I told you she was a supermodel. (And trust me, there are many more images of her that we could show.)
Yet, the ethereal beauty of Boticelli’s goddesses cannot rival the total and perfect beauty of his Madonnas because goddesses don’t actually exist, and even supermodels diminish in beauty as age and time take their toll.
On that point, Simonetta, sadly, died at the tender age of 22, in the prime of her physical beauty and popularity. It is believed that she died of tuberculosis. Sic transit gloria mundi! (“Thus passes the glory of this world.”)
But how blessed we are that Botticelli spent those few years of her earthly sojourn in Florence (and, apparently, many years following her death) immortalizing La Bella Simonetta as the ideal of feminine beauty.
Yet, as a man of deep faith, Botticelli knew that another beauty queen, in a very literal sense, stands in an entirely different category, transcending all earthly beauty, and he found her in the Blessed Virgin Mary.
If Simonetta was the model for his Madonnas, she was a fitting one. One might ask if Our Lady was as physically beautiful as La Bella, and of that I have no doubt. But we are not given to know this for a fact until we meet the Mother of Christ face to face.
In any case, all the seers who have received apparitions of Our Lady say that she is indescribably beautiful. They usually stop short of even trying to recount their experiences of her beauty.
What we do know is that Botticelli’s Madonnas come alive the same way his more secular depictions of Simonetta seem to. Or maybe it’s better to say that his Madonnas seem to draw us into their beauty, an effect that few other artists are capable of achieving so perfectly.
Given the extraordinary amount of Marian imagery in Botticelli’s life’s work, we can only whet your appetite for further viewing by highlighting three of his matchless Madonnas.
Here are a few facts to know before you view these images in greater detail:
- These three were painted in the round, a form of presentation called the “tondo” in Italian (short for “rotondo”).
- They are huge, as paintings go! Each measures more than four feet in diameter, augmented by elaborate golden frames.
- Each is painted on a wood panel (more durable than canvas, thankfully), and
- Boticelli used tempera (egg-based), not oil paint, for these works. Oil eventually supplanted tempera as the artistic standard right at the time Botticelli’s career came to an end, ca. 1500. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (ca. 1505), for example, was the full expression of the new era of oil painting.
I’ve offered only a few comments about the images below to help focus your attention on their deeper aspects, but I can’t pretend to add anything of significance to a Botticelli Madonna.
Their beauty speaks for itself! Enjoy the views.
Madonna of the Magnificat (1481)
You’ll easily notice the five angels who hover around Our Lady, two of whom hold what looks to be a semi-transparent crown above her head.
The wavy hair and curls, the colorful Renaissance garments, and the transparent veils and sashes – all are pure Botticelli!
Note also that Our Lady is dressed in the traditional colors of the Madonna, red tunic and blue mantle, symbolizing heaven and earth.
The distinctive aspect of this Madonna is that Mary seems to be writing the Magnificat (her own canticle in the Gospel of Luke). Botticelli thus presents Mary, not as a passive recipient of God’s graces, but as an active participant in the mystery of the Word made flesh.
One final detail: Jesus’s tiny right hand touches the Magnificat written on the right-hand page of the book – as if blessing it.
Madonna of the Pomegranate (1487)
If the only elements of this extraordinary painting were the six angels with their facial expressions, symbols, and raiment, it would be a Renaissance masterpiece all its own!
But the angels also fulfill a distinct artistic function: they “frame” the Virgin and Child perfectly (three on either side) under a sun of glorious rays that descend from heaven to give this Madonna, very literally, a supernatural feel.
Mary stares out, almost mournfully, at the sea of sinful humanity that longs for the redemption that only her Child can provide.
The Baby Jesus looks at the viewer directly with intelligent, piercing gray eyes. His lovely little left hand touches a pomegranate that looks curiously like a human heart in size, shape, and color. His right hand is raised in blessing.
Madonna and Child with Eight Angels (1478)
The model for this exquisitely beautiful Madonna must clearly have been the same ideal woman who modeled Botticelli’s mythological Venus. Yet, the Roman goddess does not presume to have the diaphanous halo whose faint outline we can discern around Our Lady’s head.
Under it, the sinuous veils (one decorative blue, the other translucent) cover up what might be Venus’ curls, but the eight angels surrounding her have no such hair restrictions. They all have distinctly ebullient curls! Yet, they also silently proclaim their modesty in the lilies above their heads, symbolizing angelic purity.
The number eight is understood in symbolic terms as a sign of the Resurrection, which took place “on the eighth day.” As before, these angels “frame” the Mother and Child. Four of them (at right) seem to be singing from a book while the other four wait in attendance on their Queen.
The Virgin once again looks out at the mass of humanity in need of redemption, but the Christ Child turns His radiant visage to the viewer in a call to be attentive to the Mystery whom the Virgin Mother cradles in her arms.
Well, unfortunately, we must stop here, but I hope you can now more deeply appreciate the meaning of the images we see on Botticelli Christmas cards every year.
If you were to adopt just one Renaissance artist as a guide to Marian spirituality, you could never go wrong with Alessandro (di Mariano) Botticelli. As the title of this article says, his Madonnas simply take your breath away.
How deeply the Catholic Tradition venerates Our Lady! Earthly beauty is certainly a marvel to behold, but Mary’s beauty is total: body, soul, and spirit.
The bridegroom in the Song of Songs (4:7) describes his lover in these terms: “you are all beautiful” (Latin: tota pulchra es). So, it’s not hard to see why that phrase has unanimously been applied to the Virgin Mary throughout Christian history.
Some Christians do not come from a tradition that venerates the Blessed Virgin, so it might be hard to place her in a spiritual category all her own, but I would encourage them to remember the scripture passage, Luke 1:48, where Mary proclaims that “all generations will call [her] blessed.” It is a statement of fact, not a boast.
No Christian worships Mary. She is not God or a goddess. She is “blessed among women” (Luke 1:42), which is where the Church derives its deep sentiments of Marian veneration.
For these Christians and for those who already venerate Our Lady, perhaps a few moments of meditation on these iconic images from Botticelli will help to teach something that really can only be experienced in personal contact and prayer: total beauty.
Photo Credits: The source for all Botticelli images is Wikimedia Commons; all images are in the public domain.
[Note: This article is a reproduction of the Sacred Windows Email Newsletter of 8/6/23. Please visit our Newsletter Archives.]