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The Lewis Legacy-Issue 83, Winter 2000

What Did C. S. Lewis Say about Botticelli?

And Who Said So?
This is the sidebar that supplements “Spring in Purgatory: Dante,
Botticelli, C. S. Lewis, and a Lost Masterpiece”

The Allegory of Love: a Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1936), p. 83. “No religion, so long as it is believed, can have that kind of beauty [the beauty of pagan gods, ‘pure aesthetic contemplation of their eternity, their remoteness, and their peace, for its own sake’] which we find in the gods of Titian, of Botticelli, or of our own romantic poets.”

Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 68. In his essay “The Idea of an “English School” Lewis says, “Ovid’s erotic poetry, received by our culture, becomes the poetry of Courtly Love; his mythological poetry becomes the wonder tales of Chaucer and Gower, the allegorical and astrological pantheon of Fulgentius and Lydgate, the gods of Botticelli, Titian, and Tintoretto, the emblematic deities of masque and ballet and pantomime, and the capitalized abstractions of eighteenth-century verse.”

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1954). p. 89. Writing about Gavin Douglas’s Palice of Honour (1501) in Book I, “The Close of the Middle Ages in Scotland,” Lewis says it begins with a salvo of mythology and personification; but the shining figures that move across Douglas’s sky are as unconventional and meaningful the similar figures in Botticelli.

An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), pp. 18-19. In chapter 3, “How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music,” Lewis says, “We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966). On p. 165 Lewis says, “by Spenser’s time [the loves of Mars and Venus] had come to symbolize the victory of beauty over strength and peace over war. This is what the story meant to Lucretius and Plutarch; and to Botticelli, in whose picture the profound sleep of Mars and the waking tranquility of Venus powerfully present ‘the linaments of gratified desire’ — not their desire only, but that of all creation.”

Spenser’s Images of Life (Cambridge: University Press, 1969), pp. 9, 10, 11, 20, 78, 114. On p. 9 Lewis says, “The great Italian mythical pictures are deeply influenced by the views of the Florentine Neoplatonists, so that it is hardly an exaggeration to speak of philosophical iconography. Note: A good example of a work in this tradition is Botticelli’s Primavera the philosophical meaning of which is illuminatingly discussed by professor Wind in Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, ch. 7.” On pp. 10-11 Lewis says, “If we want to know whether an artist could work under such iconographical chains, with their innumerable fine links of predetermined detail, we have only to look for our answer to Botticelli. Far from imprisoning, iconography was for him an inheritance that set him free to be an artist. His art is original — but only as art. Accepting traditional images, he loads them with wisdom from the philosophers and disposes them in divine compositions.”

When it came time to find out what C. S. Lewis had said about Botticelli in every book other than All My Road before Me, I knew that friend Doug Beyer, Pastor Emeritus of First Baptist Church in Temple City, CA, was the person to ask. In the past couple of years he had quietly scanned all of Lewis’s books into his computer. The Winter 1999 issue of the Lamp-Post of the Southern California contains an article by Doug called “Seeing Hell through the reason and imagination of C. S. Lewis” and the following announcement:
“February 16, 2000. Douglas Beyer will demonstrate his complete Lewis works in digital format. Come with the Lewis quotes for which you can’t remember the source and he’ll try to find them for you. Doug has put many hours [months?] into this project. It is his alone. He can’t sell it, lend it, or give it away. We would love the copyright owners to see the benefit of making this available to the rest of us scholars.”