The Third Coming of Christ

Merry Christmas! Today is Christmas Eve and we celebrate our dear Savior’s birth. What better work of art to examine on this day than the nativity of our Lord? This masterpiece was painted by the Italian Renaissance master, Sandro Botticelli, in 1501. As with many paintings of this era and style, there is a plethora of symbolism embedded in the image. Let’s start at the top and work our way down.

At the top is an inscription in Greek that tells of the end of all things. Botticelli believed he was living during the apocalyptic “Great Tribulation,” a time spoke of in the book of Revelation when everyone would experience hardships and sufferings, followed by judgment day and Christ’s return. Botticelli was sure Christ would return in 1504. This belief influenced his artwork and was substantiated in his mind by the various wars going on at the time and the hanging of an apocalyptic preacher whom Botticelli followed named Savonarola.

The 12 angels under the inscription are dancing in a circle entwined with scrolls, crowns, and olive branches—a symbol of peace. The heavens have opened above them as a great golden dome. Below these joyous angels are three more sitting atop the roof dressed in white, green, and red, which are, respectively, the symbols of faith, hope, and charity.

In the stable, the infant Christ reaches for his mother. These two figures are larger in perspective than the surrounding figures. This is to indicate their importance in the composition. The Christ-child lies on a sheet that evokes the shroud in which his body will one day be wrapped, and the stable is placed in front of two big rocks—a reminder of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The Kings on the left bear no gifts but their devotion. The angel in pink behind them is holding an olive branch with a scroll attached to it. She reaches to Joseph to introduce him to the three wise men. I’m not sure what’s going on with Joseph. To me, it looks like he is asleep. On the right, another angel points the three shepherds toward the babe to whom they have come to pay their respects.

At the bottom of the painting, angels embrace three men, celebrating that, because of the Christ child, the chasm between heaven and earth has been mended and peace is ushered in. Each angel holds a scroll which proclaims in Latin, “Peace on earth to men of goodwill.”

Did you notice the demons at the feet of these angels? Seven of them flee to the underworld, some impaled by their own weapons. This shows the defeat of Satan. The imps are relatively small in size to indicate their lack of importance. In this painting, Botticelli has linked the first coming of Christ (as a baby) with the second coming of Christ (on judgment day). According to art historian Jonathan Nelson, this painting “is asking us to think not only of Christ’s birth but of his return.” And at his return, all evil will be defeated, humankind and angels will dance and hug in celebration, and peace will reign on earth.

In one painting, Botticelli gives us a lesson in the two comings of Christ, but it has been suggested that there are actually three comings of Christ. In a sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, he says there are three comings of Christ for which we must prepare: the first is when Jesus come in flesh as a human; the second is at the end of time; and the third, Clairvaux says, “lies between the other two.” The third coming of Christ is when he is born in our hearts.  

Being Human connection: In the song, Born in Me, we hear Mary pondering the news that she will bear the Son of God. She sings to her unborn child: “I’ll hold you in the beginning; You will hold me in the end; Every moment in the middle; Make my heart your Bethlehem; Be born in me.” Isn’t that beautiful?

May your heart be the Bethlehem of our Lord. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” -Ephesians 3:16-17

Featured art: Sandro Botticelli, Mystic Nativity, 1501, The National Gallery, London