Botticelli to Van Gogh

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A medieval painting depicting the religious progression of a saint's life in four stages

Sandro Botticelli
Four scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius

Creation date: c. 1500

Sandro Botticelli. Four scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius. c. 1500. © The National Gallery, London. Mond Bequest, 1924

The first historian of Italian Renaissance art, Giorgio Vasari, called the fifteenth century “truly a Golden Age for men of talent”. Three of the artists in this room—Paolo Uccello, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli—worked during this pivotal century and all came from Florence, the cultural epicentre of early Renaissance art. Botticelli was one of the most sought-after painters, numbering the influential Medici family and Pope Sixtus IV among his patrons. His work is distinguished by his graceful style and precise line.

A growing demand for smaller devotional paintings for people’s homes meant that Botticelli produced panel paintings such as this one for his private patrons. Until the advent of canvas in the sixteenth century, artists used flat wooden panels, sometimes joined together, as the support for paintings.

Here we are looking at the first of a four-panel series devoted to the life of fifth-century Catholic saint, Zenobius. He was the first bishop of Florence and later became the patron saint of that city.

This panel shows the progression of his early life from a young man from a well-to-do pagan family through to his appointment as a bishop of Florence. Botticelli has used space, broken up with architectural features, to represents the passage of time. On the far left Zenobius, shown twice dressed in a pink robe and blue hat, turns away from his fiancée to commit himself to a monastic life. He is then shown kneeling while being baptised by Saint Theodosius and in the next scene his mother, who followed her son into the Christian faith, is also shown being baptised. In the last episode, Zenobius kneels before the Pope and is crowned with a bishop’s mitre.

According to the conventions of the time, Botticelli situated the holy figures in an historical setting of ancient Roman buildings. The decoration of the pillars incorporate a fleur-de-lys motif, which is the emblem of the city of Florence.

Among other things, Botticelli is admired for his complicated demonstrations of linear perspective and highly detailed representations of ornate classical buildings. In contrast this street scene is plain and paired back. This is thought to be one of the last paintings made by the artist and echoes the religious upheavals in Florence at the time. According to Vasari, in his book The Lives of the Artists, in Botticelli’s later years he became a follower of the fanatical Dominican friar Savonarola. Botticelli’s shift in belief and his personal austerity is reflected in this work. No longer concerned to make showy displays, this painting was intended to be the expression of simple piety.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Tota pulchra es, Latitude 37

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