Botticelli’s Primavera: Depiction of the Hermetic Octave?

Botticelli’s Primavera: Depiction of the Hermetic Octave?
Dr. Paul Newland

Serendipity – one day you explore the World Wide Web, across the WebLouvre1, and download Sandro Botticelli’s “La Primavera”2, and the next day purchase a book entitled, “The Infinite Harmony”, which puts forward a strong argument that all the world’s religions and sciences are based on various encodings of hermetic knowledge. Suddenly you find yourself starring at La Primavera and sensing Botticelli, consciously or unconsciously, has depicted something which is not mentioned in the vast array of interpretations3 which abound on this extremely enigmatic painting.

La Primavera is a very popular image, almost a trademark of the early Renaissance. indeed a colleague of mine, seeing my interest, presented me with a coffee mug, La Primavera emblazoned around the outside. Unfortunately, this replication was cut short in height to fit the mug. The two most important elements, Cupid and Mercury’s caduceus were missing, we did eventually find Cupid on the handle, but the caduceus had been lost completely. A fate it has suffered for centuries in the original painting, only the recent restoration has brought the intricate detail of Mercury’s caduceus to light.

“After restoration, the caduceus became strikingly clear, almost in relief, as it was revealed that the interlaced and interwoven lines were painted in several layers of thick brushstrokes.”4

The appearance and positioning of Cupid and Mercury’s caduceus within La Primavera are the vital indicators of its hermetic nature. However, before exploring why this is so I shall give a brief review of the currently held views of what Boticelli intended to convey through La Primavera. I feel intuitively that La Primavera is such a holographic nexus of artistic endeavour that it can be many things to many individuals with equal validity. The intention of this paper is to add another layer of meaning and knowing something of the layers which have gone before provides a valuable context.

In a recent book devoted to understanding the background to La primavera, {2} Dempsey puts forward three broad themes which bound the range of current interpretations. These suggest the painting is either a metaphor for civic celebration and weddings or a Neo-Platonic meditation on beauty or a representation of the myth of Springtime recalling poetic tradition both previous to, and contemporaneous with Botticelli’s era5. There is considerable evidence for each camp to refer to which either becomes a scholarly minefield for those seeking to be rigorous or a rich source of potential narratives for the more contemplative.

Although Dempsey sides with the third theme of a poetic depiction of springtime he concludes his indepth study by reminding the reader that Botticelli’s masterpiece does not owe allegiance to any one poem. La Primavera’s magic lies in its ability to be itself – a whole which steps beyond mere visual articulation of various verses on springtime mythology. I would suggest this quality of internal consistency and resonance is a reflection of its hermetic encoding, but in order to empathise with this some background on the painting’s characters and their relationships is necessary. The following description of La Primavera draws on four main sources6.

Before alluding to the narrative within La Primavera it is crucial to realise the intention was for the viewer to regard the painting from right to left. It is more than likely that it was designed to hang in a room approached from the right and the two tall plants bending inwards from the right edge give both movement and direction for the viewer’s eye into the unfolding scene. The slight arching back of the furthest left hand figure, Mercury, also reflects this bending in of the plants bringing the scene to a close. Geometric analysis of the work shows too that the spatial arrangement of the figures pulls the eye rhythmically along the procession if approached from the right. Given this flow from the right to left what sequence to the figures portray?

One reasonable explanation, if the aerial figure of Cupid is discounted, is that the eight remaining figures are the months February through September; this corresponds with the ancients refraining from naming or describing the four months of winter. However, a more complex layer of meaning can be placed upon this depiction of a rural calendar by introducing Neo-Platonic references. The figures then take up their mythological characteristics and a narrative begins. Zephyr, the winged male on the right, personifies human love and the life-force of nature, he seizes Chloris, who is whence transformed into Flora. Venus, the central figure, with the assistance of Cupid kindles this carnal love and guides it, via a process of intellectual sublimation – shown by the grouping of the three Graces – towards a final goal of contemplation, Mercury.

Venus, seen as Humanitas, separating the senses and material love on the right from the spiritual on the left fits elegantly with the eventual recipients of this painting, Lorenzo and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici who held her as a patroness. Lorenzo was taught by the father of Neo-Platonism, Marsilio Finco, who as author {3} of a letter quoted by Gombrich7, shows his desire to guide Lorenzo to act from none but spiritual motives. Botticelli was part of Ficino’s circle and the need to have a visible realisation of the circle’s philosophy seems to have inspired Botticelli. Nevertheless, Baldini concedes:

“Yet its Platonic mysteries have attracted less attention and begotten fewer theories than has the deep elusive spell of its sheer beauty. How can this beauty be explained?”8

Maybe Botticelli’s masterpiece transpired from a personal quest to artistically represent a more ancient knowledge. The exquisite brushwork combined with a perennial hermetic message could perhaps underlie the picture’s perceived aura of otherworldiness.

The following interpretation is very much experimental and reliant on the work of Michael Hayes whose boo, “The Infinite Harmony: Musical Structures in Science and Theology” shows how octave structures underlie the world’s major religions and take part in the functioning of DNA. His theory suggests that there is ‘hermetic’ knowledge encoded within these various information storage/relay systems and that their longevity is a consequence of their incorporation of the harmonic octave. However, he develops his theory by introducing the idea that natural octaves have two potential fault points which leads to their eventual decay, but that appropriately keyed intervention can avert this natural tendency.

“The Pythagoreans proposed that, for evolutionary or ‘intelligent’ octaves to have a fully harmonious ‘ring’ to them, it was necessary to exceed the bounds of ordinary practical music and actually introduce the additional concentrations of resonance at the points of vibrational retardation - between the notes ‘mi-fa’ and ‘ti-Do’. These additional concentrations of resonance, or ‘metaphysical semitones;, were to be created, in time, by the individual himself. Remember the seven-tone octave of practical music reflects a natural cosmic process which is in reality disharmonious. That is, without the two additional semitone ‘shocks’ it is not possible for a developing scale of ‘intelligent resonance to exactly double its rate of vibrations and so square its possibilities. In other words, in lacking the aforementioned semitones the natural, living octave must, given time, either ‘decompose’ (involve, or be deflected or consumed by other more powerful orders of energy and form passing through its given sphere of influence - hence the vast multiplicity of natural forms existing in the universe and why, as has already been suggested, there are no apparent straight lines in nature.”9

Reading the ‘Primavera’ from right to left there are eight primary figures, beginning with Zephyr (Do), Chloris (re), Flora (mi), Venus (fa), Pleasure (so), Chastity (la), Beauty (ti) and ending with Mercury (Do). In this arrangement Zephyr {4} and Mercury are separated by an octave, suggesting they are similar in resonance value, but herald different scales. Indeed, Dempsey has indicated that not only are Zephyr and Mercury similar in nature, they also begin and complete the cycle of spring.

“The ancient poets described Mercury and the winds alike, both moving the air with beating wings; and Zephyr and Mercury were particularly linked because each had wings on his head. The advent of Favonius or Zephyr, the west wind, marked the beginning of spring. … Mercury is also a god of navigation. He is the son of Maia, loveliest of the Pleiades; the rising of the Pleiades in early May reopened the sea for travel again, after the storms of the late spring. … Spring thus begins and ends with the same cloud-dispelling wind, starting with the advent of Zephyr, and departing with Mercury, in whose month the season turns to summer.”10

Looking at the movement of these two deities in the ‘Primavera’, Zephyr literally blows into the painting and initiates the octave, while Mercury indicates through his upright stance the end of the octave, but also with his gesture and look that he begins an octave at a higher scale. The figures between these two, from Chloris through to Beauty, also convey a progression of increasing refinement, a gradual stepping up in tome of character. However, as Hayes (1994) indicates, if as I suggest the ‘Primavera’ is a pictorial depiction of an octave, for it to have hermetic significance there has to be some indication of the two fault points and allusion to how the viewer can traverse them.

Within the ‘Primavera’ the missing semitones or points of natural decay would occur in firstly attaining the true nature of Venus and secondly in attaining that of Mercury. In each case either hovering (Cupid) or held (caduceus) there are significant markers at these potential transition points. Both Venus and Mercury are deities who can be seen as opportunities for viewers to pull themselves out of the ‘normal’ plane.

The three figures on the right of Venus, Zephy, Chloris and Flora, notes ‘Do’, ‘re’ and ‘mi’, are the dynamic, visibly creative aspect of the picture - they harbour the lament of fire and transformative action. Chloris is pivotal in this group. She twists from lust, Zephyr, who as the note ‘Do’ is the culmination of a previous ‘animal’ octave and the beginning of a higher resonance, ‘human’ octave. As Chloris’s body movement moves the viewer from right to left she stabilizes this new octave of human endeavour, and changes, is birthed, like the flowers from her mouth, into Flora. The three explore direct sensory experience. Zephyr blows – sound – there is eye contact between him and Chloris – vision – there is touch and kinesthetic action between them also and Chloris both tastes and smells the flowers as they flow from her mouth. This cornucopia of sensory delight culminates in the ripeness and abundance of the third member of the group, Flora. Together they {5} participate in the garden of earthly delights.

If the octave is allowed to continue naturally then Venus, note ‘fa’, becomes the focusing aspect, representing attachment to the earth, the movement from human passion to a more tender love. She commands respect and offers guidance and the prospect of man and nature in harmony. Seen in this way, Cupid above then only emphasises the ease of a well practiced aim and the skill arising from repetitive action through the imminent release of his bow. Now stepping to the left, the group of three Graces assume the role of contemplation, representatives of the element water, forever playing with three aspects of human love, its giving, receiving and returning, notes ‘so’, ‘la’ and ‘ti’. The natural octave having decayed once after passing through Venus now falters again and Mercury, although harbouring the element air only heralds the end of the octave. He holds his caduceus above, but merely as a dispeller of clouds!

However, this reading of the octave misses the semitone interjection markers. What happens if the importance of Cupid and Mercury’s caduceus become apparent to the viewer?

If the viewer reaches Venus and questions why Cupid hovers with an arrow poised above her, this point of enquiry may initiate the necessary input to shift the octave and avoid its natural tendency to decay after the note ‘mi’, i.e. Flora. When Cupid is perceived as a marker, Venus is then attained with the knowledge that her summary of love as a progression from lust, through passion to tenderness is not the full story. This does not have to be the human lot, with the Graces a merry-go-round of loves highs and lows, gains and losses; with Mercury guarding the end of this capriciousness and ultimately signifying the death of the individual who has gained no knowledge of the next octave.

Instead Venus, who was once seen as plainly the focus of the picture, can now appear as also the most distant, not only her physical position (set-back from the other figures), but her eyes suggest she is mentally removed, considering matters from a wider perspective. Cupid assists the recognition of this duality, taking the viewer’s eye out of the picture (towards heaven), but through his strung bow, throwing the viewer’s gaze back down (to earth). Cupid, therefore marks the first ‘semitone shock’ – love can be lifted to an idealised plane, the octave does not need to commence decay. The fracture in the natural octave is made visible and the viewer can choose which path to follow.

If the lighter path is chosen then the viewer perceives the three Graces in an idealised form, Pleasure, Chastity and Beauty, their true nature. While Mercury becomes guide to a higher sphere or octave. Again to identify the higher role of Mercury there is a marker – he holds a caduceus aloft. This is the hermetic staff which imparts the necessary ‘semitone shock’ to complete an ‘intelligent’ octave. {6}

The entwined serpents about this wand are gateway to ‘new’ knowledge which from the perspective of the human octave appears as magic. If the soul is trusting and has gained sufficient information to ‘square its possibilities; then Mercury can pave its way to achieve success to the next octave.

The entwined serpents about this wand are gateway to ‘new’ knowledge which from the perspective of the human octave appears as magic. If the soul is trusting and has gained sufficient information to 'square its possibilities’ then Mercury can pave its way to achieve success to the next octave.

La Primavera when perceived as the depiction of an intelligent octave, a ten note scheme, recalls Pythagoras’s sacred tetrad.

●   ●
●   ●   ●
●   ●   ●   ●

Thus, Zephyr, Chloris and Flora combine with Cupid on the base of the tetrad to raise carnal love to spiritual love, the plane of Venus, Pleasure and Chastity and thence to Beauty and Mercury. Here the known, that of recognized beauty joins with the unknown, mysterious, back-turned other.

“At this third stage then, the individual now has the potential to exceed his own time-scale and become part of a much greater entity. Consequently the individual himself is here represented by just one of the two pebbles. The second pebble represents the unknown, the opposite of this greatest of unions.

This is the Same and the Other of Platonic invention. Parallel examples of this sacred union are to be found expressed in many of the earlier-discussed forms of hermetic symbolism. On the Hebraic menorah it is represented by the two sets of three which constitute the six subordinate branches; in the Talmud it is described as the unification of the ‘sanctuary that is above’ and the ‘sanctuary that is below’, Zoroaster portrayed it as the final meeting with Good Mind through the medium of Truth; and, in the Chinese Book of Changes, which gives us what is perhaps the best description of all, the process is symbolized by the upper and lower trigrams of each of the sixty-four hexagrams.”11

The caduceus held aloft by Mercury in La Primavera becomes the triumphant symbol of this process of union, the culmination of the present octave and entrance to the next.

1 Use MOSAIC or an equivalent interface and point towards :- - this should be a stable page with access to the {7} WebLouvre Index. [See instead]

2 “La Primavera” dated between 1472 and 1486 with most experts favouring 1478.

3 Baldini (1986) p.87-94, Gomrich (1945) p.7 and Mandel (1970) p.92.

4 Baldini (1985) p.82.

5 Dempsey (1992) p.5

6 Baldini (1986), Gombrich (1945), Mandel (1970) and Newland & Rhodes (1994).

7 Gombrich (1945) p.16.

8 Baldini (1986) p.94.

9 Hayes (1994) p.88

10 Dempsey (1968) p.252.

11 Hayes (1994) p.86-87

Baldini, U. (1986) ‘Primavera: The Restoration of Botticelli’s Masterpiece’, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York.

Dempsey, C. (1992) ‘The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli’s Primavera and Humanist Culture at the Time of Lorenzo the Magnificent’, Princeton University press.

Gombrich, E.H. (1945) ‘Botticelli’s Mythologies: A Study in the Neoplatonic Symbolism of His Circle’ in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld institutes, vol. 8 pp7-60.

Hayes, M. (1994) ‘The Infinite harmony: Musical Structures in Science and Theology&rsquol, Weidenfeld and Nocolson, London.

Mandel, G. (1970) ‘The Complete Paintings of Botticelli’, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

Newland, P.M. and Rhodes P. (1994) ‘Primavera: Multimedia Interprets, CD-ROM Interactive Paper’ in Proceeding of the RADical, Research in Art & Design Conference, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. {8}