Ten of the greatest pieces of Christian art ever created. Ten Advent reflections. A bit like the ten stations of the Christmas story. Here’s No.9.
9. THE ADORATION OF THE MAGI
Artwork: Adoration of the Magi – Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Reading: Matthew 2:7-12
Botticelli was commissioned to paint this astonishing work in 1475 by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a wealthy Italian banker connected to the Medici family.
The holy family are positioned aloft in a derelict outhouse of yawning rafters on the brink of collapse. Below them, the Magi and their attendants have come bearing gifts for the Christ child.
It’s a lush, dramatic, altogether beautiful nativity. That much is obvious to the uninformed viewer.
What you might not know is the sly and artful way Botticelli has portrayed the images in the foreground.
The three Magi are portrayed by patriarchs of the powerful Medici family. The magus kneeling before Christ and pompously touching his feet is Cosimo de’ Medici, the first of the Medici political dynasty.
The second magus in the center with the red mantle is Cosimo’s son, Piero, who succeeded him as lord of Florence. And the third magus beside him is Piero’s brother Giovanni. They seem to be in conversation, perhaps disagreement.
It was well known that Cosimo had intended for Giovanni to succeed him, but Giovanni died unexpectedly in 1463, allowing Piero to step up as successor. Maybe that perplexing stare hints at the rivalry between them?
In the foreground at left, three louche young men appear completely disinterested. One drapes himself over another, their eyes closed, as if like bored children wanting this all to end. Beside them, his thumb tucked casually into his belt, a third man motions toward the holy family, appearing to ask, “What? You’re not interested in this?”
In other words, the scene is anything but hallowed and hushed.
But notice the blond man on the extreme right, looking directly at you from the canvas. That’s a self-portrait of Sandro Botticelli himself.
Botticelli is distancing himself from the feigned worship, the hustle of pomp and ceremony, and the complete disinterest of the Italians around Christ. Botticelli fixes us with his gaze and asks, “Is your love for the child greater than these?”
Well, is it?
I am sorry when I get so carried away with the busyness of each day,
never stopping to dwell in your love.
I am sorry when I allow the stresses and demands of work or family to erode and wear away my hope.
I am sorry when I’m caught up in conflict and frustration,
when I harbor resentment, instead of giving out forgiveness.
I’m sorry when I seek to be fulfilled by food, drink or entertainment,
Yet fail to feast on your truth.
I’m sorry when I desire the wrong things, blinded by the media, and forget to engage with the real treasures of love and justice.
You are all love, all hope, all forgiveness, all truth and all I really need.
2 thoughts on “Advent Reflection 9: How deep is your love?”
Have really appreciated this series and your commentary.
Out of curiosity, and considering the bridge of time and cultures, is the interpretation of the attitudes portrayed in the figures something you have picked up from someone familiar with the conventions of artists at that time (in which case I’d be interested to know the source because I would like to learn more about recognising those aspects) or your perception ?
I guess it’s a combination. I took an art appreciation course a while ago and I read a lot in the field. Just read Alain de Botton’s book on appreciating art. And I guess I have an eye for it and a good imagination.