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Botticelli paintings and biblical mystery plays

Hiroaki Sugiyama
Assistant Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study

Angels dance cheerfully in silence

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Italy and Japan. To commemorate this occasion, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is hosting a special exhibition called "Botticelli and His Time." Botticelli is one of the great artists in Italian and Western art history, and I believe this special exhibition offers visitors a rare opportunity to appreciate an exceptionally large collection of his works.

To express my admiration to this excellent exhibition, I would like to write about two of his works. These are The Annunciation (1481) and The Mystical Nativity (c. 1500–1501). This version of The Annunciation is a fresco that came to Japan as part of last year’s exhibition "Money and Beauty: Botticelli and the Renaissance in Florence" at “The Museum” in Bunkamura. In this picture, Botticelli utilizes a linear perspective to depict a scene where Gabriel enters a room and the Virgin Mary bows respectfully. The other work, The Mystical Nativity, regarded as a masterpiece of his later years, depicts the holy family of the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and baby Jesus at the center of the painting, with angels around and above them celebrating Jesus’ birth.

Although these two paintings are based on biblical themes, I want to ask the following questions: Did Botticelli draw inspiration for his paintings directly from the Bible? Or, did viewers interpret his works as based solely on biblical text?

Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation, 1481, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

Sandro Botticelli, The Mystical Nativity, c. 1500–1501, the National Gallery in London

The overwhelming influence of religious plays

Botticelli was active in 15th century Florence. Although not widely known, the biblical mystery play, the most powerful form of entertainment in Europe at that time was also active. Before the spread of the printing press spurred publications, the mystery play was the most widely accepted form of public communication. Florentines spent great amounts of money and used many techniques to produce mystery plays such as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Beheading of John the Baptist. It is believed that each play was performed in front of more than 20,000 spectators.

Among a rich lineup of mystery plays, let us pay close attention to The Annunciation, which was performed at the Church of San Felice. Two models have been created to reproduce the stage setting. One is based on a statement made in 1439, and the other on the description in Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550/1568) by Giorgio Vasari.

Reproduced stage setting model for The Annunciation according to Bishop Abraham's note, by Chesare Risi and Ludovico Zorzi, 1975

Bishop Abraham of the Russian Orthodox Church watched The Annunciation in Florence in 1439. His statement clarified some of the more interesting features of the play. For example, he notes that a young, graceful man played the Virgin Mary and fireworks dragged by a cable represented spirits.

One of the most interesting features was a flying Gabriel. According to Abraham, ropes prepared in advance were stretched down from 'heaven,'—which was above the church entrance—to the Virgin Mary's room, built near the center of the church. A young man who played Gabriel wore a harness with wings and pulleys attached to them. These pulleys were supported by two ropes. A thin cable was tied to this man's body, and Gabriel 'flew' when the stage crew pulled this cable. This means that the audience in the church saw the young man with wings hanging in the air, gradually pulled in an upright position.

Reproduced stage setting model for The Annunciation according to Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, by Chesare Risi and Ludovico Zorzi, 1975

Vasari, on the other hand, described a different stage setting in Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. According to him, a celestial sphere made from a huge two-layer iron dome was attached to the beams of the church.

At a specific point in the play, the inner dome rotated horizontally and slowly came down before stopping in midair. Inside the dome was a small frame, which was accompanied by the young man playing Gabriel as he went into the room of the Virgin Mary. This scene was the highlight of the play. A great number of lamps representing stars were attached to this double-layer dome and sixteen children depicted as angels stood in the overhead structure at the bottom of each dome. When the young man stepped down to the stage, the audience witnessed many dot-shaped light sources in the darkness and children illuminated by the light rotating in circles.

Two crossing perspectives

Examining the two stage patterns of The Annunciation tells us that one of the functions of mystery plays was to capture the audience's attention as a form of entertainment. Keeping that in mind, let us once again take a look at the paintings discussed earlier. We find similarities between the paintings and mystery plays.

For example, in The Annunciation, Gabriel on the left is crossing his arms and glides in the air horizontally in an upright position. This posture stands out when compared with the Gabriel drawn in the 16th century who was almost 'diving' headfirst toward the Virgin Mary. In The Mystical Nativity, there is a round opening in the sky at the top of the image. In this bright shining opening, angels are dancing in a circle. The characteristics of the space and motion remind us of the motion of the huge celestial sphere fixed to the beams of the church.

I think that people long ago who stood in front of a painting did not always focus on identifying its source. They must have learned of ancient miracles and felt the same thrills as those who saw performances firsthand. When we think about it, Botticelli’s depiction of Gabriel is tightly putting his hands and feet together, almost as if he is nervous. His body and facial expressions may overlap with those of the young man who was suspended above the audience by a pair of slim pulleys.

Even if paintings have remained with us until the modern era, the memories of those who looked at them have not. Although we can identify a work’s source and how it was produced, it is still impossible to reconstruct the memories and experiences of people from that time-period. However, it allows us to experience different perspectives. These perspectives may divert from the noble interpretations of intellectuals or economic elites, but they still allow for rich interpretation supported by the real lives of unknown citizens and pilgrims.

Hiroaki Sugiyama
Assistant Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study

Born in Yao, Osaka in 1975, Hiroaki Sugiyama is the author of Runessansu no Seishi Geki [Mystery Plays during the Renaissance] (Chuokoron-Shinsha/Winning Publication of the Encouragement Division of the Association for Studies of Culture and Representation Award). He has occupied his current position since 2014. Previous career highlights include studying on a scholarship sponsored by the Italian government, being a research fellow at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and serving as part-time instructor at the Kyoto University of Education. He completed the Ph.D. program in the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Sciences at Kyoto University.