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Maria with the child and singing angels

Christmas Story, Image 212

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Audio transcription

Benjamin Britten composed „A Hymn to the Virgin“ when was just 17 years old. Yet the double four-part movement with half of the choir singing in English, the other in Latin radiates maturity, composure, even tranquility. This movement draws from an anonymous poem written in the thirteenth century and recorded in the Oxford Book of English Verse. It glorifies Mary as the luminous counter figure to sinner Eve, „brighter than the day is light“, „flow’r of everything“, „queen of paradise“ and „maid mild, mother“. And it continues: „The well springeth out of thee / Virtutis“.

Sandro Botticelli visually presents these features of the godmother in his circular painting: Mary’s face, tranquil and solemn and the ideal of worldly feminine beauty, bears an indistinct expression that conveys depth and melancholy. The celestial queen gently holds Jesus, the son of God, in her arms, wrapped in her magnificent blue mantle. The child, looking directly at the viewer, grabs Mary’s breast that offers golden milk. Botticelli paints the scene with incredible detail. The godmother is the compassionate mother of the sacrifice that Jesus is determined to be. She, the mother of all humankind, bestows virtue and salvation.

Surrounded by singing angels and white lilies, symbols of purity and Botticelli’s hometown Florence, crowned by heaven, Mary takes the middle of this supertemporal representational painting. She rests within herself and pacifies the complete scene. The peace of Christmas reigns.

Auf dem Bild, das auf einer runden Fläche gemalt ist, sitzt Maria in der Mitte. Sie trägt einen blauen Mantel, ein rotes Gewand und hat über ihr gelocktes Haar einen transparenten Schleier gebreitet. Ihr Kopf ist leicht geneigt, ihr Blick richtet sich zwar in Richtung der Betrachter, geht aber durch sie hindurch. 
Auf Marias Schoß sitzt, den Schoß in eine Windel gewickelt, das Christuskind. Den Blick hat es direkt in Richtung des Betrachters gewendet, beide Hände umfassen Marias rechte Brust. Wenn man genau hinsieht, kann man erkennen, dass aus dieser Brust, fein wie ein Sprühregen, goldene Milch fließt. Über Marias Kopf tut sich der Himmel auf Zwei Hände halten eine Krone, als wollten sie die Mutter Gottes krönen. 
Rechts und links von Maria und dem Christuskind sind jeweils vier Engel zu sehen. Sie alle sind kostbar gekleidet, im Stil fiorentinischer Renaissancebürgers. Sie alle halten einen Lilienstengel mit mehreren offenen weißen Lilienblüten in der Hand. Die Engel auf der linken Bildseite haben den Mund geschlossen, die Engel auf der rechten Seite richten ihren Blick in ein blau gebundenes Büchlein, ein Notenbüchlein. Sie singen, was man an ihren geöffneten Mündern und ihrem konzentrierten Gesichtsausdruck gut erkennen kann.

Full Length Music

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Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
„A Hymn to the Virgin“
RIAS Kammerchor Berlin


Maria with the child and singing angels (around 1478),
Sandro Botticelli,
Poplar wood,
136.5 × 136.0 cm

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Dietmar Gunne

Detail, Golden milk

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Audio transcription

From an interview with Neville Rowley, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

The child squeezes his mother’s breast, from which golden milk sprays.

The golden milk was meant to be seen. At the same time it was hidden to avoid all that nudity. Botticelli has painted other naked women, such as his Venus who’s in the same room at Gemäldegalerie. But nakedness wasn’t acceptable for Mary.

The audience of viewers of the time could clearly see baby Jesus squeezing her nipple. It is partly veiled by Mary’s dress and the baby’s shadow, but just as visible as that commonly known yet intimate gesture.

Detail, Maria's face

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Audio transcription

From an interview with Neville Rowley, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

She is very melancholy.

She looks at us, but in a different way than baby Jesus or the angel on the left. She doesn’t really look, she’s elsewhere in her thoughts.

So why is Mary sad? In Florence and in Italian Renaissance art this is often attributed to her knowing that her child will die far too early and for the sake of humankind. That’s her mission, she’s bound to be passive and to endure. Several theologists and artists have interpreted this knowingness, and Botticelli was clearly one of the most important artists of that time.

Detail, Teams of Angels

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Audio transcription

From an interview with Gregor Meyer, artistic assistant of the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

There are clearly two teams of young angels, as if sung polyphonically or antiphonally. This special piece by Britten with two choirs who sing in two languages. The large choir sings in English, while four individual singers – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – form an echo choir who sings in Latin.

On the right, there are four angels who read or scribe into a book. Their mouths are open as they sing or speak. The other four angels on the left linger, eager to respond. Their lips are closed, that’s the antiphonal side to it.

Maria with the child and singing angels
Main floor, Room XVIII