This so-called “Madonna of the Magnificat” was painted in Florence around 1485 by Sandro Botticelli and his team. It’s from the deluxe collection of Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, whom I profiled in the latest Newsweek. These days, few billionaires venture into Old Master territory, so I’m impressed that Allen did. (He also owns the obligatory pictures by Monet and Rothko). I’m especially impressed with what an interesting Botticelli Allen got his hands on, since the sheer curvaceousness of this picture – the circle “thematized”, as an academic might say – makes it unusual. I’m sure there’s a good theological reading for it, but I want to dwell on how the image reflects on reflection. Curved “shaving” mirrors were a fabulous new technology at this moment in history, and Botticelli’s picture, with its weirdly swooping architecture, looks like it was painted from one. If art is supposed to hold a mirror to nature, as the cliche went even then, how better to demonstrate an artwork’s success than by depicting mirroring itself? And the only way to do so was to use a mirror whose signature distortions could be captured with your brush – a painting of a flat mirror image would, after all, simply look like any other picture. (I am not buying into David Hockney’s wacky “painting-with-lenses” theory, by the way, which has been utterly discredited by scholars.)
Of course, if we’re looking into a mirror when we’re looking at this painting, that makes us the Virgin Mary that we see “reflected” in it. Want to bet that this panel, like many other circular pictures in Florence, was painted for a young mother or bride?
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