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The Virgin Adoring the Child, by Sandro Botticelli

This painting is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the gallery’s date attribution is between 1480 and 1490. However, there are indications in the work that suggest it was produced after 1490, perhaps as late as 1498.


The Virgin Adoring the Child (1498?)

Sandro Botticelli

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In his monograph, Botticelli Life and Works, Ronald Lightbown describes the adoration scene:

“The composition of the small tondo of the Virgin Adoring the Child, painted around 1490, was repeated, as it deserved to be, in many workshop versions. The broken gray masonry of the stable in the foreground, converts the circle into a square within which the Virgin, wearing a pink robe beneath the deep blue of her cloak, kneels in the dark sward, adoring the Child who lies on the cloak’s end propped up by a bale of straw, stretching up his hands to her. The straw is painted with great attention: each outer straw is executed with a straight stroke, highlighted with touches of yellow. From the triangle of sky to the left of the thatched golden-brown roof, a gold star sends down its ray above the Child’s head. Behind, a duck swims on a pool; beyond are low dark-green undulations with a wooden gateway opening onto a path over bright green hills on the left. On the right is a brown fence and a river landscape. Such browns – pale tawny brown, golden brown, chestnut – are characteristic of Botticelli’s later pictures; so too is the conjunction of tawny and light green to give a delightful effect of pastoral gladness.”


• Ronald Lightbown, Botticelli: Life and Work, pp 217-218


Giorgio Vasari

Title page of Giorgio Vasari’s 1558 edition of The Lives of the Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

the Vasari connection

The Virgin Adoring the Child is one of many in a line of Mary-and-the-Infant-Jesus paintings by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. So what’s different in this Nativity portrayal? For starters, the artist has woven a representation of himself in his painting.

In Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects he devotes a chapter on the life and work of Sandro Botticelli. There is a notable anecdote in the biography that records a dispute Botticelli had with a neighbour who was a weaver. Botticelli confirms the incident in this painting, as well as another reference made by Vasari (pictured) to Sandro’s health late in life. However, Botticelli uses the same iconography to apply other levels of meaning to interlock and weave with additional themes in the painting.

But first, here is Vasari’s anedote about Botticelli and the weaver:

“Another time a cloth-weaver came to live in a house next to Sandro’s, and erected no less than eight looms, which, when at work, not only deafened poor Sandro with the noise of the treadles and the movement of the frames, but shook his whole house, the walls of which were no stronger than they should be, so that what with the one thing and the other he could not work or even stay at home. Time after time he besought his neighbour to put an end to this annoyance, but the other said that he both would and could do what he pleased in his own house; whereupon Sandro, in disdain, balanced on the top of his own wall, which was higher than his neighbour’s and not very strong, an enormous stone, more than enough to fill a wagon, which threatened to fall at the slightest shaking of the wall and to shatter the roof, ceilings, webs, and looms of his neighbour, who, terrified by this danger, ran to Sandro, but was answered in his very own words—namely, that he both could and would do whatever he pleased in his own house. Nor could he get any other answer out of him, so that he was forced to come to a reasonable agreement and to be a good neighbour to Sandro.”


Text is from the ten-volume edition published by Macmillan and Co. & The Medici Society, 1912-14, sourced from The University of Adelaide



The stone building blocks rising above the Infant represent Botticelli – a kind of ‘Lego’ figure, with arms outstretched, bearing a stone, and supported precariously on two wooden poles. The ox’s horns represent the dilemma faced by the weaver. If the ox dislodges the nearest pole, then Botticelli’s stone may fall on the stubborn donkey below (the weaver) that seems to be oblivious to the danger and interested only in peering out from the woven fence, tempted by the straw in the manger. However, Botticelli implies that the weaver doesn’t have a choice with the stone structure appearing to rest on one horn only.


The ox is also symbolic of Luke’s gospel and the two vertical poles alongside are a reference to chapter eleven, in particular the verse about the Return of the Unclean Spirit.


The specific number of looms mentioned by Vasari amount to eight, which tallies with the unclean spirit returning to the man’s house (his soul) that had been swept clean, bringing with it seven other spirits, even more wicked. Eight in total.


Without realising it, Vasari also alludes to the two poles supporting Botticelli’s arms: He writes: “Having grown old and useless, and being forced to walk with crutches, without which he could not stand upright, he died, infirm and decrepit, at the age of seventy-eight…”


So here Botticelli depicts himself as still standing, stiff as stone, but upright with a straight back, even if with the aid of crutches, on a cornerstone representing Christ, and still very much capable of producing meaningful paintings. Notice also his head is turned, not looking into darkness but at the light radiating from the Virgin Mary. Notice also the light from the Bethlehem Star falling onto Botticelli’s ‘capstone’ head, in line with the light’s descent onto the Saviour.


the Savonarola connection

Another claim made by Vasari was that Botticelli was an ardent follower of the fiery preacher Girolama Savonarola, a self-proclaimed prophet active in Florence from 1490 until his death in 1498. The Dominican friar set out to reform the Church and claimed Florence would become the “New Jerusalem”. His control over the people and Florence ended in disgrace and public shame when he was imprisoned, tried and hanged while his body was set on fire and reduced to ashes.


It is uncertain if Botticelli was ever a commited supporter of Savonarola, but one artist who did come under the preacher’s influence was Baccio della Porta. He eventually became a Dominican friar and known as Fra Bartolomeo. It was this artist who painted the famous profile of Savonarola, pictured above, and which Botticelli mirrored in The Virgin Adoring the Child.

What is certain, Botticelli was familiar with the sermons Savonarola proclaimed from the pulpit of San Marco in Florence, and alludes to some of the friar’s comments in the detail above.


In contrast to Fra Bartolomeo’s portrait depicting Savonarola as a “shining light” surrounded by darkness, Botticelli has ‘reversed’ or switched the profile and instead casts the preacher – formed from a pair of stone moulds – as darkness. Botticelli may also be pointing to the dangerous practice by groups of supporters and opponents of Savonarola throwing stones at each other, as well as making accusations or “casting stones” in the biblical sense (John 8 : 7).


Apart from referencing Botticelli’s crutches, the two vertical poles represent two magnets, a description Savonarola applied in one of his sermons to man’s uniqueness in having a soul and a body “as if between two magnets” and a free will that allows a person to be drawn up into the light or down into darkness. The magnet analogy also can be applied to Savonarola’s personality and preaching. It could both attract and repel.


Visually, the poles are two pruned branches. Botticeli has emphasised where the cuts have been made at the collars with two red circles that look like red eyes peering out from the darkness. The edge of the peeling bark is also accentuated. There are two explanations for this grouping and both relate to analogies used by Savonarola in his sermons.


Firstly, the combination of peeling bark and red eyes refers to a group of Savonarola’s political opponents nicknamed “the rabid” or the “Arrabbiati” who successfully campaigned to stop him preaching. Savonarola preached that the group “do nothing all day long but bark and say absurd things that even the children laugh at their foolishness.” But with Botticelli depicting Savonarola behind bars he appears to suggest that it is the friar who has had his bark stripped and eventually silenced by the “Arrabbiati”.


Secondly, the two red circles represent a pair of spectacles that refers to another metaphor in one of the preacher’s sermons. “The eyes of their intellect have the spectacles and the veil of avarice […] I say nothing of the spectacles of lust. It is no wonder that you do not see…”


Again, Botticelli reverses the accusation by placing the spectacles above the nose of Savonarola’s silhouette, but this time incorporates a similar metaphor the preacher made about spectacles in another sermon. As a remedy to try and abstain from sin, Savonarola advised the people to make for themselves a pair of spectacles to be known as the “spectacles of death”, keeping in view and mind that death can occur at any time. If the glasses are made well and not tainted then the intellect will always see well, but if tinged with any colour then the person’s view and intellect will be also be tinged. Savonarola explained that red would produce anger, hate, rage and a desire for revenge, “because the images are formed by the passions within the soul”. The solution is to remove the bad eyeglasses. Not doing so leads to death.


So here Botticelli is seemingly using the preacher’s own words, portraying him as a troubled and captured soul in darkness, and soon to meet his death.


Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo, c. 1498, Museo di San Marco, Florence.


Selected Writings of Girolamo Savonarola click or tap on image to access.

Monument dedicated to Girolamo Savonarola in Ferrara, Italy.

Girolamo Savonarola was known for his prophecies of civic glory, the destruction of secular art and culture, and his calls for Christian renewal. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor. He prophesied the coming of a biblical flood and a new Cyrus from the north who would reform the Church, declaring that Florence would be the New Jerusalem, the world centre of Christianity and “richer, more powerful, more glorious than ever”. (Wikipedia)


a king and a queen

Savonarola also pushed the line that the people should accept Jesus and Mary, the central figures in Botticelli’s painting, as their King and Queen of Florence, and their lives be modeled and governed by a heavenly authority and not by dishonest rulers and councils.


Savonarola seemingly saw himself as God’s chosen architect for re-building the Temple – the New Jerusalem – and correcting the corrupt and wayward practices that gripped and demoralised the people of Florence. He claimed God spoke to him directly, instructing and inspiring him lead to the people towards a new way of life and living, similar to the mission and guidance given to Moses when he led the Israelites out of captivity and into the “Promised Land”.


There is a noticeable architectural theme linked to Florence in Botticelli’s painting. Robert Lightbown touched on it in his description… “The broken gray masonry of the stable in the foreground, converts the circle [the frame] into a square within which the Virgin, wearing a pink robe beneath the deep blue of her cloak, kneels in the dark sward, adoring the Child who lies on the cloak’s end propped up by a bale of straw, stretching up his hand to her.”


The architectural clue is the phrase: “converts the circle into a square”. The effect is shown alongside. The Child is also encircled for a reason which will be explained later in the presentation.

The square can be considered a ‘sanctuary’ a safe and holy place, shared with the high and lowly, wise men and shepherds, clean and unclean, and with animals. In reality the stable sanctuary was a cave alongside the inn accommodating the people returning to Jerusalem to be recorded in the census. The inn had no room for Mary and Joseph and so Jesus was born in the stable.

Tradtion records that it was St Francis who was inspired to recreate the first nativity scene after making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He told a friend that he wanted to do something that would record the memory of the Child born in Bethlehem, and for people to see the inconveniences of his infancy, and how Jesus was laid in a manger with an ox and ass standing by. This happened in Greccio on Christmas Eve, 1223.


Some 68 years later, in 1291, the Franciscan Pope Nicholas IV commissioned the Tuscan sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio to create a permanent nativity scene for the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The  stone figures are now displayed in the Basilica’s museum.


Converting the circle into a square.


The Nativity scene sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio at the end of the 14th century, now housed in the museum of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

The five sculpted pieces show, left to right, the ox and the ass, St Joseph, the Madonna and Child, and the three Magi (two standing, one kneeling). In Botticelli’s nativity there is seemingly only the ox and ass alongside the Madonna and Child. The wise men and Joseph are absent. Or are they?


Mentioned earlier was Vasari’s comment about Botticelli’s use of crutches, “without which he could not stand upright”. I pointed out the “Lego” man and two “crutches” being Botticelli, but the stone figure represents as well Arnolfo di Cambio’s sculpture of Joseph, who stands upright, leaning on a crutch. Botticelli is also referring to the fact that the Di Cambio figures are portable and can be rearranged in the scene, hence the face feature of Bottcielli’s Joseph being shown “volte-face”.  The change of position, or 180 degree turnabout, also alludes to Girolamo Savonarola retracting his earlier claims that God had been speaking to him directly about establishing Florence as the “New Jerusalem”.


Facing stones... the two Josephs, standing upright with the aid of crutches

As to the absence of the “wise men” or “three kings”, I will explain more on this later in the presentation. For now I shall stay with Arnolfo di Cambio and how, as an architect, he is linked to other features in the painting.

the Arnolfo di Cambio connection


Arnolfo worked at at projects throughout Italy before moving to Florence in 1294 where he designed and constructed several of the citys landmarks, notably the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, the Santa Croce church and the Palazzo Vecchio. These three buildings – two temples and Florence’s town hall (originally the Palazzo della Signoria) – are represented in Botticelli’s painting.


The Santa Maria del Fiore (also known as the Duomo), is the Mother church of Florence, represented here by the Madonna. Fiore, or Flower, links to Fioretta Gorini, the woman portrayed as the Madonna, said to have been a mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici who was assasinated in the cathedral in 1478.


The church of the Santa Croce is represented by the Madonna’s red gown, which forms a cross with her folded arms, and symbolic of Christ’s crucifixion.


Attached to the Palazzo Vecchio is a large tower known as the Torre d’Arnolfo. This is represented by the stone structure towering above the Infant Jesus in the nativity scene. It was originally known as La Vacca or The Cow, the name of an earlier tower that formd the substructure for Di Cambio’s design, hence Botticelli showing the horn of the ox supporting the man carrying stones to the upper part of the tower. This is also a reference to the likely equipment, known as an ox-hoist that was used to raise the heavy stones to the upper part of the structure. It was in this tower that Girolama Savonarola was kept captive before being executed. The small cell under the belfy was known as The Inn, and here we see how Botticelli has connected this feature to the Nativity when Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable because there was “no room at the inn”.


The Madonna figure is also symbolic of the Birth, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and informed her she was to conceive and bear a son, Mary asked how this was possible a she was a virgin. The angel replied, “The power of the Most High [the Holy Spirit] will cover you with its shadow (Luke 1 : 35). Botticelli depicts this in three ways: first by the Madonna’s hands formed to represent the dove-shaped wings of the Holy Spirit; secondly by the exaggerated air vents, like billowing sails, in Mary’s right arm, the breath or wind of God being another description given to the Holy Spirit; thirdly Mary being covered by the Holy Spirit’s shadow, represented by the dark wing-shaped lining of her blue mantle.


Already mentioned is the red gown and Mary’s crossed hands being symbolic of the crucifixion and therefore Di Cambio’s design for the  Santa Croce church.


Three buildings in Florence designed by the architect Arnolfo di Cambio...

top: Santa Maria del Fiore
above: Santa Croce

below: Torre d’Arnolfo


The crossed hands of Mary represent the wings of the Holy Spirit while the vents of her sleeve are meant to depict billlowing sails. Her right hand and wrist is deliberately oversized and the vents appearing like well-developed muscles. Not only is Botticelli referring to the power and strength of God’s right arm (the Holy Spirit), but also to comments made by Leonardo da Vinci about not making muscles appears like a bag of walnuts.

Billowing sails, the wind, and the marine-blue colour of her mantle point to a nautical theme relating to Mary, as the ‘Ark of the Covenant’. Another title, and one of the oldest, given to Mary is ‘Star of the Sea’ (Maris Stella). She is also referred to as the ‘Ocean Star’. A symbol of the resurrection is found in the head of the “great fish” depicted in Mary’s blue garment at the feet of the Child.  It’s a reference to the whale that swallowed Jonah who remained in its belly for three days and three nights before vomiting the prophet onto the shoreline.


The ‘great fish’ referring to Jonah and the Whale, and an allegory for the resurrection of Jesus after three days in the tomb.

Also disguised in the folds of the Virgin’s blue mantle are two other references that have a nautical aspect and connect to her title as Ark of the Covenant and a phrase from one of Savonarola’s sermons when he referred to Noah as “the one who guides the ark”.


The head of Noah is profiled on the right hand edge and at the foot of the blue gown (the sea). His beard is shaped to represent the Ark’s rudder. Between this and the shape of the ‘large fish’ is the outline of a cowel or dragnet, its tail reaching up as far the Virgin’s fingers on her right hand.  The shape is also meant to represent the rigging on a sailboat which holds up the mast and known as the ‘Shroud’, the mast in this instance being the Cross.

the Leonardo da Vinci connection


The burial of Jesus in a cave and subsequent resurrection from his tomb links to his earlier birth in a cave that served as a stable. This in turn connects to another reference to caves made by Botticelli in his painting and to the artist, Leonardo da Vinci.


In 1480 Leonardo wrote about a discovery he experienced as a child while exploring a mountain cave in Tuscany, a “wonderous form” understood to be a fossil whale. Botticelli refers to the cavern and its “wonderous form” in two ways, linking the cave of the Nativity and the “great fish” – to present the “wonderous form” as being the Infant Christ, and the reference to Jonah and the whale to symbolise Christ as the Resurrection.

Leonardo also expressed that he found his cave experience terrifying, in case some monster might lurk there. Included with his account is an illustration (Cavern with Ducks) of rocks and a stream running out from the cave.


Noticeable in the foreground is a duck swimming and a swan seemingly about to take flight. In Botticelli’s painting he has shown the duck and the stream appearing to flow from Mary’s mantle. The swan is not present in the scene, or at least not on the water. One possible explanation for this is that Botticelli is referring to the flight of Piero di Medici from Florence in 1494, some years before the painting was completed, probably in 1498. Another artist, Andrea Mantegna depicted Piero as the swan associated with the seduction of Leda (portrayed as Isabella d’Este) in his Parnassus painting. Leonardo made study drawings of the Greek mythology story and a probable painting, now lost. A copy of Leonardo’s lost Leda and the Swan is thought to be the version attributed to Il Sodoma, the name given to Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549).


However, there is a more extensive explanation for Leonardo’s “swan” not being depicted alongside the duck on Botticelli’s stream. A reference appears elsewhere in the painting in the form of a winding path on the dome-shaped hill that rises above the gateway alongside the Virgin’s right elbow, a pointer to one of Mary’s titles as “Gate of Heaven”. It is also one of the gates in an outer defensive wall designed for Florence by the architect Arnolfo di Cambio, which was initially laid out using pallisades. The stone eventually used for the wall was likely brought from quarries located on the mentioned mount, known as Monte Ceceri, or Swan Mountain. The winding path is meant to depict the neck of a swan. It stems from the crown of the hill where two trees are shaped to depict Giuliano de Medici and the guard at his shoulder, a ‘lion couchant’. The lion is not only a reference to the Marzocco and symbol of Florence but also to Leonardo da Vinci who featured as a protective angel on the breastplate of the terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici that was sculpted by Andrea Verrocchio. Giuliano was assassinated in the Florence Duomo (Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower) on April 26, 1478. The dome-shaped mount is meant to represent the Duomo.

(Left) Leonardo da Vinci, Cavern with Ducks, c.1475-80, Windsor, Royal Library 12395. (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).

(Below) Detail from Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Child and a reference to Leonardo’s duck seen in his Cavern with Ducks drawing.


Leda and the Swan (1510-1515), said to be a copy of Leonardo’s version and attributed to Il Sodoma


The pathway on Swan Mountain echoes the shape of the swan’s neck as seen in the painting of Leda and the Swan by Il Sodoma, thought to be a copy of Leonardo’s version.

The Cathedral was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio. He also produced a model for the dome itself.  However, its feasiblity and construction was the creation of the architect, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446). One of the unique features about Brunellschi’s dome is its double-shell construction. Botticell points to this in his painting. The dome-shaped Monte Ceceri represents the inner shell, while the outer shell is shown by the rim of the higher mount and slopes of Fiesole, an estate located about three miles northeast of Florence and where one of many Medici villas was located.


The gate mentioned earlier was also known as Porta Fiesolana and also Porta a Pinti, firstly because its road led out to Fiesole and secondly because the gate was located in the Borgo Pinti district of Florence. The woman representing the Madonna in this painting, Fioretta Gorini, was from the Borgo Pinti where her father operated his armoury business.


Hardly noticeable on the arc of Swan Mountain and half hidden by a stone block is another feature shaped to represent Leonardo da Vinci – a Sphinx. The Sphinx motif was used by Botticelli in another famous painting of his – the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. The Geat Sphinx of Giza in Egypt was seen as a guardian of the Pharoh’s pyramid tombs. Over the centuries it became half-hidden by the sands of time. But there is seemingly another reason why Botticelli has ‘half-hidden’ Leonardo in this way and possibly relates to a secret of the time that has always been kept hidden or remained undiscovered. A riddle posed by Botticelli, perhaps?

• More to follow...


A Sphinx-shaped Leonardo disguised among the bushes on Swan Mountain.

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