Sandro Botticelli is remembered — cherished! — for “Birth of Venus” and “Primavera,” paintings that celebrate love, beauty, and the flowering of spring. But in the last years of his life, his art turned tight and dour.
“Botticelli and the Search for the Divine,” a stirring exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, traces the evolution of the early Renaissance master’s career. Its path is tender and rapturous, then dark, even angry, yet always visually lucid, always affecting.
The exhibition contextualizes Botticelli’s development amid the creative hothouse of 15th-century Florence, and on through an immense societal upheaval in the 1490s. That’s when the great patrons of the arts, the Medici family, fell from power and the fire-and-brimstone preacher and canny political strategist Fra Girolamo Savonarola stepped into the void.
The show, a terrific joint undertaking by the MFA and the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary, is the largest Botticelli show yet in the United States, featuring 15 works by the master and several by those in his circle. Many have never been seen before this side of the Atlantic.
“Birth of Venus” and “Primavera” are not here; as state treasures, they never leave Italy. But there are other gems. “Minerva and the Centaur,” like those two, draws on classical mythology and depicts a scene not found in any one myth.
Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom and of war, stands unruffled and proud in a transparent robe embroidered with the Medici insignia, one hand clasping a battle axe, the other grabbing the tangled locks of a centaur. The conquered half-man, half-horse wears the miserable expression of a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
The painting has everything we love about Botticelli: the extraordinary grace of his lines; a serene, alabaster beauty, here a symbol of virtue triumphing over baser instincts; a composition that leads the eye along elegant, curving paths.
“Minerva” may have been commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici, called Lorenzo the Magnificent, as a wedding gift to his cousin. Lorenzo essentially ruled Florence, and he fostered artists who developed Renaissance ideals based on ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics. It was he who invited Savonarola to Florence, perhaps seeing the noted theologian as another feather in his cap.
“Botticelli and the Divine” approaches this moment, in 1490, slowly and methodically. There’s much to savor beforehand, including a luminous “Madonna and Child” by Botticelli’s master, Fra Filippo Lippi, and the painter’s own exquisite “Virgin and Child (Madonna of the Book),” which swivels with compositional twists and turns that caress the figures, as do delicate filigrees of gold.
Botticelli painted religious art and portraits alongside such daring works as “Birth of Venus,” which mashed up classical myths into lustrous, enigmatic scenes and indulged in jaw-dropping nudity. In this show, “Venus,” a stunning, pared-down version of his masterpiece on the half shell, stands theatrically against a black backdrop, wearing nothing but a diaphanous cape.
His best known painting during his lifetime, the knockout fresco “Saint Augustine in His Study,” has been detached from the church wall where he painted it and is on view at the MFA. Augustine — monumental, virile — sits to write to Saint Jerome at the moment of Jerome’s death, and hears his friend’s voice from beyond. His alarmed, inward expression pulls us in. Botticelli’s characters thrummed with life.
Then came Savonarola. The friar prophesized a sword coming over the mountains, and in 1494, France invaded Italy, and the Medicis were banished. Savonarola, now seen as a prophet, wielded tremendous power and helped shepherd a democratic government to Florence.
But he would not brook certain Renaissance aesthetics — the very ideals that had inspired Botticelli. In fiery, doomsday sermons, Savonarola warned his followers to live less lascivious, more conservative, church-centered lives. He staged bonfires of the vanities stoked by cosmetics, games, mirrors, books, and even art.
But amid much political and ecclesiastical intrigue, the preacher’s fortunes shifted. He was executed in 1498, leaving behind a legion of followers.
Botticelli had fallen under his sway, and after Savonarola’s death, the painter’s work changed. In “Mystic Crucifixion,” a badly damaged painting dating to around 1500 (on loan from the Harvard Art Museums), penitent Mary Magdalene clenches the cross. Nearby, an angel vanquishes Florence’s heraldic lion, as if slaying the citizenry’s darker urges. The city itself emerges into sunshine from shadow in the background — a picture of another Savonarola prophesy.
Other paintings are claustrophobic, inward. The remarkable “Virgin and Child With the Young Saint John the Baptist” from 1505 crams into the frame, with the three figures veritably spilling out toward us. Mary stoops (she must, to fit in the picture) to hand the infant to his cousin.
The scene presages the removal of Christ from the cross, with Jesus nearly supine and a cross hovering just above his head. With a baby in this archetypal spot, it feels all the more calamitous.
Vasari, in his 16th-century biography of the painter, suggested that Botticelli’s allegiance to Savonarola spurred him to abandon his art. “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine” disputes that. He continued to paint, but with constraint. His late works seem tinged with bitterness, certainly disaffection. Often, his subjects’ eyes are closed. We can’t get in.
Where did Botticelli seek the divine? At first, it seems, in the giddy blossoming of Renaissance ideals. If later on, soberer ideals quashed those youthful dreams, his best work was no less provocative. Indeed, it had an added layer of mystery.
Botticelli and the Search for the Divine
At Museum of Fine Arts, through July 9. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.