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Botticelli’s Christ: Salvation through Art

Botticelli’s Christ: Salvation through Art

Sandro Botticelli’s The Man of Sorrows is a stark and haunting picture. Dating from around 1500, at first glance it looks like a bust-length portrait painted from life. But since the subject is someone not seen in the flesh for a thousand years and more, it cannot be that and must be taken for a vision.

A nativity scene
SANDRO BOTTICELLI, MYSTIC NATIVITY, CIRCA 1500–1. PHOTO: PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

Christ is clothed in red, the colour of blood and the colour of his Passion. He is so tightly bound he can barely move. Ropes cut into his wrists and arms. He wears a crown of thorns as fat as a snake. Blood trickles down his forehead and into the cavity of his right eye. His head is haloed by a troupe of tiny dancing angels, who are armed with the instruments of his Passion: the scourge, the lance, the column to which he was bound, the vinegary sponge with which he was mocked, the cross itself.

The Man of Sorrows is a remarkable rediscovery – prior to the current auction it had been in a private collection since 1963, and practically unseen until its inclusion in an exhibition at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum in 2009. It is also a precious addition to the known corpus of Botticelli’s late work, not least because it reminds us that artists do not stand still. Like us all, they live complicated lives, in real time, and change their attitudes to all kinds of things (including the purpose of art itself) during the process. It is interesting to compare the work with his considerably earlier Young Man Holding a Roundel, circa 1480, which was auctioned by Sotheby’s in January 2021.

Botticelli has been remembered above all as the great sensualist of Florentine Renaissance painting. The Birth of Venus is, the most famous Old Master painting in the world (after Mona Lisa).

SANDRO BOTTICELLI, THE MAN OF SORROWS, CIRCA 1500 (DETAIL). ESTIMATE UPON REQUEST.
(LEFT) ALBRECHT DÜRER, SELF PORTRAIT, ALTE PINAKOTHEK, MUNICH; (RIGHT) LEONARDO DA VINCI, SALVATOR MUNDI

There is a certain edge to Botticelli’s painting that is not in earlier comparable pictures. I suspect that this may have a great deal to do with the millennial fears that haunted the late 15th-century mind, stemming from the belief that the end of the world really might be just around the corner. Botticelli himself shared that belief, as we know from an inscription on the National Gallery’s Mystic Nativity: “I Sandro made this picture in the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time … in the second woe of the Apocalypse during the loosing of the devil…”

A painting on the wall of a white room
FRA ANGELICO, TRANSFIGURATION, 1440–42, A FRESCO PAINTED ON THE WALL IN THE MONK’S CELL AT THE CONVENT OF SAN MARCO, NOW THE SAN MARCO MUSEUM IN FLORENCE, ITALY. PHOTO: AZOOR TRAVEL PHOTO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

A sense of impending apocalypse was widespread in Europe around the year 1500, and Botticelli was not the only painter to give expression to it. We find a similar sense of awe, mingled with dread, in the composition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, more or less contemporary with The Man of Sorrows – and which, both in its starkness of design and full-face portrayal of the Saviour, seems directly comparable with Botticelli’s work.

Botticelli’s The Man of Sorrows will be offered at Sotheby’s annual Masters Week sales series in New York in January 2022.

Art

Suzanna, co-owns and publishes the newspaper Times Square Chronicles or T2C. At one point a working actress, she has performed in numerous productions in film, TV, cabaret, opera and theatre. She has performed at The New Orleans Jazz festival, The United Nations and Carnegie Hall. She has a screenplay and a TV show in the works, which she developed with her mentor and friend the late Arthur Herzog. She is a proud member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle and was a nominator. Email: suzanna@t2conline.com

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