Saturday, April 12, 2008

The marriage of heaven and earth

Two beautiful women look out at us across half a millennium. Two women painted at almost the same time -- 1482 or thereabouts -- by the same artist, Sandro Botticelli, who clearly had an eye for beauty. (Click to enlarge.)

On the left, a detail from Virgin and Child with Eight Angels, one of a number of wonderful madonnas painted by Botticelli. She looks towards us with modestly unfocused attention, as if she knows that you and I will never understand the role she has been asked to play in the drama of salvation. She hardly understands herself, but accepts her fate dreamily. She is the quintessential faithful wife and loving mother. Her face is framed with the lilies of purity.

On the right, the goddess Flora, a detail from Botticelli's famous Primavera. A very different woman this. Her hair and dress are laced with spring flowers -- daisies, violets, cornflowers and wild strawberries -- her girdle is of roses, her collar myrtle, the tree of Venus. She looks directly at us with lidded, come-hither eyes. Her lips are parted in a sultry smile. She is framed by trees burgeoning with luscious fruit.

The two faces of the male fantasy. Yours, mine, and Sandro Botticelli's too.

But there is more here than the old wife/mistress, virgin/whore dichotomy, more than the bifurcated itch of male desire. Botticeilli was painting on a cusp of history. The Middle Ages were ceding to modernity. A preoccupation with the Otherworld was giving way to a reborn interest in the world of Nature. Secularity and curiosity were in the air. It was the eve of the Scientific Revolution.

The power brokers and guardians of tradition knew that something was slipping from their grasp. The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478. The witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum was printed in 1487 (Flora beware!). Botticelli's fellow citizen Savonarola had his bonfire of the vanities, a last desperate attempt to crush the new emerging humanism. Soon thereafter Savonarola himself went up in smoke in the same Florentine square.

Botticelli was torn both ways. His art swung back and forth from the sacred to the profane, from religious themes to pagan myths. The guilt-monger Savonarola owned part of his soul; the Renaissance ideal of natural beauty owned the rest.

The Virgin and Flora are part of everyone's soul -- male and female, gay and straight -- part of our human nature. We are spiritual and we are sensual. We cherish stability and we long for the fling. The religious naturalist wants to morph the two images, erase the duality, celebrate Flora's profane natural beauty without forgoing the sacred mystery we see expressed in the Virgin's eyes. Is it possible?