He Gave Us Eyes to See Them*

Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’

Each month we are exploring a painting that celebrates the glory and wonder of creation.  In this month of March, the world around us is moving from the cold and harshness of winter to new birth as the earth comes to life again in the season of spring.

It is the theme of ‘Primavera’ by the 15th century Florentine artist, Sandro Botticelli. His work in the Sistine Chapel in Rome brought him to the attention of the Medici court, which commissioned this painting in 1482.  The Medici dominated the political life of Florence, but Cosimo and his descendants were also great patrons of the arts. Humanism, which debated the place of reason in a world of faith, was the mood of the day in court life, and the work of artists at that time expressed the human form in all its beauty.

Scholars have never agreed on the exact meaning of ‘Primavera,’ but it is certainly a celebration of beauty and fertility.  We can identify a host of classical figures: Mercury on the left of the canvas separating the clouds so that Spring may come; Zephyr, the west wind, on the right, who is pursuing Chloris; Flora, the goddess of abundance robed in a colourful dress and adorned with flowers.  In the centre we see Venus, the goddess of beauty, with a blindfolded Cupid above, preparing to shoot an arrow at the three Graces, whose arms are joined in a stately dance.  The setting is a wooded garden where the trees are filled with oranges, myrtle surrounds Venus, and wondrous flowers spring up from the earth.

At first glance the sensuousness and fruitfulness seem almost profane.  But we look again and think we see not Venus in the centre, but the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose own fruitfulness gave birth to the Saviour.  The three figures by her side could be the Christian virtues of beauty, truth and goodness who dance in her honour, while all around God’s creation blossoms forth to bring joy and new life.  It is the world of the Song of Solomon, which the early Fathers could only accept as an allegory of Christian love, where the individual soul seeks the Saviour. But that book of the Old Testament was written in praise of the love that moves human life, as much as it moves the universe.  And that can only be good because God the creator is good.

The writer invites the beloved to accompany her to the fields and vineyards and find fruits in blossom and plants in bloom: a wilderness transformed by growth and goodness.  Just so, we enter the garden of this painting.  The characters may be classical, some may be Christian, but as we look  we see a creative Love that transforms the winter of death and darkness into light and Spring – the birthday of creation.

Michael Burgess

*From the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’

Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply