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Lewis, the Mystic Nativity, and the Millennium

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 81, Summer 1999 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

C. S. Lewis expressed more interest in Sandro Botticelli paintings than any others. Botticelli’s “Mystic Nativity,” the only painting he signed, is the focal point of a National Gallery millennium exhibition. According to spokesman Nicholas Penny, “…the National Gallery has the only true Millennial painting ever made. There are lots of depictions of the end of the world, but this is the only important work which thinks intelligently about the change in the date.”

According to Botticelli’s inscription in Greek at the top of the painting, he painted it in 1500 to observe the half-millennium. At the bottom of the painting seven small devils are vanquished as three men and angels embrace. In the center of the painting the Holy Family in the stable is flanked by three wise men and three shepherds. The family is blessed by three angels dressed in white, green, and red, the colors of faith, hope, and charity. Above them angels in heaven are dancing in a ring. (This is the painting on the cover of Lindskoog’s 1998 book Dante’s Divine Comedy, Journey to Joy: Paradise.)

On 28 August 1922 C. S. Lewis wrote in his diary, I took the desperate resolve of entering the National Gallery, where I finally came to the conclusion that I have no taste for painting. I could make nothing of the Titians. The only thing (besides portraits) that I cared for much were Botticelli’s Mars and Venus with satyrs, and Veronese’s… “Unfaithfulness” in which I liked the design tho’ I confess the actual figures always seem dull to me. However, the Italian rooms are nothing like so boring as the English.” He later referred to Botticelli in Allegory of Love, Rehabilitations, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, An Experiment in Criticism, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and Spenser’s Images of Life.