(b. 1445, Firenze, d. 1510, Firenze)

Madonna of the Magnificat (Madonna del Magnificat)

Tempera on panel, diameter 118 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli created his Madonna del Magnificat in the early 1480s. At the time, it was in all likelihood his most famous picture of the Virgin, something indicated by the five contemporary replicas which we have of the painting.

The painting was lavishly covered with gold paint; like the Raczynski Tondo, it contains nearly life-size figures. The Virgin, crowned by two angels, is depicted as the Queen of Heaven. Two of the wingless angels are crowning the Queen of Heaven. The crown she is wearing is a delicate piece of goldsmiths work consisting of innumerable stars; they are an allusion to the 'Stella matutina' (morning star), one of the Mother of God's names in contemporary hymns devoted to Mary.

There is such a complex solution to the sequence of crowded figures in front of the stone window that it is possible to look out between Mary and the angels on the left onto a broad landscape laid out according to the rules of atmospheric perspective. The three angels have moved towards the Virgin and Child. The one at the front is kneeling and holding an open book and inkwell. Encouraged by the Christ Child, the Virgin is about to dip her quill and write the last words of the Magnificat, beginning on the right page with the large initial "M". The pomegranate which the mother and child are both holding is a symbol of the Passion and adds to the basic melancholy and meditative mood of the painting.

The background of the picture opens out into a landscape, in similar manner to the background in the Madonna del Libra where the open window allows the observer a glimpse of the view outside. These landscapes point to the influence exerted upon Botticelli by contemporary Netherlands' artists such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hubert van der Goes. Trading relations between Italy and the Netherlands had been growing more intensive since the 15th century, resulting in many Florentine merchants and bankers travelling northwards. Among the mementos which these people brought back were paintings revealing other artistic conceptions and ideals. The Italian painters particularly admired the detailed execution of individual pictorial motifs, the realistic fashioning of the figures in the pictures, and the atmospheric effect of the landscapes as rendered in the art of their colleagues north of the Alps, and each incorporated the motifs of the latter into his own pictures after his own manner.

This portrait of the Virgin represents the costliest tondo that Botticelli ever created: in no other painting did he employ so much gold as in this one, using it for the ornamentation of the robes, for the divine rays, and for Mary's crown, and even utilizing it to heighten the hair colour of Mary and the angels. As the most expensive paint, gold was normally used only sparingly. Its liberal employment here will therefore have been at the express wish of the person commissioning the work.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 33 minutes):
Johann Sebastian Bach: Magnificat in D major, BWV 243