La Primavera – Botticelli
- A Plethora of Interpretations
In a recent book devoted to understanding the background to La primavera, Dempsey puts forward three broad themes which bound the range of current interpretations. These suggest the painting is either a metaphor for civic celebration and weddings or a Neo-Platonic meditation on beauty or a representation of the myth of Springtime recalling poetic tradition both previous to, and contemporaneous with Botticelli’s era.
There is considerable evidence for each camp to refer to which either becomes a scholarly minefield for those seeking to be rigorous or a rich source of potential narratives for the more contemplative.
Although Dempsey sides with the third theme of a poetic depiction of springtime he concludes his indepth study by reminding the reader that Botticelli’s masterpiece does not owe allegiance to any one poem.
La Primavera’s magic lies in its ability to be itself – a whole which steps beyond mere visual articulation of various verses on springtime mythology. I would suggest this quality of internal consistency and resonance is a reflection of its hermetic encoding, but in order to empathise with this some background on the painting’s characters and their relationships is necessary.
The following description of La Primavera draws on four main sources.
Before alluding to the narrative within La Primavera it is crucial to realise the intention was for the viewer to regard the painting from right to left. It is more than likely that it was designed to hang in a room approached from the right and the two tall plants bending inwards from the right edge give both movement and direction for the viewer’s eye into the unfolding scene. The slight arching back of the furthest left hand figure, Mercury, also reflects this bending in of the plants bringing the scene to a close.
Geometric analysis of the work shows too that the spatial arrangement of the figures pulls the eye rhythmically along the procession if approached from the right. Given this flow from the right to left what sequence to the figures portray?
One reasonable explanation, if the aerial figure of Cupid is discounted, is that the eight remaining figures are the months February through September; this corresponds with the ancients refraining from naming or describing the four months of winter.
However, a more complex layer of meaning can be placed upon this depiction of a rural calendar by introducing Neo-Platonic references. The figures then take up their mythological characteristics and a narrative begins.
Zephyr, the winged male on the right, personifies human love and the life-force of nature, he seizes Chloris, who is whence transformed into Flora.
Venus, the central figure, with the assistance of Cupid kindles this carnal love and guides it, via a process of intellectual sublimation – shown by the grouping of the three Graces – towards a final goal of contemplation, Mercury.
Venus, seen as Humanitas, separating the senses and material love on the right from the spiritual on the left fits elegantly with the eventual recipients of this painting, Lorenzo and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici who held her as a patroness. Lorenzo was taught by the father of Neo-Platonism, Marsilio Ficino, who as author of a letter quoted by Gombrich, shows his desire to guide Lorenzo to act from none but spiritual motives.
Botticelli was part of Ficino’s circle and the need to have a visible realisation of the circle’s philosophy seems to have inspired Botticelli. Nevertheless, Baldini concedes: “Yet its Platonic mysteries have attracted less attention and begotten fewer theories than has the deep elusive spell of its sheer beauty. How can this beauty be explained?”
Maybe Botticelli’s masterpiece transpired from a personal quest to artistically represent a more ancient knowledge. The exquisite brushwork combined with a perennial hermetic message could perhaps underlie the picture’s perceived aura of otherworldiness.
The Search for Compatability
In late antiquity, Gnosticism and Hermeticism offered a refuge to those resisting a stark Greek rationalism which many found unsatisfying or the new faith-based Christian teaching. The concept of personal fulfilment through a spiritual experience, a gnosis, was deeply attractive.
In Hermeticism, a Gnostic version of Greek philosophy with its roots in ancient Egypt, the focus was on initiation, a seeking of direct knowledge where one is purged of the fear of death and admitted into the company of the blessed. Referring to the Mystery religions of the Orient, which cohabited comfortably with the impersonal state religion, Cumont writes:
these religions gave greater satisfaction, first of all to the senses and the emotions, in the second place to the intelligence and finally and chiefly to the conscience. They offered in comparison with previous religions, more beauty in their ritual, more truth in their doctrines, and superior good in their morality. They refined and exalted the psychic life and gave to it an almost supernatural intensity such as the ancient world had never before known.
In the pagan background to Christianity, Egypt, and in particular Alexandria, was the summum bonum of religious experience to which the greatest Greek philosophers made pilgrimage. Under Alexander’s rule, Greek rationalism and the Egyptian sun religion had influenced each other. Over time to this tolerant Alexandrian crossroads came the legions, the pilgrims and merchants’ caravans, their camel trains strung out across the desert carrying not just perfumes, slaves, spices and other exotica but also expressions of the spiritual from the farthest reaches of the salt, silk and spice routes.
Here, in a multi-cultural melting pot, were mixed the Babylonian astrological and planetary religion, the religion of the Hebrews, the Zoroastrian religion of Mithras (which in time became popular among the legions), the cults of Isis and Osiris, Ptolemy’s syncretic and politically inspired Greek/Egyptian cult of Serapis, and the cult of the Phrygian Cybele and that of Demeter of the Acropolis. There was an intense cross-pollenisation of concepts from places as far apart as the Indus Valley, Athens and Hermopolis.
In their search for a basis for reconciliation of the major religions with the religions of the ancients, the Medici Platonic Academy explored Gnosticism and Hermeticism, which they believed had passed down from this fertile epoch. Outwardly, reconciliation would appear impossible; however, it was argued that, if the nature of the gods were understood in the Orphic Platonist’s sense, and the Mosaic law in the sense of the Hebrew Kaballah, and the Christian grace in its interpretation by Paul to Dionysius, then they differed not in substance, only in name.*
From Egypt had emerged the concept of the Logos or Light, the sun as agent of the Way and the Truth, the spirtual nature which could rise out of and separate itself from the sensual, instinctual animal nature. Man encapsulates within his higher nature a profound reality, the answer to his own quest, closing the circle by both posing and answering the perennial question.
Realising this god within through contemplation is a rebirth, a resurrection through discovery of the spiritual treasure in the profound depths of the mind.
Experiencing this was seen as a paradise by Lorenzo and as a garden of perpetual spring by Poliziano. This was the ‘pure gold’ of early religious belief sought by the Academy.
The Egyptian sage Hermes-Mercurius’s recovered works were seen as validating the doctrines of Plato which they were translating from the Greek at the time.
For the Medici-Ficino circle, the idea of ‘oneness’ was supported by the capacity of all to achieve a deep inner tranquility (ataraxia) and fulfilment.
The idea that, by mastering the ego and the senses, one discovers who one is, was shared by many cultures, suggesting a single primal source.
Many such concepts, perceived as Christian (such as the virgin birth, father and son as deity, resurrection and the last judgment) had earlier pagan manifestations. This supported the belief in a common unity and therefore the need for a single harmonised religion. ( The Mysteries or `Mystery religions’ from the Orient, based on the Hermetic Perermial Philosophy, met a need which the established state religions, more concerned with celebrations and the state, did not satisfy. These cults employed allegorical drama to explain rebirth and reach their objective, a transcendant state or palingenesia. Down the ages, access to the higher Mysteries and their brotherhoods was restricted to initiates. They eschewed the deception of the senses and demands of the ego associated with the body and the unenlightened mind.
- A Medici as Mercury (from UNDER THE GUISE OF SPRING)
He carries the caduceus, the traditional hall-mark of the messenger.’ To the modern eye his manner appears to be casual and removed but not so at the time, when the significance of what he was doing would have been well understood in the Medici circle.
With his back to the rest of the action, he faces away and is preoccupied with the clouds above his head. This has been a source of confusion. Additionally, one questions why he is attracting the attention of the central Grace.
Of the many questions raised by this figure, the most important is why this messanger of the gods and conductor of souls carries a weapon of war. Augustine, however, sheds light on this subject by defining which particular descendent this is: at this time when Moses was born, was Atlas, Prometheus’ brother, a great astronomer, and he was grandfather by the mother’s side to the elder Mercury who begat the father of this Trismegistus [Hermes-Mercurius, the fifth Mercury].
Cicero, greatly revered by the Medici, particularly Cosimo the Elder, provides a clue to the sword.
The fifth Mercury, worshipped by the people of Pheneus, is said to have slain Argus and con-sequently fled to exile in Egypt, where he gave to the Egyptians their laws and letters.’
From these impeccable sources we have it that Hermes Trismegistus, the fifth Mercury whom Ficino credited with the authorship of the Corpus Hermeticum as a young man, slew Argus and as a result fled to exile in Egypt. Ficino wrote of this in his Argumentum to Cosimo which accompanied his translation of the hermetic corpus.’ He’ was given the name Thoth and became the spiritual guide of the Egyptians, and through Greek trade and settlements there was deified under the name Hermes, entering the Greek pantheon around the fifth century BC, when he appears on black figured vases.
In his letter Ficino tells Lorenzo Minore to ‘turn towards the sun’, which he defines as God. Such contemplation leads to a direct spiritual experience or gnosis (knowledge of).
Gnosticism was suppressed as a religion when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 38o AD’ but re-emerged in fifteenth-century Florence with the arrival of the Corpus Hermeticum which vividly described the initiate’s self-realisation.
(Gnosticism was a powerful threat to Christianity in the second to the fourth century AD. Some pagans, Christians and Jews were also Gnostics. Direct experience was perceived to be superior to faith: the Gnostic knew and so had no need of institutions, hierarchies.and ceremonies. The Gnostic god had no role in the empirical world).
In initiations, the mind separates from the body when one `sees’ or realises the god within.’ What he sees is The Good, concealed from profane eyes by a metaphorical veil of cloud symbolic of the unrealised mind.
(Ficino describes a gradual ascent as opposed to a sudden moment of realisation. Christianity could not be exclusive or discriminating if it claimed to be a universa] church. The achievement of the final goal must be available to all. He therefore maintained the orthodox Thomistic (of Aquinas) position on the last judgement where body and soul would be united and realisation would follow death even if it had not been experienced in life.)
In addition to his sword and traditional caduceus ( In fifth-century BC Greece thc caduceus was referred to as a kerykeion. It is a spiritual wand facilitating movement between the two worlds), Mercury has stout buskins on his feet, a light chlamys cloak over his shoulder and, to shield the blinding sun, a steel hat tops a contemporary Florentine hairstyle.
Mercury, with sword, helmet (similar to that in the Ashmolean and Uffizi drawings of Minerva) and Medici symbolism, has been interpreted as representing the triumphant Lorenzo with his peace-making and healing caduceus dispelling the last clouds over his beloved Florence, with Zephyr ushering in a new Florentine spring.
This is the youthful Hermes-Mercurius who, having fled to exile, bridged heaven and earth for the Egyptians, and whose Corpus became the manifesto of the Medici-Ficino circle in their quest for religious fusion.
Mercury, ‘the revealer of secret Hermetic knowledge’, stands with his hand on his hip, gazing upwards, out of the picture. This is the same figure that played a central role in all the great Mystery religions of the ancient world, including the cults of Demeter, Isis, Cybele and Artemis.
The hand-on-hip posture today conveys casualness, but this was not so in the past: Botticelli was representing him in a Hermetic manner which demands that attributes, including the hand on hip posture, be faithfully represented if he is to be engaged.
In antiquity, representations of Hermes-Mercurius show this posture: his depiction on Greek and Etruscan vases and at Ephesus and in the Temple of Isis at Pompeii are examples.
The posture should not be misunderstood by being given a modern interpretation.
His Greek name Hermes and role of guide, derives from herm, or a pile of stones guiding the traveller. As divine `messenger of the Gods’ and `conductor of souls to the afterworld‘, he was an ambassador eloquent in argument, a resolver of problems, a mediator, a symbol of concord, union and peace.
The parade sword hanging from Mercury’s left shoulder by a studded black dress band is a falchion, a single-edged sword of European origin reminiscent of the Persian scimitar and Chinese dao.
A formidable weapon, it combined the weight and power of the axe with the versatility of the sword. This sword is symbolic of Lorenzo Minore’s branch of the Medici family.
On the pommel it has a laurel motif: `Lauro‘ or ‘Laurel‘ was a form of address associated with the name Lorenzo. The lily of Florence decorates the scabbard, emphasising the bond between the city and its leading Mercury has upright and inverted flame motifs on his tunic. San Lorenzo, the name of the family church, is associated with flames because of the saint’s martyrdom on a flaming gridiron.
There is a striking similarity in appearance between the figure of Mercury and Lorenzo Minore. A later painting by Filippino Lippi, shows Lorenzo, fifteen years after La Primavera was painted, with a crown above his head. The build, dense mop of curly black hair, thick neck, straight nose and dimple are similar in the two images.
It has long been thought that Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Medal of Cosimo de’Medici represents Lorenzo Minore. He would have been seventeen were the painting dated to the time of his bethrothal in 1480, but Lightbown judges the style of the painting to be earlier.
- Between Two Worlds
If Lorenzo Minore is indeed being self-fashioned as Mercury, and conscious of how Ficino described the sage and urged Lorenzo to emulate him, we are coming close to understanding his role in the painting.
Spring by Virgil Solis of Nuremburg (1514-62), showing Mercury on the right, one of a series illustrating the four seasons, Warburg lnstitute, University of London.
Mercury (hand on hip) in the above engraving, as in La Primavera, is placed on the edge of the scene. To the Platonist, a figure on the perimeter represents someone balanced between the material and celestial worlds. Wind writes that `an orientation towards the beyond from which all things flow, and to which they all return, is the primary tenet of this philosophy.’
What is depicted in the painting reflects Ficino’s counsel to his young friend. He urged him to look to the beyond as his goal, and knowing who he is, contemplate the profound depths of caritas within. Mercury looks up to The One for inspiration. On the contemplation of the beyond, Ficino had written: `consummate happiness comes only in those exquisite moments when contemplation rises to ecstasy’.
Contrary to the mythological tradition in which the spiritual wand of Mercury, the sign of the messenger, has two snakes intertwined,’ Botticelli painted Mercury’s caduceus with two dragons.
In Etruscan black-figured vases of the 5th century BC, the caduceus of Hermes has two iron semicircles with protrusions. It is likely that the snake symbolism evolved from this and that both had the sign of Mercury, a circle topped by a crescent moon facing the circle, as their origin.
“Hermes kriophoros” This form of Hermes as the ‘ram bearer’ served to ward off communal disease especially in the oldest centers of his worship, Arkadia.
It can also be found in Persia: the Persian mace
Marriage paintings celebrating the union of two families often included the symbolism of both. Seznec notes that Cyriacus of Ancona discovered a bas-relief depicting dragons on Hermes’ caduseus on a voyage to Greece and the archipelago. Drawings circulated in artistic circles, so it is possible that this was Botticelli’s source. However, coats of arms projected values with which a family wished to be associated and the dragon was the dominant element in one of the coats of arms adopted by the Appiani in the early 147os. Highly sensitive to the nuances of such matters, none would be unaware of the devices of a family marrying into the Medici. The use of family devices signalled the importance attached to the union in the dangerous and volatile atmosphere of political manouverings then gripping the Italian peninsula.
- Veiling Against the Profane
The Celestial Ladder, Raymond Lull, Da Nova Logica, 1512.
In Renaissance iconography, the unseen god is concealed from profane eyes by clouds. Perfection is always `above’, as shown in the idea of the celestial ladder. In the Ficinian system each species has, inherent in its nature, a desire to strive towards that which it identifies as its own good. According to this principle there is in every genus a `highese member, or primum, its cause and source, whose perfection its members gravitate towards naturally in their instinctive quest for their own survival, perpetuation and fulfilment.
Nature’s hierarchy includes all species and things, from man to inanimateobjects. There is a descending scale, measured by degrees of imperfection from the primum. Each tier bears an imperfect resemblance to that above it, but is superior to that below it. Everything had a soul, but the human soul is glorified as being just below the angelic mind.
A raised arm and eyes cast upwards were well understood to indicate a concentration on that which was above mankind, the primum sought by the soul. Becoming one with it is the point at which `movements’ cease and all is still. Ficino in his letter to Lorenzo talks about `embracing’ (joining with) ultimate virtue or Venus.
Clouds in medieval Christianity, as in Greek mythology, were a metaphorical veil shielding `heaven’ or the truth. The writings of the pagan philosophers and poets, so familiar to the Medici, are peppered with references to them, as are their own writings.
Ficino wrote that ‘the highest wisdom is to know that the divine light resides in the clouds’. But, despite the clouds above Mercury, it will be noted that the artist has painted light reflected in his eyes ‘as the moon reflects the sun’.
Botticelli, The Calumny of Appeles, and detail of Truth, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, 1494.
Ficino wrote: As soon as the filth of the earth is cleared away, you will see sheer gold, and as soon as the clouds are swept away, you will see lucid air and will then revere yourself, believe me, as an everlasting ray of the Divine sun.f”G In a prayer he says, `through Yourself clear the clouded vision of the mind that I may see you you raise my downcast eye that I may look up.'” He also explained: Whenever man casts his eyes into the beauty of the universe … [he] is turned upwards to the intuition of its pure essence.’
Raphael, Scuola di Atene (The School of Athens), and detail of Plato, Apostolic Palace, Vatican, c.1509. Included, besides Plato who stands with Aristotle to his lelt, are Alexander the Great, Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Heraclitus, Apollo, Epicurus, Pallas, Diogenes.
In Raphael’s monumental painting The School of Athens, the focus of the entire com-position is on Plato pointing to the heavens. Standing among the great scientists, mathematicians, astrologers and philosophers, he is acknowledging the higher plane, a dimension beyond Greek rationalism’s ability to explain.
Botticelli made one hundred drawings to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the poem accompanying Paradiso XXVI are expressions dear to the Medici-Ficino circle: ‘clear the mist from your understanding’ (79), ‘I will clear the mist that troubles you’ (88), ‘here it is always spring’ (142).
In the Platonic system, having gazed into the beyond and cleared his mind through a powerful transcendent experience, the contemplative returns to the material world to inspire it with the clarity of his thought. Ficino’s writings include statements such as, ‘when you look upward at heavenly things the firmament immediately announces the glory of god’;’ `turned towards God, it is illuminated by his ray’; and ‘the eye is attracted towards God in the same way as the eye is directed towards the light of the sun’; ‘the mind can sometimes be called moveable it proceeds from God and turns towards him’;”having turned towards him, the soul is illuminated by his rays’; `then he raises the eye of intellect to look up to the Reason of Man which is present in the divine light’.
Commenting on Aristotle, Ficino writes: ‘the sun is above the heavens that are truth itself … the same sun reveals things to minds that are pure and turned towards it.'”
In the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes uses similar language: ‘For in truth, the light of the Divine mind is never poured into a soul unless the soul turns itself completely towards the mind of God, as the moon towards the Sun…” Pico della Mirandola wrote about ‘the cloud in which God resides’,” and Ficino in his Argumentum dedicating the Corpus Hermeticum to Cosimo wrote,” `Truly the mind accomplishes nothing until it has rid itself of the deceptions of the senses and the clouds of fantasy.”
Most significantly for us, Ficino tells Lorenzo Minore: ‘let this moon within you turn towards the Sun that is God Himself, from whom it always receives life-giving rays.’
For Ficino, our world is one of distractions and unreality but contemplation brings clarity of mind and understanding. Fog, mist and clouds are a metaphorical veil which contemplation penetrates, according to one’s ability to perceive. The Magnificent, in his poem The Supreme Good, writes:
I pray to you to cleane my clouded vision
Of haze and make it absolutely clear
that I may see your pure and limpid Light
Lorenzo Minore, a recently or shortly to be married young man of nineteen, is intentionally portrayed by Botticelli as Mercury or Hermes-Mercurius in La Primavera.
As an inspiration of the Academy, whose Platonic teachings sought to guide the young Medici `prince’, Mercury was the chosen role model. Physical appearance, symbolism, the timing of the painting and Ficino’s written counsel, come together to show this intent, as do gestures such as looking upwards to the concealed God beyond the clouds, and devices such as flowers and flames. Lorenzo would recognise himself in Mercury, and hopefully acknowledge Ficino’s advice to embrace Virtue/Venus and accept her invitation to enter her garden of paradise.
In marked contrast to the contemplative Mercury of man’s higher nature, Botticelli has painted a scene on the opposite side, of a wood nymph wandering in the forest being lustfully stalked by the normally gentle Zephyr, who has momentarily lapsed, allowing his animal nature to assume charge.
- Changing Natures
IN THE RIGHT-HAND SIDE of La Primavera, a dark scene of unrestrained passion and high drama is unfolding in the rape of the wood nymph Chloris by Zephyr. Behind them, and in contrast to the rest of the painting, there is no fruit or blossom on the trees. Raptus or rape, the forceful abduction of a woman (seen as a crime against the husband whose property she was) was often glorified as patriotic and heroic, as in the rape of the Sabine women, Rome’s celebrated mothers, who were carried off to establish the first Roman settlement on the banks of the Tiber.
Ficino however described rape as `amor ferrinis’, or madness: `Thus by this madness man sinks back to the nature of die beast’.’ However, as in Ovid’s poem quoted below, he can redeem him-self and be re-born.
The following is a passage from Ovid that reminds some of the right side of La Primavera.’ In this the soul speaks:
‘So I, Flora, spoke, and the goddess answered my question thus, and while she [Chloris] spoke her mouth breathed the roses of spring.’
Now Flora speaks again:
I who am now called Flora was formerly Chloris; a Greek letter of my name is corrupted in the Latin speech. I was Chloris, a nymph of the happy fields, where, as you may have heard, dwelt the fortunate men of the olden days. Modesty shrinks from describing my figure, but it procured the hand of a god for my mother’s daughter.
She describes how, when she was Chloris and was wandering, she was suddenly overcome by a lusty god:
It was spring and I was roaming; Zephyr caught sight of me, I retired, he pursued, and I fled, but he was the stronger, and Boreas [the north wind] had given his brother full right of rape by daring to carry off the prize from the house of Erechtheus.
Dishonour, a fate worse than death, looms, but all is not lost:
However, he made amends for his violence by giving me the name of bride, and in my marriage bed I have no complaint. I enjoy perpetual spring: always is the year in fullest blossom; the trees are clothed with leaves, the ground with pasture.
Ovid, Fasti V, [93-222. The extract continues as follows: `In the fields that are my dower I have a fruitful garden, fanned by the breeze and watered by a spring of running water. The garden my husband filled with noble flowers and said “goddess, be queen of flowers”. Often I tried to count the colours in the beds but could not; the colour was past counting. As soon as the dewy rime is shaken from the leaves, and the varied foliage is warmed by the sunbeams, the Hours draw near, clad in painted gowns and gather my gifts in light baskets. Straightaway The Graces draw near and twined garlands and wreaths to bind their heavenly hair. I was the first to scatter the seeds among countless people; until then the earth had been of but one colour.‘
Kristeller writes that ‘for Ficino, Man is identical with his rational soul and his excellence consists of the role played by this soul’.” In Zephyr’s bestial display, his lower nature, now in charge of his mind, causes the drab soul ‘to fall’.
In typical Ovidian fashion, following forgiveness and the return of honour, the predator’s soul rises again with the words: ‘I enjoy perpetual spring.’ Changing natures, from people to pillars, trees, rivers, stones, or other people, was much in vogue and a long recurring theme in poetry of this genre. Hermetic alchemy stressed the ability of things in nature, whether metals or living things, to alter their core essence and nature.
In this scene of Zephyr’s spiritual death and resurrection, there is no difference between the person and the soul itself, which is always beautiful and portrayed as female.
Zephyr, normally a gentle west wind,’ like man, incorporates irreconcilable opposites: the animal, a survival-centred, instinct-driven nature common to all species, and the spiritual `pre-lapsian’ nature Ficino believed was man’s distinguishing attribute.
Ficino, in his correspondence with Lorenzo Minore, refers to these opposing tendencies as `movements of the body and soul’ which rise and fall as reason and instinct compete for the nymph-like soul. Rape, for the Medici-Ficino circle, exemplifies a downward `movement’. It is an offence against the rational mind represented by Mercury, the figure in the painting which bears the physical characteristics of Lorenzo himself.
Ficino uses such a story in an appendage to his correspondence with Lorenzo to tel’ another version of the lost-and-found tale. It is the story of Lucilia disobeying her father and straying to pick flowers (representing sensuality). She eventually returns but during her absence encounters hardship and despair. Repentant, she pleads with her father and is promised forgiveness once she `divests herself of those tinsel ornaments and lascivious trappings’. Ficino’s account’ ends by saying,
while you stray from your paternal home, you buy a brief and slight pleasure at the tost of such long and lasting grievous pain, and that the little honey you win by disregarding the commandments of the truc healer will bring you much gall.
The connection between Ficino and La Primavera has been commented on by Gombrich, who notes that Lucilia’s dress as described in the story could be that of Flora in the painting: ‘a whole garment made of ivy, myrtle and lilies, roses, violets, and other flowers.”’
The perennial death-and-return saga, sometimes called ‘the soul drama’, dates back to belief systems in primordial times.’
In The Myth of the Eternal Return Mircea Eliade describes fall and resurrection as an idea naturally inherent in the human condition. Death-and-resurrection stories have as their models natural cycles: winter is death and spring is rebirth; a new day is re-born after its demise at sunset. Narratives of the birth of the world followed eventually by its last day were also widely established among diverse cultures in the pre-Christian era.
Since prehistory man has identified with cycles of purification in which the death of the old is followed by regeneration through the recurring, predictable birth of new generations. Being part of nature, this is man’s lot by extension. The idea of regeneration was inspirational through time and geography, sowing the fertile seed of myth. Joseph Campbell writes that the dreams we dream, the fears we harbour and the mythologies we pass down, though costumed differently, express the same concepts through time and place.
They reflect the mores andcultures of each human community and epoch, but they have a pre-dictable species-wide uniformity. Campbell says that, so consistently present was this death and resurrection theme wherever Christian missionaries went, that they believed the devil must be mocking them.
Lorenzo the Magnificent’s poetry dwells on the contradiction that, within the noblest of the species who harbour the most sublime aspirations and instincts, lies its deadly antitheses, a bestial nature urging the suspension of judgement, alien to the truly human or divine self.
His verse leaves no doubt as to his understanding of the scene in La Primavera. In his poem Ambra” a god malevolently stalks a wood nymph; captivated by her beauty, he must possess her.
Out of control, he bursts out of his hiding place in the thicket, just as one sees Zephyr do in La Primavera. Lorenzo vividly describes his unrestrained lust and sensuality, and the tragic demise of the wood nymph. But the predator realises he has destroyed beauty and, being immortal, he will have to live forever with his remorse.
Note: Ambra’ is divided into two parts. Part 1, the first 24 verses, concerns all the elements of nature which are alive with the moods, personalities and passions of living things, but whose predestination and subservience to nature evokes sympathy for the helplessness of things living without reason, having only instinct. This contrasts with the overt sensuality of Part 2, where a river god is overcome by rampant desire for a beautiful wood nymph, whose destruction he brings about through his loss of `self’. He was born to have reason, judgement and restraint. His is the species with a spiritual dimension in its pre-lapsian state. His destruction of the beautiful nymph (or soul) is followed by his realisation of his terrible mistake, sowing the seed of repentance, itself fertile ground for forgiveness and a new start.
One day to flee the heat, she bathed unclothed,
In cold Ombrone’s waters, he whose looks,
And manners proud stem from his ancient sire,
Apennine, and a hundred brother streams. [V24]
….Hid by the fronds, he softly, slowly steals
Up to the pool in which the wood nymph stands.
She fails to see him, and the murmurings
Of lambent waves drown out the sound of steps.
So near, so close to her has he advanced,
He feels he now can reach her golden tresses,
And have that comely nymph within his arms,
And naked, clasp her naked lovely body. [V261
So too the nymph, on seeing that she’s seen,
Escapes the god, who flings himself against her:
Yes she was slow enough, or he so swift,
She left with him a handful of her hair. [V27]
The wood nymph flees, She’s deaf to all his pleas,
And fear puts wings upon her ivory feet.
The god runs on, and quickens now his pace
Made swifter in pursuit by power of love.
To his great grief, he sees those ivory feet
Wounded by thorns, and by the sharp-edged stones.
Seeing the lovely, naked nymph escape,
His passion swells, he freezes and he sweats. [V31]
The nymph is escaping [V31i ] and he is unable to keep up with her: ‘with lustful eyes he still pursues the nymph’ [V33] and `Desire inflames his smitten heart’ [V34). The chase is now close to where the small Ombrone joins the once powerful Arno river which flows through Florence, ‘into which most of the Tuscan rivers pour our waters’, and his hopes rise. He appeals to the Arno to deliver the nymph to him by obstructing her flight: `this nymph is my prize, my prey[V35] assist
me quickly since the wood nymph flies’. She despairs; realising her impossible predicament she `knows not where to turn’. She yearns for death when she sees both rivers close in on her and cries out for interces-sion: Unique one … help me in this final trial.’ [V39]
Diana fair, not yet has mad desire
defiled this virgin breast: protect it now,
Since I a nymph, cannot it alone repulse,
Two enemies, each one of them a god. [V4o]
These words had hardly issued from her mouth
When both of her white feet were seized by an
Unusual rigidity, You see
They grow and turn to stone. You see the colour
Of legs and lovely torso change, and yet
You would believe this was a woman still:
Her limbs look like a human figure sketched,
But left unfinished, in the solid stone. [V41 ]
Such poems always end in remorse. There is a price to be paid for stray-ing, ‘For which the only cause was my cruel lust.’
In a poem by Poliziano with a similar theme, Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Ovid, to whom Lorenzo and Poliziano both owed much, told the same story of Apollo and Daphne in his Metamorphoses.
He follows Daphne with a stricken look
As if to say, 0 nymph, turn not away:
Suspend your flying foot above the ground
For I do not follow you to take your life,
Like lion after deer, like wolf after lamb,
A girl is wont to flee her enemy,
Why fly from me, 0 Lady of my heart,
I follow you for love and love alone.
Even the Chancellor of the Florentine state, Borromeo Scala, wrote a letter to Lorenzo the Magnificent on the theme of the loss of self causing the destruction of the beautiful soul.’ The Greek and Roman poetry which found favour in the Medici-Ficino circle teemed with stories of lusty pursuits and transformations. Ficino’s words of counsel to the young Lorenzo come to mind: ‘man can be caught by no other bait than by his own nature.’
In the Rape of Helen by Euripides, Helen speaks:
I was picking fresh flowers, gathering them into my robe [as Flora does in La Primavera] to take to Athene there in her brazen house [brothel] when he caught me away through the bright air to this unprofitable country, poor me, made a prize of war!
In popular interpretations, the despairing soul, the fallen person, wandered in Hades in search of itself. In the Egyptian Isis and Osiris story, three days pass before the purified soul rises. All these stories were set in natural, untamed environments, far from prying eyes, liberating the predator from the tempering tug of restraint.
Detail of the attack by a devil from an illustration by Botticelli for Dante’s Divine Comedy, XVIII Inferno.
- The Falling Soul
After La Primavera was cleaned, the colour of Zephyr was seen to be bluish, and his wings green. His colour in The Birth of Venus is unexceptional, but when Botticelli is emphasising the dark side, he follows the established convention among painters and chooses a deeper, duller colour.
It is difficult to escape the similarities between the two works, made at about the same time, for the same person. A later example of one of Botticelli’s dark devils is seen in The Mystic Nativity .
Zephyr’s lapse into an impulsive loss of reason, causing his fall, is illustrated by the broken stem of dark flowers tumbling from the wood nymph’s mouth.
The streaks issuing from Zephyr’s mouth denote wind being blown, as in The Birth of Venus, and were visible only after the cleaning of the painting. The flowers on the fallen soul’s draperies look washed out and are barely visible — in striking contrast to those on the clothes of her confident new risen self, who says, ‘I, who am now called Flora, was formerly Chloris.’ The soul, restored through the perpetrator’s repentance and forgivness, has risen re-born as the colourful Flora, bold and joyful.
The core of the drama, as in Ovid’s poem, is Zephyr’s reformation from a bestial to a repentant state, that step before forgivness, and the consequent re-birth of the then purified soul. In the Hermetic natural religion, the initiate must undergo trials and temptations of the ego and senses in order to ‘die to self’ and emerge, typically from a coffin, egoless.
Botticelli’s Concealed Device
But why is Chloris thrusting her hand forward towards the flower pattern on Flora’s thigh while turning her head back towards the attacking Zephyr, as though seeking his attention?
Her hand does not point, but forms a definite shape indicating the highlighted area of the rose pattern. Umberto Baldini, Director of Conservation at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, drew a grid revealing the painting’s mathematical harmony and composition, but the painter’s message remained unseen.
Made after the cleaning of the painting, it identifies an area on the thigh of Flora, the re-born nymph, as a focal point. Botticelli has highlighted this area through the use of a lighter shade. The discovery of a concealed element in the flower pattern which is imposed on this highlighted area, filled a critical gap in the Platonic structure of the message to the young Medici.
In this system, recalling one’s original pre-lapsian divine nature (what Ficino calls a `shaft of Divine light’) was the first step in the process of preparing the mind for self-realisation, for understanding Who one is. It was a core belief, and the initiate’s task would be impossible if he did not accept it as true.
Ficino’s letter warned Lorenzo never to think that human nature is not divine. Proclaiming man’s divinity was, however, heretical and could attract sanction and worse.
Voss describes how the process centres on the recovery of the pre-lapsian memory and how recalling this undivided state fuels the desire for transcendence and return. With the help of a spiritual guide, a person can experience an estatic separation of the mind from the body. Speaking of Plato, Werner Jaeger poetically describes it:
Like a philosophical Michelangelo, [Plato] puts before the eyes of humanity in symbolic frescoes of unspeakable grandeur the divine origin of the soul, its journey to this world of the senses, its longing for the other world of the true being, and its return from exile to its home after due purification by philosophy.
Leonardo da Vinci expresses the power of this spiritual magnetism thus:
‘The hope and desire for repatriation and for the return to our first state is similar to the urge which drives the moth to the light.”
His is the suggestion of an unconscious recollection or instinctive urge. Christoforo Landino, an Academy member, characterised this as a ‘dim memory’. The human soul remains stunned by its fall. It is only after death that nostalgia for its source can end, and the soul can achieve happiness through reunification. The Magnificent referred to this knowledge of a pre-existence in his poem The Supreme Good and described it as a yearning for union:
…it’s not just contemplating God
but loving him that makes the soul divine,
for then the soul enjoys what first it knew.
Hermes wrote: ‘For sight of the image has a special quality all its own. It dwells in those who have already seen it and draws them upward, just as they say a magnet draws upon iron.’
The importance for the Ficino circle of recalling one’s divine nature as a first step in the journey to realisation cannot be overemphasised.
Ficino wrote of ‘the silent memory of the harmony that the soul first enjoyed’ and its desire to fly back to its home.”
Pico, referring to the three loves, Angelic, Human (divine humanity) and Sensual (bestial), writes that the greater part of humanity progresses no further than the latter two.
However, those with an understanding `purified by philosophy’ aspire to the first kind, ‘of which they already have a taste in their remembrance.’ In this system, staring at something yearned for, engages it. Lorenzo the Magnificent referred to this when he wrote:
However long the soul intently stares,
We still will see as through a fog
The chasms of divine infinity.
In La Primavera one sees a pattern of leaves and flowers in the high-lighted area on Flora’s thigh.
The shape formed by Chloris’ hand is a previously unknown gesture — a search of fifteenth-century hand signs confirms this. However, its effect is Zephyr’s sudden reversal, his ‘movement upwards’ and away from the dictates of his lower nature.
Allow several moments to concentrate on the white area surrounding the uppermost leaf in the highlighted area on Flora’s thigh. Through earnestly seeking to `connect’ with it, a form emerges which is the letter `D’. This Humanist script may be seen in Botticelli’s other paintings and was widely used in Humanist manuscripts and in the bible of Borso d’Este.
Hand gestures in (left) Madonna del Libro and (right) La Primavera.
In La Primavera, Chloris is reaching out to the symbol on Flora’s thigh while straining back towards Zephyr. The result is a reversal of the down-ward movement as his true divine nature is restored. Ficino describes these `movements’ to the higher and lower nature in his letter to Lorenzo, as Ovid describes in his poem when his protagonist, common to both La Primavera and the poem, reverses course.
In the Ficinian system, engaging through contemplation enables one to break through the mists which cloud the senses. Botticelli’s creative allusion demands sustained concentration to be discerned but once seen it safely and memorably drives home the tentral if unorthodox message of Renaissance Platonism: that man has a divine dimension.
- Dante and Derrida
Reading Dante’s Commedia alongside Jacques Derrida’s later religious writings, Francis J. Ambrosio explores what these works reveal about religion as a fundamental dynamic of human existence, about freedom and responsibility, and about the significance of writing itself. Ambrosio argues that both the many telling differences between them and the powerful bonds that unite them across centuries show that Dante and Derrida share an identity as religious writers that arises from the human experiences of faith, hope, and love in response to the divine mystery of being human. For both Dante and Derrida, Ambrosio contends, “scriptural religion” reveals that the paradoxical tension of freedom and absolute responsibility must lead to the mystery of forgiveness, a secret that these two share and faithfully keep by surrendering to its necessity to die so as always to begin again anew. Dante Vita Nuova and the promise of writing – Read also :The Gift Death., Jacques Derrida
In UNDER THE GUISE OF SPRING concludes Eugene Lane- Spollen:
HERE IS NO DOUBT that La Primavera `spoke’ to the young Lorenzo at a crossroads in his life, as a wealthy and possibly influential member of Florence’s most powerful family.
As It speaks to us today at the crossroads of the Crisis of the Modern World.
A message for our Times:
Were Venus to express what the painting said to its owner five centuries ago, she might say:
`Excellent Lorenzo, you of Divine origin, were also bom of an earthly nature and both will seek to claim you. Understand that you are briefly in this world, not of it, and the heavens in their entirety are not in some other place but within.’
“If sensual pleasures cloud your vision, the memories of those seducing moments will echo in your empty soul, a prison of your own making.‘
`Never forget who you are, for intuition tells you, you were born to be what you choose to be. You are a god in mortal raiment who should not lose his way. So eschew a life of illusions for one of perpetual spring.’
`Even if you fall you can rise again, re-born. Stride out boldly, for once you understand, you are free, and then Fate and earthly fortune will have no power to harm you.’
`Enter now Lorenzo — embrace this nymph before you, the fount of truth and grace, I am within your power to reach. Paradise can be gained by many paths and is known through time by the names of many gods and places.’
`Step forth, join their dance! … this power of grace to liberate you was known to the ancient sages from Hermes to our Plato.’
`Gaze intently to where true Beauty, the Supreme Good is encountered, and the clouds will lift and you will see.
`Recall to mind the heights of joy and how it once was before the fall, for that is where your journey home begins.
`Be worthy of the honour and let Mercury, you, your rational self, guide the ascent of your mind.’
Thus La Primavera, which brings pre-Christian wisdom to the service of the Christian ideal for the benefit of the young Lorenzo, expresses a set of beliefs passionately championed by its owner’s circle. Originating in classical antiquity as a perennial philosophy, it was rediscovered in Florence in the fifteenth century and employed in the quest for religious syncretism.
The tradition of veiling, the painting’s removal from its original private location and its use of a visual language and philosophical concepts distanced from us by time and by altered priorities, have conspired to make its message a challenge for today’s art lover. It was not so for the young Lorenzo Minore. For him there was no painted veil or ambiguity. It expressed what his mentor had sought to instill in him as he embarked on a new phase of his life.
This was Ficino’s gift: a philosophy to counter myopie view of life’s purpose, a Mirror of Princes where the prince is philosopher.
Many of the powerful and influential were repelled by the worldliness of Christian leadership, but Ficino and his Academy were too devout. Inspired by the Corpus Hermeticum, they pushed back against a mounting tide of scholarly scepticism and sought to strengthen their faith’s defences. Burckhardt writes that the Church `levelled mortal blows against the conscience and intellect of nations and drove multitudes of the noblest spirits, whom she had inwardly estranged, into the arms of unbelief and despair.”
In La Primavera, Botticelli, through the figures of Zephyr and Mercury, contrasts the `movements’ of the mind and body. Man is capable of the highest good but also the basest depravity. To explain why such conflict exists within the noblest of species, it was said that the soul is a temporary inhabitant of the body. Its sensual and material demands were what Ficino called `many mad masters’.
– Such demands lead to a state of constant striving, an impulsive, irrational search for gain and pseudo-fulfilment, the narrow and shallow state of unawareness the Platonists called `being asleep’.
The recurrence of zealotry and intolerante throughout history has invariably expressed itself in persecution, including book burnings and the defacing of artworks. Although it was painted at a time when such risk from extremism was minimal, La Primavera nonetheless followed the prudent tradition of veiling the esoteric, anticipating that tolerance would not endure.
Conscious that certain subjects would always attract unwelcome attention, Ficino’s circle naturally followed Hermes’ advice that the knowledge would be harmed by the admission of the multitude. ‘Now that you have learnt this from me, keep silence about this miracle and reveal to no one the tradition of re-birth, lest we be called betrayers‘.
Dionysius expressed the same thought: ‘The divine light cannot reach us unless it is covered with poetic veils.’
It is said that some of Botticelli’s paintings were burnt on Savonarola’s bonfires. The Rome Academy, similar to its Florentine counterpart, but with a different overall focus, explored some of the same subject matter as its Tuscan neighbour.
Its greater emphasis on initiation roused papal fears of sedition and attracted censure from Pope Paul II in 1468. Several of its members fled Rome but were later imprisoned and drew the unwelcome attentions of the papal rack-master. It was predictable that Ficino’s exploration of the harmonisation of Plato and Christianity would attract hostile attention at some future time of religious fervour.
The twenty-three-year-old Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola came close to excommunication after he challenged the learned men of Europe to debate nine hundred questions of philosophy and theology. He told them that his propositions were partly based on his study of esoteric cults: ‘the early theology of Hermes Trismegistus … the teachings of the Chaldeans and the Pythagoreans … the occult mysteries of the Hehrews’. It required the intervention of the Medici to save him.`
Marsilio Ficino, like Pico della Mirandola, was already being viewed with suspicion. In 1498 he was brought before a papal tribunal on charges of heresy. Both Poliziano and Pico died of arsenic poisoning within a short time of each other in 1494.
Goodrich-Clark notes that Ficino was an early champion of ‘the secret esoteric wisdom called the Perennial Philosophy’, identifed with the Mosaic tradition passed to the Hehrews in the Torah and the Kaballah, and then to the psalmists and prophets. Their utopian dream of reconciling the great religions would remain just that; while Hermes and the legacy of Ficino, Pico and Poliziano would endure, the vision to which they were devoted would not.
While the ancient philosophy fired the imaginations of the cognoscenti, Christian supremacist claims were too entrenched. The vision of the Circle was a forced marriage and the parties in question eventually retreated the walls of their respective institutions, from which they were to witness the arrival of a powerful and painful Reformation, the distant rumblings of which were already audible.
In spite of this there was a lasting legacy:
an appreciation of beauty, what it means to be aristocratic of mind, the tasting of the moment, worldly pleasures, nature as inspiration and self-determination all blossomed. Their ideas presaged the debut of modern technological man. The human failings of religious institutions would strengthen disbelief, further encouraging self-reliance, self-esteem and personal responsibility.
In the centuries to come, self-empowered and increasingly confident individuals would turn their energies and conquering minds to overcome every barrier to knowledge and advancement, even nature.
Our debt to the classical and the unfettered spirit it loosed is enormous, and reminders are all about us. Classical deities adorn edifices on five continents, great corporations are named after classical gods ( Nike, Clio, Hermes…) and the classical architecture of government buildings and courthouses the world over communicates the idea of wise leadership.
However, it was not the City of Man that had interested members of the Academy. They had sought an understanding of man’s true nature and potential for transcendence.
Ficino wrote:” It was for the limitless alone He created men who are the only beings on earth to have re-discovered their infinite nature and who are not fully satisfied by anything limited, however great that thing might be.”
The growth in human self-belief showed itself in booming commerce, broadened geographical horizons and adventures inspired by ingenuity, daring and creativity.
An abundance of opportunities opened up, some powerfully seductive for the material wealth and pleasure they offered — what John Reed calls ‘that powerful substitute for being’.” Russell Kirk writes:
but the seed of hubris, overwhelming self-confidence was sown it has remained for us in the 20th Century. To look back upon the course of this hubris, diffused all over the world, and to see the oratorical aspirations of the humanists transformed into the technological aspirations of the modern sensual man … in our lust for divine power, we have lost human dignity.‘
(Reed, Elegant Simplicity: `… incapable of animating our souls beyond the one dimensional reality we mostly inhabit.’)
After five centuries and more of religious turmoil and wars, La Primavera and its message have survived to our time under the guise of spring.
As one stands in front of the painting, one can hardly be faulted for wondering whether that perennial secret of rebirth which unlocked a profound ‘human’ happiness, somehow reaches out through the layers of time and varnish to resonate with something instinctively and perennially present in the unexplored corridors of the mind.
Everything is exactly what it must be, for all things are under the control of the One. Among the many Koranic proof texts cited in support of this imperative is the verse «His only command, when He desires a thing, is to say to it “Be!”, and it comes to be» (36: 82). Theologians called this word “Be” the creative command (al-amr al-khalqī).It is eternal, which is to say that, from the human point of view, it is re-uttered at every moment. As a result, the universe and all things within it are constantly renewed. see Islam and the Transformative Power of Love…