Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Body Is Hero



The Pagan Botticelli

The Minneapolis Institute of the Arts' current show Botticelli and Renaissance Florence: Masterworks from the Uffizi offers a profound meditation on the nature of Embodiment. Though focused largely on devotional works from Botticelli's later, Christian period, there is much here that will be of interest to pagans.

The artistic output of Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) falls into two major periods, broadly characterizable as Pagan and Christian. During the first, under the influence of pagan antiquity, he created the Pagan masterworks for which he is primarily known today, such as the Birth of Venus and Primavera. The MIA's show features one major, if enigmatic, canvas from this period, commonly known as Pallas and the Centaur (see above).



The exhibit does an excellent job of pairing Renaissance works with the Classical works that inspired them, and in this case—to this pagan eye, at least—Botticelli is outshone by a 1st century Roman centaur which actually manages to make the pairing of equine body with human torso and head eminently believable.

Pallas and the Centaur is a work of poised contrasts: male/female, wild/tame, body/spirit, animal/plant, naked/clothed, hairy/smooth, sensuality/purity. Though the Centaur's genitals are not shown, they are hinted at by his fine crop of pubic hair, where his man's body merges into the horse's. The Roman work, by comparison, frankly displays an admirable pizzle and a generous pair of testicles.


 File:Clay Centaur figurine, Early Archaic Period, Early 7th c. BC  (27939238613).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

(Interestingly, Archaic Greek art tends to show centaurs with human genitals, but later centaurs, with the increasing naturalism that characterizes High Classical style, invariably sport those of horses instead.)

Botticelli, though, is anything but unsubtle. Pallas (=Athena, Minerva)—if indeed it is she—is clothed in the sheerest of robes (Botticelli is a master of fabrics), and the golden flower “pasties” that she wears simultaneously cover, and draw the eye.

From naked to clothed is not so very far.


Naked Babies


Later in life, Botticelli fell under the influence of the fundamentalist preacher Savonarola, and his artistic output becomes rather less sensual and more pointedly Christian-devotional in nature. In the MIA exhibit, this period is represented primarily by Madonna-and-Childs (Madonnas-and-Child?) and what I refer to as “crowded Nativities.” But if you look closely, you will see here the Renaissance in microcosm: a Christianity ultimately transformed by the corrective resurgence of a vital, embodied Paganism.

This was the period when donors expected to be portrayed in the art for which they footed the bill, and Botticelli's Adorations of the Magi feature a veritable parade of de Medici faces and—although we often cannot identify them—other Big Names of contemporary Florence. Crowded with figures, these paintings are visual orgies of elaborate, expensive clothing. Botticelli's ability to depict fabrics is unsurpassed; the careful viewer can clearly distinguish between velvet, silk, and linen.

But at the heart of them all is skin, and a naked baby.


 Adoration of the Magi | C A T C H L I G H T

It's an interesting visual question: in a crowded field of clothed bodies, how do you distinguish the visual and conceptual heart of the composition, the holy baby, from all the rest?

Any witch could tell you the answer: skyclad.

The naked babies of Renaissance art tell a powerful story. The nudity of Christ, especially contrasted with the clothed bodies all around him, neatly articulates, in appropriately visual medium, the Christian doctrine of Incarnation: of “God” becoming flesh.


The Mystery of Embodiment


Don't be put off by the Christian language here. The Mystery of Embodiment—the making-tangible of the intangible—is central to pagan thought as well. What is existence? What are we? How does “spirit” become flesh, the intangible, tangible? What does it mean to be a body?

Of all this, the naked body is itself the affirming proof, the self-authenticating, articulate symbol.

Myself, I've always been a big proponent of nudity in ritual. The naked body is a natural focus of attention, and automatically creates a sense of sympathy in the viewer. It draws us in because the beauty and vulnerability resonate deep within us.

For pagans, the Body is Hero. What for Christians is valorized and particularized to Christ, for the pagan is generalized to each of us, and to existence at large. To exist is to be embodied.

Here, as in Botticelli's paintings, Pagan and Christian truths converge, in a bald declaration that should make us all, Pagan and Christian alike, feel just the slightest bit of unease: “God” is naked.

Any witch who has ever been to the Sabbat, if she would, could tell you as much.








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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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