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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz