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Botticelli « The Adoration of the Magi, Altar Piece from Santa Maria Novella » at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Adoration of the Magi
Tempera on wood (111x134 cm) 1475-1477

Botticelli's « Adoration of the Magi » of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was carried out at the request of Laurent the Magnificent according to some or that of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Gaspard di Zanobi del Lama.

Its purpose was to decorate the altar of the chapel of the Lama family in the church of Santa Maria Novella.

The preeminent presence of the Medici in Botticelli's painting corresponds to a tribute to the reigning family in Florence.

This painting, highlighted in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence was thus admired by many Florentines, but also by Laurent de Medici himself.

It was further to this work, in which Botticelli had put all his talent and so well glorified the Medici dynasty, that Laurent the Magnificent and his family entrusted him with numerous commissions.

Florence and the “Adorations of the Magi”

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Adoration of the Magi
In order to understand the importance of the paintings relating to the theme of the adoration of the Magi in Florence, and the presence in these paintings of portraits of contemporaries, it is necessary to know that the worship of the Magi were among the most popular subjects in religious processions in the 15th century.

These scenes were “played” in public, with great pomp, often with the participation of the leaders or most influential people in the parish or city.

On January 6 of each year, the day of the Epiphany, the Medici actually participated in the procession of the Magi.

A painter could therefore also afford to replace the “Magi Kings” with members of the Medici family.

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Adoration of the Magi
This was the case of Benozzo Gozzoli, whose frescoes in the chapel of the Magi of the Medici-Riccardi Palace in Florence (1459-1461) already represented contemporary personalities in the procession of his Adoration: Lorenzo Medici, the Magnificent, his father Peter the Goutteux, John VIII Palaeologist and Joseph, the Patriarch of Constantinople.

But Botticelli was the first to go so far in the substitution of the faces of the Magi and the crowd of admirers: there are 29 different portraits of contemporaries in this painting, including the Magi.

The somewhat theatrical side in the positioning of the characters that can be observed in this painting by Botticelli, but also in those made by other painters of the same period, such as Filippo Lippi or Domenico Ghirlandaio, therefore only reflected the reality of these processions.

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Adoration of the Magi
It is interesting in this regard to note that Botticelli's “Adoration of the Magi” in London was for a long time attributed not to him, but to Filippino Lippi, while it was attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio before being definitively identified as being of the hand of Botticelli himself.

Symbolic Break in Composition

In all the “Adorations of the Magi” made so far, the Virgin is placed in an angle of the painting while the rest of the space is dedicated to the arrival of a crowd of admirers who are lost in the distant.

Leonardo da Vinci, in his own adoration of the Magi, also exposed to the Uffizi, also places the Virgin Mary at the centre of her painting, thus giving her a preeminent role on all the other characters represented.

Although Botticelli's painting seems to be prior to Vinci's, the uncertainty about the precise dates of completion of these two Adorations does not, however, allow us to know which one influenced the other.

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Adoration of the Magi
But the option taken by Botticelli is in any case bolder than that of Leonardo da Vinci.

Not only are the Virgin, the Child Jesus and Joseph at the centre of the scene, but in addition, they are in an elevated position relative to the admirers.

All in a pyramidal construction in which they are not only central, but also positioned in the tip of a triangle encompassing the entirety of the characters at their feet.

The refocusing of the Virgin and Jesus is an element found in the icons of the Nativity in Byzantine art, where the Orthodox Trinitarian star occupies the middle of the scene. Botticelli is the first to reintroduce this element in Florence.

So we can think that the preeminence of the celestial is even more asserted, yet it is not as simple as you will see below.

The Hands of the Virgin and the Size of Christ

Some wanted to see in the disproportionate hands of the Virgin a mistake of Botticelli's youth, just like the size of Jesus, abnormally small in the hands of his mother.

Botticelli Self-Portrait in the Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Botticelli Self-Portrait
How can we imagine that Botticelli, whose mastery is complete throughout the rest of this painting, cannot respect either the proportions of the Virgin's hands nor the “correct” size of the Child Jesus.

Botticelli has instead made these hands bigger than nature to insist on their protective role and belonging, hands that also transmit maternal love.

Hands capable of transmitting knowledge, that of God, God who is the Unknowable and cannot be represented, but who is here through the presence of these great hands.

Recall that in Hebrew, the hand, “Yad”, is linked to knowledge, but in this context, I “know” also means “I love”, these are the hands of the woman, the hands of creation.

Michelangelo, in her sculpture of the Madonna della Scala (Casa Buonarroti in Florence) also depicts the Virgin with hands disproportionate to her body.

Disproportionate hands are not a rarity in Christian iconology, on the contrary, they are sometimes larger than the members themselves.

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Adoration of the Magi
As for the size of Christ, it is also not shocking, it is not a child who is shown, here Christ is a symbol, he “is”.

In his sculpture of the Pietà, which is located at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Michelangelo also depicted Christ significantly smaller than Mary who wears him in his arms.

There is therefore nothing free or nothing that can be attributed to a lack of experience of the artists in the non-observance of certain proportions in this painting, as in many other works of the time, but also earlier.

Botticelli perfectly respected and integrated this symbolism and highlighted it particularly well.

Also note the presence of a peacock on the right wall.

The peacock is not only a symbol of God's omniscience but also of spiritual rebirth and therefore of resurrection, eternal life: Beauty and glory of immortality.

The Celestial and Real Worlds united and distinct

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Adoration of the Magi
The originality of this “Adoration of the Magi” does not end there.

Botticelli made the choice to give visual priority, not to the Virgin and Christ, but to those who came to prostrate before him.

This daring preeminence is achieved largely in the rendering, in the pictorial style of the characters.

The Medici and the Florentines who accompany them are indeed painted in a particularly realistic and neat way and their eyes also make them very present to the viewer.

The same technique is used for their clothing: brocade, gold and headgear are clearly highlighted and transform this foreground into the essential element of the painting.

The Virgin and Joseph are dressed simply, painted very differently, as if they were not “finished”, as if they were part of another painting.

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi with Botticelli self-portrait on the right
Adoration of the Magi
Similarly, their expressions are the opposite of those of the other characters: their eyes lowered, their peaceful hands, “at a standstill” contrast with the hands of admirers, active, expressive, who carry, show and squeeze.

The only look in the heavenly triangle is that of Jesus, attached with attention to the Magi King who stands at his feet.

But this also is not done by chance, because it is Cosimo of Medici the Elder even better highlighted in this way.

It is clear that here Botticelli wanted to highlight the Medici family, but also “position” two worlds: a celestial, supernatural world, timeless and mankind, bathed in this golden light of the star that crosses the roof of the crib and illuminates Christ, the Virgin and Joseph, and on the other hand, the contemporary, human, real world of masters of Florence.

Elegance and Florentine Charm

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Adoration of the Magi
We also feel a clear desire of Botticelli to show all the elegance and Florentine charm of the Medici court.

The nobility reads not only in their looks, but also in their attitudes, we see that they are different from other characters located “above”.

The richness and beauty of the costumes complete this impression.

The representation of the wise men in Byzantine art and in the Middle Ages

Botticelli incorporates in his Adoration the codes of the icons of the Nativity of Byzantine art with regard to the Magi Kings.

In these representations, from the sixth century, kings are differentiated according to their age.

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Adoration of the Magi
The first king is a bald old man kneeling before the Child; the second king, younger, has a brown beard and the third is glabrous, the latter look at each other and show Jesus, while on the far left of the painting a young man holds their three horses by the bridle.

From the Middle Ages, the first king mage is often depicted bareheaded and in an attitude of worship, kneeling and prostrate.

It is he, the oldest, who look at the child and kiss his feet or hands.

Jesus who has just been born thus represents childhood and the wise men the three ages of life.

Three Kings Medici... deceased

The first of the Magi Kings, kneeling in front of the Virgin, wearing a large dark mantle lined with ermine and embroidered with gold, with the hefty head whose turban is laid on the ground, is none other than the father of the Florentine homeland: Cosimo the Elder of Medici, the “Pater Patriae”.

Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi Altar Piece of Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy
Adoration of the Magi
He gently holds Christ's foot in the end of the white stole he wears, he is ready to kiss him, while Jesus looks at him blessing him with his right hand with two erect fingers.

The white linen on which Jesus's foot is laid is considered to be the representation of his future shroud.

A gold vase, offering of Cosimo the Elder, is at the feet of the Virgin.

Further down, in the vertical alignment of the Virgin, stands Piero il Gottoso called the Gouty, eldest son of Cosimo the Elder and father of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Giuliano de Medici: kneeling back and wrapped in a purple mantle lined with ermine and holding in his left hand his offering, another vase of gold.

Like his father, as a sign of respect, his headgear, but also his crown are laid on the ground.

He looks at the third King Mage, represented here as his youngest brother Giovanni, also kneeling, dressed in a white garment embroidered with gold and also holding in his hand an offering represented by a gold vase.

Three kings, already dead at the time of the painting: Cosimo the Elder in 1464, Peter the Gouty in 1469 and Giovanni in 1463.

Botticelli Spring | Venus | Pallas | Calumny | Judith | Young Man | Magi Novella | Magi (1500) | Annunciation | Annunciation Martino |
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