibition of Botticelli’s works, many of them appearing in this
country for the first time, places the modern audience right in the middle of
this tumultuous period and also shows how this time of intense spiritual
scrutiny impacted the artist.

and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting Between the Medici and the
Bonfire of the Vanities” opened Feb. 11 at Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. After its April 5 closing there, the exhibit heads to its only other venue, the Museum
of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will be on display April 18-July 9.

exhibition provides a sense of the artist’s spiritual journey, said its curator,
John Spike, assistant director and chief curator at the Williamsburg museum.

Spike, a
member of St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg, is an art historian, author and
lecturer. He also is a permanent consultant to two Italian museums and served
on the faculty of Rome’s European University and the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum (Queen of Apostles).

When he spoke
to Catholic News Service and another reporter March 10 at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, he
lingered in front of some paintings that were obvious favorites.

was thrilled with the attendance at the exhibition, 30,000 in the first month
alone, and he said people wanted to learn more about the artist, which was
obvious by the crowds continually gathered around the volunteer docents’ guided
tours of the collection.

were sure to pick up more than a few facts about Botticelli, whose given name was Alessandro Filipepi. He lived
from 1445 to 1510 and spent most of his life in Florence except for the year he
spent painting frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The wealthy ruling Medici
family, before they were overthrown, sponsored his works during the height of
his career.

The 16 Botticelli
paintings in the exhibition were primarily loaned from Italian museums and
churches. There also were six paintings by Botticelli’s teacher, Filippo Lippi. On two
opposite walls, giving a sense of history, was the death mask of Lorenzo the
Magnificent, ruler of Florence and patron of the arts during Botticelli’s time,
and a portrait of Dominican Father Girolamo Savonarola, the priest who ordered the burning of secular

exhibition’s catalog says the paintings “introduce us to the life and
the art of Sandro Botticelli, with emphasis on his lifelong effort to make visible
the invisible beauty of the divine.”

said he specifically divided the works into three sections to tell the story of
the artist’s journey. The first room centered on Botticelli’s early years and
the styles, particularly of the Madonna and Child that he learned from Filippo
Lippi. The second room included Botticelli’s top works with paintings of
mythology such as “Judgement
of Paris” and “Venus,” which is a smaller version — one of only two
in existence — featuring the goddess from his famous “Birth of
Venus” displayed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Another Botticelli
painting, “Madonna of the Book,” features Mary holding the infant
Jesus while looking at a sacred book. The catalog describes this painting as
a small panel that “offers a glimpse of heaven as imagined in the mind of
Sandro Botticelli.”

To get
to the last room, museumgoers passed a cutout wooden sculpture, “Christ
Crucified.” Spike said the image, not marred by the brutality of the
crucifixion, captures male beauty and has been described as one of the artist’s
greatest pieces of sacred art.

The last
room contained a small selection of the artist’s little known later works. These
were painted in the years just prior to Botticelli’s death, after the fall of
the Medici family and the death of the angry preacher Father Savonarola. The paintings are
more austere than his previous ones; subjects are more serious and the colors
are darker. Clearly something has changed in the artist’s overall style.

The “Madonna
and Child,” displayed in the exhibit’s last section, does not evoke any of the tenderness of
the Madonna in the previous room. In this painting, there is no fruit, no open
book on a table, no touches of gold or bright blue paint. Mary’s eyes are
nearly closed and Jesus is not looking at his mother but looking away.

more jarring may be the work “Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John
the Baptist” where Mary appears to be handing her infant son to John the
Baptist. The characters here are large and their eyes are closed. Spike pointed
out that Mary, who is leaning over, would not even fit in the frame if she were
to stand up straight.

The exhibition’s
catalog, quoting a critic of these later works, described them as “at
times painfully intense” with their “pressing even desperate need to
convey meaning and to provoke emotion and perhaps destroy beauty.”

For Spike,
the collection worked as a whole, but he never pinpointed exactly what he hoped
viewers would walk away with, leading this reporter to think the paintings reflect the
full package of faith: the comfort and beauty it can give along with the unavoidable
and difficult challenge it poses.

Spike said
the final pieces with their “deliberately unbeautiful” images needed to
be viewed with the idea of what the artist was trying to convey. He said Botticelli
wanted to “remove anything that might come between us and the message.”

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Editor’s Note: The Williamsburg museum’s brochure on the Botticelli exhibit can be viewed at Information about the Boston exhibit can be found at

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Zimmermann on Twitter:@carolmaczim.

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