One of the most exquisite aesthetic creations in the world is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until July 9th, Botticelli’s “Madonna of the Book.” If you can go, you must.
It is part of an excellent exhibition of Quattrocento Florentine art, “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine,” which includes work from other, contextualizing, artists, notably a few pieces by Fra Filippo Lippi.
In this exhibit, certain awkwardnesses are apparent in some of Botticelli’s work (like hands that are not quite right), but besides the transcendent perfection of the “Madonna of the Book,” there are at least two other overwhelming pieces: “Saint Augustine in His Study” and “Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist” (in which the deposition from the Cross is emphatically foreshadowed, à la the earlier “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden).
Also of great interest is Botticelli’s surging and chaotic 1500 “Adoration of the Magi,” in which the Last Judgment has been telescoped onto the Nativity, the mass of humanity positioning itself with regard to the provocation of the God made visible, the God humbled out of love.
The exhibition notes the direct teaching lineage from Masaccio to Lippo to Botticelli to Filippino Lippi (the Carmelite friar’s son). The first paintings one comes across are from Fra Lippo, the most glorious of which is a “Madonna and Child” from the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (with an astonishing sketch on the back of the panel).
Botticelli somehow renders the tenderness of the interaction between Mary and Jesus even more delicately in the “Madonna of the Book,” a painting of perfect balance. The profound and sumptuous lapis lazuli blue of Mary’s robe fills the canvas, with a Pentecostal sunburst on the shoulder. Heaven doubly mantles and would engulf the fathomless care and docile suffering circulating through Mary, Jesus, the book of prayer: in that robe, and in the open sky of morning taking so much space in the upper quadrant of the painting—the very future of inexorable love.
The exhibition points out the revolution in style worked by these Renaissance painters. Robert Browning, in his fantastic dramatic monologue “Fra Lippo Lippi,” muses on this revolution.
Lippi address the captain of the watch, which has detained him in the street from his revels:
However, you’re my man, you’ve seen the world —
The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises, — and God made it all!
— For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What’s it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at? Oh, this last of course! — you say.
But why not do as well as say, — paint these
Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
God’s works — paint anyone, and count it crime
To let a truth slip. Don’t object, “His works
Are here already; nature is complete:
Suppose you reproduce her — which you can’t —
There’s no advantage! you must beat her, then.”
For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted — better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,
Your cullion’s hanging face? A bit of chalk,
And trust me but you should, though! How much more,
If I drew higher things with the same truth!
That were to take the Prior’s pulpit-place,
Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,
It makes me mad to see what men shall do
And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
The poem isn’t fair to Giotto: it is not a question of either iconic flatness or the fullness of sculptural figuration. (Indeed, Giotto has already made icons move.) Icons show us heaven one way; Renaissance three-dimensionality, in another. The former does so through the phenomenal; latter does so in this world of solid flesh.
Browning’s Lippi emphasizes that realistic art can cause us to pay attention to the divine plenitude in creation: pay attention, and fall in love. We are “in our graves” until the great artist wakes us up to what is right there, right here. Indeed, the great artist makes this world burn gold like an icon.