Feature Stories

The Language of a Master

Botticelli rendition tells timeless story

Human nature is curious. To see a carving in a tree or writing on a cave wall is to wonder what it means. We're always searching for meaning in symbols and artifacts, and sometimes the answers are right before our eyes.


For inquisitive minds, especially those interested in the symbolism of Renaissance art, a visit to UIW's library is in order. The latest painting on display will stir your curiosity, as it is one of a kind. On generous loan from donors Dr. and Mrs. Glen McCreless, the new McCreless Art Gallery in the J.E. and L.E. Mabee Library now displays a variation of a painting created by one of the greatest artists of all time, Alessandro Botticelli.

“We were fascinated with this piece of Christian art and searched for a version we could obtain with the thought it should be housed in an institution that mirrored what the painting expressed,” says Glen McCreless, a San Antonio physician and supporter of the university. “It is simply natural that this painting be made part of a faith-based institution, and its inscription is further evidence that it belongs here.”

He adds, “Art experts we consulted in New York and London determined that this is very possibly a studio version of a painting by world-famous Florentine Renaissance painter Botticelli.” It may be hard to imagine that such a masterpiece is housed right here at UIW, but according to McCreless and his wife Andrea, “what better place is there than here.”

Botticelli is possibly best known for the “Birth of Venus” (1485), said to epitomize the spirit of the Renaissance. He is also the most represented artist in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. The introduction of this painting on campus places UIW in the company of Harvard University, the only other academic institution in the U.S. to house paintings believed to be created by master Botticelli. Harvard's Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, MA, holds two works thought to be Botticellis in its permanent collection. The rest reside in museums or with collectors around the world.

This particular painting is so spiritually powerful that when it was first previewed by a small group of art faculty and staff, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word present at the event sang Salve Regina in praise of all it expressed. Sr. Eilish Ryan, CCVI, director of the Pastoral Institute, remarked, “This image of the Virgin and Child is an exceptionally rich depiction of the central mystery of Christianity. It is a rare privilege to have a painting of such artistic significance and beauty on exhibit at UIW.”

The painting is called the “Madonna of the Book,” also known as the “Virgin and the Child,” and if it was indeed created by Botticelli, it would have emerged from his studio in the 1480s. Its gentle design depicts Mary with Child looking upon the Book of Hours, a popular book of prayers for laymen in the 13th through 16th centuries. As a symbol of his future passion, the Christ Child is holding three nails and a crown of thorns.

donors Dr. Glen and Andrea McCreless
“It is simply natural that this painting be made part of a faith-based institution.”
- donors Dr. Glen and Andrea McCreless

It is easy to be emotionally moved in its presence. As light hits the painting, soft color emerges and its delicate lines become clear and precise. The flesh tones of the faces of the Madonna and Christ Child provide a gentle foundation for the life-like expression of foreshadowing things to come. As you stand in front of the work, you understand it's much more than a picture - but rather a message.

As Madonna reads to the Child, it is as if Christ is teaching her about his own destiny. The Book of Hours translates from Chapter Luke to tell of the divinity of Christ. Great detail was applied to every aspect of the scene, using gold filigree to refine objects. Tempera made from egg yolk was used to make the paint that is skillfully applied to the 800-year-old wood panel surface. Symbols are embedded throughout the painting: the three nails, the crown of thorns, an oak tree crest, a purple “Papal-colored” robe -- even the type of fruit in the bowl - have special meanings that contribute to the story. An unusual light casts a mystical glow around the subjects, completing the experience for novice viewers and art aficionados alike.

“The painting is certainly symbolic of who we are,” says Dr. Louis J. Agnese, Jr., president of the university. “We feel a strong connection with its powerful message and what it depicts. We're very pleased that the painting will be displayed in our library because it is a fitting place of reverence for such a magnificent work of art.”

Sr. Kathleen Coughlin, CCVI, vice president of institutional advancement, points out that the arts have always been an integral part of our congregation's interest and spirituality. “What the McCreless family is making available to us reinforces the value of art throughout our UIW community and raises us to a whole new level.”

If you are familiar with the “Madonna of the Book,” then you may know that the original is thought to be housed in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, Italy. However, the Milan version is much smaller, about half the size of the version housed here, and it's somewhat less detailed. The version here is said to have three details of distinguishing significance, according to art professionals the McCrelesses consulted.

First, the rendition here is more elaborate, possibly because a wealthy family may have commissioned a more detailed piece than was first versioned. Second, the book's inscription is readable text of the Annunciation; the words in the Milan edition's Book are mostly illegible and considered decorative. Third, Botticelli's monogram - a rare find - is embedded in this painting's Book. There is said to be only one other painting in existence today with his signature monogram, and it's not the version in Milan.

During restoration as layers of paint were cleaned away, the monogram was revealed on either side of an oak tree crest. The crest is thought to be a symbol of the Pope. McCreless commented that artists of the time would never duplicate a signature monogram outside of the artist's own studio.

Oak Tree crest
Botticelli’s signature monogram in the oak tree crest as it appears in the Book of Hours.

Overall, art scholars have told McCreless “the circumstantial evidence is high” regarding the validity of this piece of art. Although this “Madonna of the Book” has been weathered and partially restored, it still contains elements characteristic of this period of Botticelli's art. Its style and composition appear to be distinctive and consistent with his other identified works, and point to the possibility that this painting might be authentic.

Botticelli (1446-1510), a colleague of Leonardo DaVinci and other period masters, flourished for many years in Florence, Italy, then considered the artist center of the universe. He established a workshop of students and invited them to participate in his paintings, contributing parts and duplicating his style. This was common among artists of the period, making it difficult to authenticate paintings with complete certainty. Even the Milan version is thought to have been created by several hands.

Botticelli's patrons included some of the city's most distinguished families. In 1481, he was among several artists the Pope called to Rome to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Botticelli brought his entire workshop of students and spent nearly a year painting 28 portraits of Popes and the three frescos that remain today, contributing more art to the project than even Michaelangelo.

After he returned to Florence, the artist's celebrity peaked. He created vivid religious works, among them, perhaps this “Madonna of the Book.” The exact facts remain a mystery, as does much of the symbolism and expressive works of that time. Still, we strive to unlock the secrets. We may never know for certain, but we do know we've been given a gift to experience this painting and decide for ourselves.

The “Madonna of the Book” is on exhibit in the McCreless Art Gallery in the J.E. and L.E. Mabee Library for an indefinite period. You may visit this work of art in its impressive installation at the left of the reference desk among other period paintings loaned by the McCrelesses. Appointments are recommended: call (210) 829-3837.