Great Works: Madonna and Child with the Young St John (c1500) by Sandro Botticelli

Galleria Palatina, Florence

How uncharacteristic of the younger Botticelli is this late work! Think back, for example, to his Venus of 1482. That luscious painting shows nudity in all its full, hedonistic flow, with Venus herself, loosely and teasingly veiled, tenderly bunching a long wreathing of her auburn hair in her left hand as she simultaneously touches at her pudenda. She seems like a piece of antique statuary miraculously come alive in order to seduce us by the full force of her idling sensuality.

About two decades on, Botticelli reinvents himself. The painter of this work, from his final decade, seems to be clothed in sackcloth and ashes. There is a degree of archaism in this new, late style – the forms are flattened; Mary, towering, looks hierarchical – and a pious solemnity about the whole endeavour as if Botticelli is preparing the works that he will be showing to his Maker on the Last Day.

What exactly had happened in those intervening years? Two factors helped to bring about this dramatic change of brush and heart. One was the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492. At a stroke, Botticelli lost a great secular patron. You could even generalise, although somewhat loosely, that the death of Lorenzo meant the death of the humanist ideals of the Renaissance. Within two years of that event, his son Piero had been driven into exile, Pico della Mirandola had died, and the fear-inducing influence of a charismatic preacher was beginning to be felt. That man was Savonarola. Secular art was under threat, and the doctrines of this preacher were hotly debated in Botticelli's studio.

The movement of the painting is dramatic, that of a great cascading wave. As Mary leans down to the left (our right), so she allows her infant son to lean over and down too – his body looks a little like that of a swimmer, almost diving out of her arms and into the embrace of the child-like form of John the Baptist, his forerunner. See how closely the face of the virgin and her child seem to resemble each other, how alike, for example, are their downturned mouths. The space feels enormously constrained by the bulking of these bodies. Even the child looks huge for his age. They all push up, heavingly, against the painting's boundary walls. The Madonna herself would be enormous were she to ratchet herself upright. As she stoops and leans, so the gilded disc of her halo almost shaves off the top edge of the canvas.

The looks on the faces of the Virgin and her child have a strangely ritualistic, almost otherworldly, neutrality to them, as if they are living through a rapturous dream of their own lives – which means, of course, their destinies as the central figures in the world's greatest historical drama. They are going through the motions of that which is already known to them, and to all their contemporary onlookers too: the Passion. That is surely the reason why the infant embraces his prophetic forerunner with such vehemence. The audience is being reminded that John the Baptist too plays a significant role in the scheme of things, and it is entirely appropriate that these two infants should bond, physically, in this way.

And yet for all the evidence of this new piety, some of the old Botticelli is dynamically alive here too: look at the wonder of that vegetation, those roses, just to the left of the Virgin's back. Is this not evidence of natural abundance being enjoyed for its own sake?

About the artist: Sandro Botticelli (c 1445-1510)

Sandro Botticelli was born in Florence, and lived and worked at its moment of greatest flowering, intellectually and artistically speaking. This coincided almost exactly with the reign of one of his greatest patrons, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Part-trained and part-influenced by Fra Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio and the brothers Pollaiuolo, he re-imagined classical mythology through such great works as The Birth of Venus and Primavera. His reputation was eclipsed in old age by Leonardo and Michelangelo.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker