One of the most popular subjects for medieval artists was the Virgin Mary with a little old man sitting on her lap.
Many of these paintings are entitled Madonna and child, but next time you’re in an art museum, see if you think it looks like a child. Nope — that baby appears to be your department-store tailor, but he’s naked.
By the time of the Renaissance, artists were generally more skillful at painting babies that looked like babies, and the scope of their subject matter had broadened. But some of it is still pretty strange.
Consider the work of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), who could paint a reasonably lifelike baby, but is far more renowned for a very different nativity scene: It’s called The Birth of Venus.
The image is so familiar, it may not seem peculiar anymore. It is based on the ancient myth of Venus emerging, full-grown, from the sea. On the left, Zephyr and Aura are blowing a gentle breeze; on the right of the picture, another goddess offers Venus a beach cover-up.
Even though the central figure is discreet about her nudity, there was still plenty of shock value to that pose in the 1480s. Females depicted without clothing hadn’t been in favor with church authorities for several centuries.
The Medici family ruled Florence, though, and they were interested in the philosophy and art of ancient Greece and Rome. They gave Botticelli many commissions, including The Birth of Venus, and the painting is clearly based on a pose from classical sculpture.
It’s odd, though, that this sculptural pose has a sort of weightless quality, a lack of mass, you might say — almost as if Venus is floating on air, not on a seashell. Incidentally, I wouldn’t recommend standing in this Venus pose. The center of gravity is so far left, you’d fall down.
We don’t know if that happened to the young woman who modeled for Botticelli, but art historians do believe that she was Simonetta Vespucci, a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci. If that name sounds familiar, he was the explorer and cartographer for whom America is named.
Anyway, the aristocrats of Florence admired Boticelli’s painting and read all sorts of philosophical, religious and political meanings into it. Then a stern Dominican friar named Savonarola stirred up popular opinion against… well, all sorts of things, including the Medici and their “pagan” finery.
In 1495 and 1498, Savonarola oversaw bonfires to consume these “vanities”, including a lot of paintings. Some of them were probably by Botticelli, but The Birth of Venus survived because the Medici had stashed it in an undisclosed location.
Following that turmoil, Botticelli’s subject matter changed back to standard religious (rather than mythological) themes. He doesn’t seem to have produced much of anything after 1500, and was pretty much forgotten until he was rediscovered in the 19th century.
One of Botticelli’s later paintings sold at auction recently (Jan. 30) for $10.4 million. It is a work referred to in art circles as the Rockefeller Madonna. I know what you’re thinking, but no — it’s called that because it was once owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It’s not because the baby on her lap looks like a naked little tycoon.