A Revolution of Radical Love: Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity

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When Derrie chose Botticelli’s painting for this week’s newsletter, I was delighted and realised that I had to write something about it. It’s a well-known favourite and appears on Christmas cards, mugs, tea towels – it even features on a shower curtain. Botticelli’s interpretation of the Nativity is unique, with an urgent and profound political, social and theological message. Heaven touches earth, as the golden glory of the Divine is encircled by triumphant, dancing angels. Among the angels and humans embracing at the bottom of the painting – a symbol of the union between God and humanity – demons and monsters crawl into the rocks, fleeing from the Son of God and anxious about the arrival of so much heavenly joy.

Mystic Nativity, Sandro Botticelli, 1500-1501

The cave, rather than a stable, is an early Christian symbol, which is still popular in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and icons. Christ’s infant presence in a cave suggests that the very depths of humanity in all its chaos and darkness is precisely where Christ comes to dwell and to redeem. The most painful and complex aspects of life are the very experiences into which Christ is born. Botticelli associated this painting with what he called ‘the troubles of Italy’: a violent French invasion of Naples and Milan in the 1490s. With many including Savonarola, Botticelli believed that the invasion was a punishment from God. Only Christ’s coming, in the Nativity and ultimately in the Kingdom of Heaven, could put an end to suffering and violence. The painting is not just a classic Italian Renaissance image of the Nativity: it is a peace protest.

Botticelli’s Nativity is one of the stars in the National Gallery’s collection, just down the street from St James’s in Trafalgar Square. Millions of people come to the Gallery every year, looking forward to seeing this mysterious and beautiful Botticelli rendition of the story of Christmas. Completed in 1501, the National Gallery bought it in 1878. This was only a few decades after the Gallery first opened – they knew that when it was possible to acquire it, they couldn’t miss the opportunity.

The painting’s previous owners include two people with complex links to the transatlantic chattel slave trade. William Young Ottley, an art collector and historian who worked at the British Museum, had multiple family ties to enslavement. Records show that in 1817, he and his wife Sarah Elizabeth Ottley were shown as the owners of 17 enslaved people on Antigua in the ‘Slave Register for Antigua’. He did not take the compensation offered to many by the government when slavery was abolished, however.

When Ottley joined the staff at the British Museum, and wrote a history of the National Gallery’s collection, it was partly because, according to the historian J. Allen Gere, ‘he needed the income as the abolition of slavery act had reduced his income from the family’s plantation, and that he refused compensation.’ That said, he did inherit family wealth, and this was directly linked to their Antigua plantation. Eventually, Botticelli’s Nativity was sold to William Fuller Maitland. His family had links to enslavement too.

His grandfather Ebenezer was a West India merchant, and he was also director of the Bank of England from 1798. He had links to the notorious Amity Hall plantation in Jamaica. His son (also named Ebenezer), inherited connections to Amity Hall as a ‘mortgagee’ but did not take income from this. The History of Parliament records claim that Ebenezer Maitland, William’s father, was an MP for Lostwithiel, Wallingford and Chippenham. He argued for the ‘slow and gradual, but effectual’ abolition of slavery. This stance, while more positive than the pro-enslavement position of his father, was utterly insufficient to the say the least. He represented a slow turning point, however, in the family’s connections with enslavement.

Across the Ottley and Maitland families, this Botticelli image of the Mystic Nativity, with its own story to tell, hung on the walls of people who benefitted from the transatlantic chattel slave trade. The painting was a sign of wealth and therefore a sign, like so many works of art in both private and public collections, of the ongoing injustice of the trade in human beings. I wonder what Quobna Ottobah Cugoano would have made of this story – the relationship between the revolutionary tenderness of the Nativity, the pain of conflict in sixteenth-century Italy, and his own generation’s powerful and ultimately successful cry for liberation.

In museums throughout the UK and beyond, paintings like this Botticelli hold stories not only told by the painters, but by those who owned these pictures. Two recent books are particularly illuminating about this: Alice Procter’s The Whole Picture and Dan Hicks’ The Brutish Museums. The National Gallery has also published the results of a monumental ongoing research project regarding the histories of enslavement connected to paintings in their collection.

More than just a status symbol, acquired and celebrated as a famous work of Renaissance art, it is very likely that both Maitland and Ottley contemplated Botticelli’s painting, as we do, and found their own mystical connection between the birth of Christ and hope in a world so fragmented and torn apart by suffering. Perhaps there were moments with this painting when they knew in their hearts and minds that, as Cugoano claims so clearly and so boldly, the injustice of enslavement is utterly incompatible with and anathema to the reality of God’s love for every human being made in the image of God, and Christ’s salvation for every person and for the whole of creation.

The carol It Came Upon the Midnight Clear has much to say about the divine music of God’s love and justice, freely flowing to all. Its sounds of glory can and will break into the violent trauma inflicted by those whose choices and ways of life are so destructive. Then as now, the angels are singing, and injustice continues. Let’s listen, and commit to the music of God’s love and justice, flowing from heaven this Christmas and eternally.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to all
From heaven’s all-gracious King” –
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

…But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring; –
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!