Botticelli's Trinity Altarpiece at the Courtauld Gallery

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This was first presented as a spot-light talk in July 2014 as part of the Courtauld Gallery’s public programmes events (hence the somewhat odd references to kneeling down… but don’t let that put you off!) As a Courtauld student, I loved coming to visit the Gallery as there are so many masterpieces hidden away here, right on the Strand.

Sandro Botticelli's Trinity with Saints is one of the Courtauld Gallery's masterpieces, and having studied it as an undergraduate in Australia by looking at photographs in books and at slides, I was so excited to discover it in the flesh here.

Sandro Botticelli,  Trinity with Saints,  c. 1494, tempera on panel. Collection of the Courtauld Gallery, London

Sandro Botticelli, Trinity with Saints, c. 1494, tempera on panel. Collection of the Courtauld Gallery, London

It may seem simply like a mournful image of the crucifixion, but I hope to show that it is more than that.

This work was painted by Botticelli in Florence around 1494, as the central panel of an altarpiece for the Convent Sant’ Elisabetta delle Convertite.

The ‘Trinity’ is of course the Holy Trinity of Christ, God and the Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove.  Next to them we have St. John the Baptist, who motions for us to look at the scene of the crucifixion – and St. Mary Magdelene who gazes at Christ in praise and adoration.

Now, central to a proper understanding of this work, is knowledge of its original location. The Convent for which it was made was founded to house penitent prostitutes who were there to repent for their sins and to convert to a Christian life. Mary Magdelene was the patroness of the convent and an inspiration to its inhabitants as it was believed that she had been a prostitute before she met Christ. The depiction of Mary Magdelene clothed in hair might strike you as rather strange (and it is!) but it signals to us that she is shown here after her penance, for she was thought to have spent 30 years alone in the desert, living as a hermit after Christ’s death. Her conversion from sinner to saint was illustrated in four scenes at the base of this painting, which were unfortunately separated from the larger image at sometime and are now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art – but I have copies of them here for you to see (not particularly good copies, I’m sorry to say, but you get the idea!).

Sandro Botticelli,  Saint Mary Magdelene Listening to Christ Preach , c. 1494, tempera on panel. Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Sandro Botticelli, Saint Mary Magdelene Listening to Christ Preach, c. 1494, tempera on panel. Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Sandro Botticelli,  The Feast in the House of Simon , c. 1494, tempera on panel. Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Sandro Botticelli, The Feast in the House of Simon, c. 1494, tempera on panel. Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Sandro Botticelli,  Noli me tangere , c. 1494, tempera on panel. Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Sandro Botticelli, Noli me tangere, c. 1494, tempera on panel. Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Sandro Botticelli,  The Last Moments of Saint Mary Magdelene , c. 1494, tempera on panel. Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Sandro Botticelli, The Last Moments of Saint Mary Magdelene, c. 1494, tempera on panel. Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

These would have run along the base of the larger image to reinforce the tale of Mary Magdelene’s life as a model for the penitent women’s own redemption as they looked up at the scene from below. [Scroll over the above images for a description of each scene].

If you can, squat down just a little and look up, it is helpful to try and get an idea of how they might have seen the work, as we can tell from the seemingly strange shortening of Christ’s feet that the altarpiece would have been placed much higher on the wall in respect to the viewer. If you do this, you will find that the image no longer appears ‘flat;’ Christ’s knees project out and the saints framing him on either side loom out of the image. This angled perspective thus explains why the saints are slightly larger than the central figure of Christ.

The saints, Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist indicate our way to the central scene through their gestures, but, as I have already mentioned, they are also presented to us here as role models – as humble servants of God’s will – who have divested themselves of any yearning for earthly trappings for the simplest of wardrobes: hair. John the Baptist is shown wearing clothes made of camel’s hair signalling his time spent as a hermit, as he was described as living in the wilderness until he was called to Israel.  He also carries his characteristic thin cross and his red robes are most probably intended to signal his important role as the first Baptist of the Christian church. However, beyond this, both saints are intentionally shown in the humble garb of the ascetic, to remind us of the stories of how they dedicated their lives to piety and contemplation.

We could interpret their greenish skin as indicative of their ascetic saintliness as it likens them to the emaciated dying figure of Christ. However it is now difficult to say whether Botticelli actually intended this. The brightness of all of the colours has faded greatly, leaving us with a pale version of the original scene. The greyish-green of the figures’ is most probably due to this.

So, this is where it is useful to know a bit about the method of painting. The altarpiece was made using egg tempera, which is essentially ground-up pigments mixed with egg yolk as a binding medium. For the depiction of skin, a layer of green underpainting was usually laid down first and allowed to dry before transparent layers of light pinks were painted over the top. The green would give a luminosity to the skin as it is the opposite colour to pink and the interaction somehow gives the painting a spark of life. Most probably it is the green underpaint that now dominates the skin of the figures.

It is interesting to note that Mary Magdelene is depicted in a particularly de-sexed, and androgynous manner: her face is gaunt and drawn, and there is a certain brittleness to her body, seemingly summed up by the tensed veins that protrude in her hands and arms, and the suggested outline of bone at her knuckles and in the line of her jaw. She does not have the soft-rounded face and limbs usually characteristic of depictions of the female body. Rather, she has no distinguishing feminine characteristics  - she is made non-sexual and non-desirous – as a kind of poster-girl for penitent women, with her hair covering any hint of her gender and any hint of sexual shame.

We could argue that this work is all about creating empathetic responses in the viewer. We are supposed to relate to Mary Magdelene, as we must remember that the altarpiece was created for a convent of penitent prostitutes, and we are also invited to feel the fatherly pain of God, who is shown as a very human-like and tangible figure, who implores us to mourn the death of his son and to recognise the significance of his death as an actual physical suffering in sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Most notably, God is shown to bear the weight of the cross almost as an embrace of his son.

So, so far the work seems to be wholly about pain, suffering and loneliness – but there is another glimmer of hope beyond saintly penitence and redemption, which is found in the two much smaller figures at the base of the panel. This is Tobias (of the Old Testament Book of Tobit) and the Archangel Raphael. They both represent healing in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and can be seen to function here as symbols of hope for religious healing. The story goes that the angel Raphael led Tobias through a vast wilderness and saved him from a large fish which tried to swallow him whole as he washed his feet in a river. We can see that Tobias is holding a rather strange-looking fish (perhaps signalling the semi-demonic nature of the fish as told in the account). The craggy, austere landscape most probably alludes to the harshness of their wanderings, as well as that of Mary Magdelene and John the Baptist. Tobias and Raphael are seen to symbolise healing as they used the ground-up organs of the fish to dispel demons and ward-off illness, under the guidance of the angel.

Here, they combine with the saintly figures of Mary Magdelene and John the Baptist as images of hope gained through trust in God. For the penitent sisters who were living in the austere and rigorously disciplined environment of the convent, these figures would have offered models of redemption: Tobias as a mere mortal, and Mary as a standard to be emulated.