In everybody’s list of the world’s most beautiful paintings, you will certainly find Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera. It is one of those paintings that combine a transcendental beauty of shape with an intangible, hidden meaning. In this connection, you may want to know that the painting, although undoubtedly from the hand of the master, was not signed by him, nor does it have a title. It was titled Primavera (Spring) by the first art critic Vasari in 1550. A mysterious masterwork, in other words.
We can imagine that the meaning of this painting has been given much thought in the course of time, and so we can find a special chapter about this in Richard Foster’s bookThe secret life of paintings. In this chapter, he observes, for instance, that a special relation exists between this painting and the harmonies in the octave as passed on via Pythagoras and Plato to Marsilio Ficino, the founder of the Academy of Cosimo de Medici in Florence. Botticelli was a member of this Academy.
But there is more. In his book The intelligent Enneagram, Anthony Blake describes how each of the octave’s notes corresponds with one of the figures in the Primavera. He adds that Renaissance paintings often had to be ‘read’ like a book, because each flower, each gesture and each colour had a particular meaning, which had to be considered by the onlooker. This had something to do with what Gurdjieff called ‘objective art’, i.e. art that at all times had something to say to the onlooker, and was not limited to having an effect at a particular time and for particular people.
All this made me take a closer look at this work of art in the light of the octave. To do this, we need to go through a few points:
1. What is an octave?
You may remember that do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do form an octave, but that it is unknown what these sounds represent. Perhaps you also know that intervals occur in the octave, namely between re-mi and si-do. Chapter 7 of In Search of the Miraculousdiscusses this subject thoroughly.
The names of the octave can be derived from (see A. Blake):
DO – DOminus
SI – SIdera
LA – via LActea
SOL – SOL
FA – FAta
MI – MIcrocosmos
RE – REgina coelum
DO – DOminus
So here you can see the names appear of what Gurdjieff and Ouspensky call the Ray of Creation:
Do – the Absolute
Si – all Galaxies
La – this Milky Way
Sol – Sun
Fa – Planets
Mi – Earth
Re – Moon
Do – the Absolute
2. In Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, the octave is called the Heptaparaparshinokh and described as follows: “The stream of powers follows a line, which is interrupted at regular intervals, the ends of which are united again.”(p 543)
3. A white ray of light is composed of 7 different colours, which Newton (1700) and Castel (1750) connected with the notes of the octave: do – blue, re – green, mi – yellow, fa – orange, sol – red, la – purple, si – indigo, do – blue. (Music and the Occult, Joscelyn Godwin)
If you look at the picture of the Primavera and start on the right side, you meet the god Zephyr (Do), painted in a blue colour, god of the west wind, who breathes the breath of life into Demeter (Re). She is the goddess of the earth, fertility, and of the water too, because she was the wife of Poseidon. A green twig grows from the corner of her mouth. This takes us one step on our way into the octave: Zephyr is the Do, he is the breath of life breathing all through the painting, and he is painted blue, the beginning of the colour spectrum. Demeter receives this breath and starts to move as an aqueous, greenish figure, not quite knowing where she is going, moving her body forward, but her face backward, so in a sort of dissonance with herself. If we strike both Do and Re together on the piano, the disharmony this creates will hurt us. In Demeter, we will also recognise the aqueous quality of the Moon, who as the lowest step of creation receives and sends back the Earth’s influences.
The next step is Flora (Mi), nature, who walks about exaltedly in the glory of all that grows. She actually has a somewhat more yellow complexion and after the disharmony of Re, we think that Mi accords very well with Do. Confidently, she faces the course of events, she is the glorious Earth.
Then we encounter an interval between Mi and Fa, and hence we see that Venus is placed a little bit to the back in the whole of the figures. She is watching silently, with the stereotype gesture of Botticelli’s madonnas, thus uniting the Christian with the classical. According to Ficino, she is the Venus Coelestis, who had a heavenly father, but no mother. She is the centre of the painting, also reflected by the background, surrounding her like a kind of alcove, with Cupid above her head. This way, she also forms the apex of a triangle, as it were, the third point. This is a clear indication, in my opinion, towards the function of the interval in the octave, to form a bridge from Mi to Fa, so that the original Do’s continuity can go on and is not broken nor changes direction.
Because between these two notes, there is no semitone. There is a lacuna, a silence, waiting for an impulse from outside to keep the flow in the right direction. This is expressed by the silent figure of Venus in the middle. Her orange-red colour already announces the next note Sol, for the octave is always in motion.
In the next group of figures, three figures are standing together, but each one is painted very individually. They are the three Graces from antiquity, who are a mystery in itself. They accompany Venus. Therefore, they can be seen as the three aspects of heavenly love: active, contemplative and sensitive.
The right figure is dynamic, elegant and wears a jewel around her neck. She is looking at her sister (La) facing her. This way, she is the Fa in the octave. Ficino describes this Fa as follows: “The Fa drops off from the Mi, and is somewhat dissonant therefore; but still not like the Re, because he is tempered by the lovely arrival of the Sol…” The middle of the three is the contemplative one (Sol), she wears no jewel, the reddish hair is simple. She does not look at her sisters, but to the figure at the left, Mercury (Si), as if she does not want to stop the octave in the tête-à-tête of the three of them. Furthermore, she is shot at by the blind Cupid, which I will discuss later. About the Sol, Ficino says: “The Sol rises in greater perfection, because it is the conclusion of the upward motion.”
The remaining Grace (La) is the sensitive one. She has a larger jewel and loose hair, she looks back at her sister (Fa) and at Flora (Mi) and also has the richness of Flora. Ficino: “The followers of Pythagoras say that after the Sol, the notes return to previous notes rather than rise, this way the quality of La agrees very well with Mi’s quality of gentle surrender.”
Then Mercury (Si), the winged Hermes, god of reason, healing and script. His colour verges on purple, to return to the spectrum to blue. Ficino says that he returns to the dissonance of the second note Re, because playing Si-Do together will also produce a painful sound. But while Demeter (Re) looks back at Zephyr (Do), Mercury looks at his caduceus, for making the connection with Cupid (Do), because he sticks it into the golden apple, symbol of love and unity.
As said earlier, Gurdjieff describes the octave as a stream of powers, the ends of which unite again. Ficino speaks about the oval-shaped nature of the octave, with Sol as its highest point.
In this way, Cupid, like Zephyr, flies into the painting from outside, as two unlimited ends. He shoots at the Sol to indicate that that is the most perfect point in the octave everyone longs for if you hear the triad Do – Mi – Sol – Do. Cupid connects heaven and earth.
In Ouspensky’s teaching of the Ray of Creation, he explains that it is man’s task on earth to rise to the level of consciousness of the sun and that if we cannot bridge the interval between Mi and Fa by picking up an outside impulse to break out of our mechanicalness, we will not reach this Sun, but slip back from Mi to Re, the Moon. According to this teaching, it is the Moon that is hanging on the Ray of Creation like the weight of a clock, where one of its tasks is to absorb the radiation of all our mechanical actions. Our life could literally ‘go to the Moon’ (this Dutch expression means: be wrecked, go down the drain), and the pattern of Do-Re-Mi-Re-Do-Re-Mi, etc. is rather a well-know fact… (see chapter 7 of In Search of the Miraculous).
We have seen how in this particular mysterious painting, the seven notes of the octave, the seven colours of the spectrum, and the seven steps of the Ray of Creation have come together and have formed a unity, and there is an unlimited number of other possible viewpoints. When Ficino speaks about the oval-shaped octave, it is not very hard for me to see something of this in this painting. I mean that if the eye follows the nine figures from left to right over the canvas, from Zephyr to Cupid, a cyclical movement will start, which will continue for as long as you do it. Then a multidimensional world will appear, in which the entire painting begins to live. No explanation, such as this one, or words can describe what you then feel or understand. I believe that only then the actual meaning comes out.
G.I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson
P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous
A.G.E. Blake, The Intelligent Enneagram, Shambala, 1996
R. Forster, The Secret Life of Paintings, the Boydell Press, 1986
Marcilio Ficino, Letter to Domenico Benivieni, unpublished
Joscelyn Godwin, Music and the Occult, University of Rochester Press, 1995