It’s December Day One, which means we’re officially entering the one-month run to Christmas. So, now’s when we really start stomaching shedloads of chintzy shop decor. Now’s when our ears will properly be pummeled by carols and Christmas songs shouted loud from shop speakers. And we’d better be ready for all advertisers and avaricious vendors filling us in on exactly how many hours and minutes we’ve left to buy the perfect gift.
In the midst of all the commercial clap-trap, it’s sometimes easy to let-slip the simple centre of the story of Christ’s birth. Though a quick dip into the NGA can cure all that, especially if you’re in the Renaissance galleries, where this religious story and its resplendent implications takes centre-stage as the subject of choice. Here’s one gorgeous Virgin Adoring the Child (1480/1490) by the ever-beautiful and beatific Botticelli (1446 – 1510).
Looking at this it’s easy to see how Botticelli does a deft double-dance between the styles that suited and seduced him most. You see, while he was a Renaissance artist, fully signed-up to the cultured court of the Medici in Florence in the late fifteenth century, his eye and hand also trace an elegant line back to the sinuous, sibilant lines of Gothic art.
So on the one hand we have a sturdy understanding of anatomy, classic sign of scientific advance in Renaissance Florence. Witness the baby’s bulging belly and his shaded, contoured limbs. But then Botticelli undoes this accuracy by lengthening the baby beyond believability, making the effect altogether more stretched-out and smooth. Mary’s figure too looks likely enough but it’s just too long when looked at objectively: his point is not perfect proportions but rather the impression of attenuation and therefore elegance.
There’s more of the mish-mash of influences elsewhere. Peering beyond the people there’s a landscape that’s laudable in its representation of recession. Again, the mastering of perspective was a Renaissance triumph and Botticelli does his best to stick to the new rules here. But elsewhere he’s letting in a quotient of more dreamy musings we might find in a medieval painting. Trace for instance the multiple lines rippling through the fabric of Mary’s mantle and red tunic or the particular definitions he brings to her hair and the wicker keeping the ox and ass shut in: this sort of meandering and melodious line is linked to art of the age before Botticelli. The round format here (tondo in Italian) was familiar to the artist and may suggest it was commissioned for someone’s home. Which is one way to keep on-topic in the midst of the season’s more crash commercialism.