(Word of warning, I put in a lot of historical facts.) Sandro Botticelli, born 1445 in Florence, Italy, is one of the best recognized artists of the Early Renaissance. Known best for The Birth of Venus and Primavera, his art style epitomized the budding Italian world and its adoration for Classical antiquity.
In my Renaissance and Reformation class, my professor Brother Piggott brought up Classical antiquity a lot. Why is this? Well, the word Renaissance really means “rebirth”, specifically the rebirth of the European world. Rebirth from what exactly? After the fall of the Western Roman empire and the eventual disintegration of the Byzantine Empire the arts, literature and the sciences all but died out throughout Europe. Against popular belief however, the entire world did not have the same problems. “Medieval” Islam, India and Imperial China are several examples of this.
In order to fall out of the “Middle Ages” slump it had been under for a thousand years Europe needed to turn back to its roots, meaning Ancient Greece and Rome. That is one good thing that came from the Crusades; they received access to Islamic innovations in Medicine, philosophy and art and rediscovered writings and artifacts from Greece and Rome. Huzzah!
Not surprisingly, the arts took the longest to come back. Why? Because in order to actually write music, paint or sculpt artists needed an economy that could support them. Several “thank you”s are in order. First, thank you Medici family, specifically Lorenzo de Medici and Cosimo the elder. Yes, they monopolized the economic world and bribed and pushed their way into the papacy, but they are directly responsible for financially supporting countless artists. These artists include Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo and of course Botticelli.
Second thanks goes to the Roman Catholic church. Without its backing, artists like Raphael, Michelangelo (after he abandoned the Medici’s) and Bernini would have been out of a job. St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is a prime example of beautiful architecture, sculpture and paintings all paid for through Indulgences, which church officials would sell to the common people who thought they were buying their way into heaven. Sigh. . . such is history.
Now we come to one of Botticelli’s less known paintings, Derelicta or The Abandoned One. Created a little later on in his career, it is not as simple as it initially appears. I found this artwork about a month ago, struck by the overwhelming sadness of its figure. Though I did not understand it, I saved it for a later post without thinking twice about it. At first, I thought it was called Lamentation, which is actually another of Botticelli’s paintings depicting the death of Christ. In learning my mistake, I searched for its true name and history. My research changed my whole perspective.
Now, why do I like this painting? Wait. . . rephrase. Why do I LOVE this painting? Firstly, its setup historically and artistically is fascinating. There is only one figure featured of unknown origins and ethnicity. I looked up many articles in hopes of finding out where the woman is and why she is weeping. Some writers speculated that it was Lucretia who was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, others that it was the woman in “Guardians of the Walls” from the Song of Solomon or Song of Songs. Personally, I think it is the latter because of the outlaying building and the cloth lying at the woman’s feet. The building’s style looks Israeli to me, even, perhaps, the outside of a temple. The locked door is also interesting in its shape and coloring, for there are stars lining at its top and its design is simple. As for the cloth, it looks like the veil or mantle mentioned in the song.
Secondly, its ambiguous message and nature appeals to me. This is not a painting that one can simple glance at and understand. Sure it is obvious that the woman is weeping and alone. But the big question that permeates through this image is “Why?”. Why is she weeping? Why is she alone? Why is the door locked? Why is her veil cast off? In an article by the JACQUES-EDOUARD BERGER FOUNDATION it states ” It’s quite simply the image of the quest for silence which goes so far as to completely fill the architectural austerity of this piece.”
Lastly, its overall message seems to reach beyond a single figure. In the song itself it reads,
2 I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.
3 I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
4 My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.
5 I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.
6 I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
7 The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
8 I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love.
When I look at this painting I can only emphasize with the woman. In a way she reminds me of Fantine from Victor Hugo‘s Les Misérables who was abandoned by her lover Félix Tholomyès after their daughter turned three. I believe that the weeping woman represents all women who have been abandoned or abused by men they love. It is truly tragic to think about, but necessary. Whether this was Botticelli’s intention when he painted this, we may never know. This painting is a testament to pain and sadness. I love Botticelli’s other works but this one means the most to me. Its message and emotionalism are truly palpable, a rare gem from the early Italian Renaissance.