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The First Day of Spring (and a Short Report of My Travels)

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera (1482)

My congratulations to all of you on the occasion of the first day of spring! Today, in fact, was a wonderful day: I learnt that two of my former colleagues have got engaged at the end of January. I am very, very happy for both of them, it’s wonderful news, and a great way to start the season often associated with Love. Sandro Botticelli knew this well when he painted his famous Primavera that apparently served as a wedding gift.

Manchester from my hotel
 North Wales from the Great Orme

Last week I briefly went to the UK. After a full year in Russia I thought I would be treated to something new, but no, things don’t change THAT quickly. Fair enough, there’s scaffolding on St. Ann’s church, and a new building has sprung at the corner of Tib St, but the rest was more of less the same (except that many shops in Stockport have been closing due to recession). I visited Leeds and Llandudno and had the most relaxing time, even though I had to do a lot. Unfortunately, once again I didn’t get the chance to visit Manchester Jewish Museum, but I nipped in and picked up a visitor guide and a fridge magnet, and had a brief conversation with Sarah about Russia, its history and people. I need this “inner” information for one of the stories I’m working on, so I’ll now have to get by with the Russian sources.

Otherwise, everything is going great, especially since I climbed the Great Orme in Llandudno. The pictures you see were taken at the summit.

After conquering the Great Orme…


Christmas in Painting: Alessando Botticelli

Alessandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1475/76
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)

This painting was commissioned to Botticelli by a Florentine Gaspar di Zanobi del Lama for the church of Santa Maria Novella. Quite in line with the tradition of the time, the real-life characters were incorporated in this pictorial adaptation of the Biblical story: the three Magi are the Medicis, Cosimo (as Melchior, presenting the gift to the Virgin), Piero (in red mantle, as Balthasar), and Giovanni (next to Piero, as Gaspar). Curiously enough, all three were dead by the time the painting was made; but this also explains why Balthasar who by 1475 had already been sometimes painted as the black king appears distinctly European (or even Florentine, perhaps).

The commissioner of the painting is pictured on the right, he is an old man in light blue mantle behind the man in black and red costume, pointing at the observer. And the solitary figure on the right wearing golden mantle is Botticelli himself.

Giorgio Vasari thus described the painting in his Lives of the Artists:

The beauty of the heads in this scene is indescribable, their attitudes all different, some full-face, some in profile, some three-quarters, some bent down, and in various other ways, while the expressions of the attendants, both young and old, are greatly varied, displaying the artist’s perfect mastery of his profession. Sandro further clearly shows the distinction between the suites of each of the kings. It is a marvellous work in colour, design and composition.

Before and after this painting, Botticelli would return to the topic in other works, and it is interesting to observe the similarities and differences in composition between all three paintings. In the 1475 work we only see a part of the stables. Undoubtedly, this allowed the artist to bring the “human” component of the painting into the focus, whereby we are looking at people, rather than contemplating the symbolic or religious meaning of the scene. There are also no strict horizontal divisions, although the figures are still “assembled” in a triangular mode.

Before that date, in a tondo painted between 1470 and 1474, Botticelli applies the perspective to his composition, as well as horizontal divisions. The stables vividly evoke the structure of the church, and the artist deftly manipulates the effect to create an impression of the depth of space. The divisions allegorically takes us from the world of people (the foreground populated with both people and horses) to the world of spirit (the elongated walls of the stables).

Finally, the 1481-82 painting does not boast too many figures, but the structure of the stables comes to the fore with its elaborate design. Perspective, but also landscape, play an equally important role. Mary now appears to be accepting the gifts of the Magi in the ruins of a classical temple or a Renaissance mansion, and the landscape that is visible through the aisle conveys the sense of idyll and peace. The sudden introduction of classical elements into the painting will become less unusual if we bear in mind that in the same years – 1481-1482 – Botticelli travelled to Rome and worked at the Vatican.

Alessandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1470-74
(National Gallery, London, UK)


Alessandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1481-82
(National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA)

Women and Beauty in Art

There can hardly be too much praise for a YouTubist EggMan913 who created a stunning short video history of a female portraiture in Western art. Not only is this video a praise to the image of a Woman, it is also a deftly organised observation of the angles, postures and expressions throughout 500 years of Western painting. In the first 10 seconds you see a Russian icon melting into three consecutive portraits by Leonardo (A Head of a Young Woman (read about this famous sketch at Thais – Leonardo Pittore, both in English and Italian), Madonna with the Carnation, and Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)), changed by Raphael’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, which in turn melts into Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Unfortunately, although the video is clearly subtitled ‘500 Years of Western Art’, some viewers still missed the point and expressed concerns that only portraits of white women were used. Let me stress once again that in this video we should look beyond a mere portrayal of a female beauty. We need to pay attention to how the faces of women from different epochs and countries, painted by many an outstanding artist, melt, transfuse into one another. Not attempting to minimise EggMan’s success, I would point out that this success was possible primarily because, as this video amply demonstrates, Western art throughout its entire history looked at a woman from more or less the same angles.

To illustrate the point, look at the first few images. On all of them a painter sits to the left of his model and looks up at her. All models have their heads turned, under a different angle, to their right. This striking similarity is enhanced if we bear in mind that these depictions come from the 12th, 15th and early 16th cc.

(The images, from left to right, clockwise: Archangel (Angel the Golden Locks) (Novgorod School, Russia, 2nd half of the 12th c.), Head of a Young Woman (Leonardo, 1506-1508 (?)), Madonna with the Carnation (Leonardo, c. 1475), and The Birth of Venus (Botticelli, c. 1485)).

Even only based on the portraits of European and predominantly white women, this video shows 500 years of a continuous evolution not only of the image of female beauty, but of the concept of Beauty, as well. With this video EggMan, consciously or not, plays a check on what we conceive of as beautiful. Although the majority of comments to this video are positive, some of them decry modern art for its deviation from what is perceived as a “classical” model of Beauty, evoked in the works of art prior to the 20th c. However, I dare say that the Russian icon that opens the video and Picasso’s Portrait of Françoise at the end are a very deft choice. For their schematism builds a barrier between the image and its model, thus inviting a viewer to look beyond the model’s physique. ‘Beautiful’ hence is not an external, but an inner quality of the model, and if there is anything that we should be indebted for to the 20th c. art is that it has gone every extra mile to make us see beautiful in something which doesn’t look such at the first glance.

Finally, even if this video doesn’t provoke you to any high-flown discourse on the subject of Beauty with your friends and colleagues, it can be treated as a short exam on your knowledge of the history of Western art. And, unless EggMann is already in the process of doing this, may we kindly ask him to make a film about men in Western art. This subject is no less beautiful, and the controversy that often surrounds it will only expand our perception of Beauty.


EggMan913 channel
University of Dayton (Madonna with the Carnation)
Thais – Arte & Natura (Leonardo’s sketch) – in English and Italian
Христианство в искусстве/Christianity in Art (Archangel) – in Russian, English, and German
John W MacDonald’s Blog (The Birth of Venus)

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