"Giorgione is regarded as a unique figure in the history of art: almost no other Western painter has left so few secure works and enjoyed such fame..." Sylvia Ferino-Pagden.

My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; and Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Renaissance Society Conference 2014

I was really looking forward to attending the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America that was held this year in New York City from March 27 to 29. This conference was the sixtieth in the RSAs history and because of the location turned out to be the largest in the Society’s history. The program book came to over 800 pages although an app was available for easy reference.

I was especially interested because the conference program showed a heavy emphasis on the art of the Venetian Renaissance. On Friday alone there were four consecutive sessions under the title, “Art, Architecture, and the Artist in Renaissance Venice.” In addition there was an early morning roundtable discussion entitled, “Early Modern Venetian Studies in the Twenty-First Century.”

I was only able to attend on Friday but looked forward to hearing from a mixture of leading scholars in the field and younger scholars anxious to establish their credentials. Before going any further I have to say that the panels I attended turned out to be disappointing for a variety of reasons that I will discuss below.

First, let me discuss the roundtable mentioned above. The abstract indicated that “this panel will bring together an international, interdisciplinary group of top scholars working in Venetian studies today to examine the current state of the field and to look forward to future directions of research.” There was indeed a distinguished group of professors from various distinguished universities who in turn briefly discussed their own work but in no way indicated any future directions in the field of Venetian studies.

One significant omission was the lack of any discussion of the role of the Internet. In his introduction the chairman of the panel spoke at length about a new publication of material from Venetian archives. Apparently, the publisher has printed less than a hundred copies of what sounded like a huge tome. Depending on demand a less expensive paperback version might be available in a few years.

Is this where Renaissance studies are going? Why shouldn’t this book be instantly and inexpensively available to a much wider audience? Medieval manuscripts used to be available only to a few until the appearance of moveable type. Why did these scholars fail to discuss the Internet and its uses in the twenty first century?

In the question period one member of the audience asked if Venetian studies might go into decline in this century after a meteoric rise in the past century. This question finally elicited a spirited if inconclusive discussion among the panel. Ironically, the discussion came to an end after an Italian scholar in the audience lamented the decline of modern Venice. Actually, he claimed that Venice was dying, not so much because of the threatening waters but from contemporary mis-management and corruption. It was a somber end to the roundtable.

I will only say a few words about the next two panels I attended, both under the title, “Art. Architecture, and the Artist in Renaissance Venice.” First, the future of Venetian studies would appear to include an excessive interest in funerary tombs and monuments. It is as if scholars, both old and new, believe that all that needs to be said about the great masterworks of the Venetian Renaissance has been said. Now they will work in fallow fields of little artistic value.

Second, one of the speakers gave an example of how not to present a paper at a conference. She did choose a large subject and even warned that she might have too much material. Participants are limited to a twenty-minute presentation and usually you can only read ten pages in that time. So one would expect that that the paper be edited carefully and discussion limited to a few examples. Instead, the professor just chose to read her entire paper at breakneck speed. What could she have been thinking of?

Finally, my day ended with another roundtable, a kind of summing up of the Art and Architecture series. This roundtable included a number of other luminaries. The room was packed with expectant listeners. The tone, however, was set by one of the three chairpersons who introduced each of the eight participants at length. Her introduction took almost 20 minutes of the allotted 90. I frankly can’t remember anything that was said by any of the participants. It was an exercise in non-controversy.

I do remember that they were all women, a fact pointed out by someone in the audience during the question period. Most of the people in the room were also women. Art History has become a province for women. This issue was never raised at the conference. What is the special appeal of Venice and its art to women? Why are men not interested? Maybe these questions could be addressed at a future conference.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Raphael, Giorgione, and the Flight into Egypt

This week I will attend the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America to be held in nearby New York City. Four years ago I presented my interpretation of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt" to a small panel at another RSA annual meeting held that year in Venice on the 500 hundredth anniversary of Giorgione's death.

A few months later I discovered that a fledgling art history blog named "Three Pipe Problem" had posted a discussion of another interpretation of the famous painting. My comment on the site initiated a whole series of comments by the mysterious "H" and some others. Our lively back and forth led to private communication and I discovered that "H" was Hasan Niyazi, a passionate admirer of the art of the Renaissance.

Hasan was especially enamoured of Raphael. His Giorgione post originally appeared on his site on July 28, 2010 and in one of his responses to me he wrote,

I indeed admire Raphael but primarily because he was possessed of a precocious talent and applied himself voraciously and passionately to his work. He also seemed genuinely fond of antiquity, evidenced by his adventures in the Domus Aureus, and depicting himself as Apelles in Causarum Cognito.
My favorite image of his is actually the tiny painting he did of the Three Graces (Charities), modeled on the Roman statue you can now see in Siena.
His Madonnas are pretty, but I feel no spiritual stirring when I look at them. Margarita Luti herself is more fascinating to me than who she was posing as for Raphael.

At the time I knew little about Raphael but in the course of my work on the "Tempest" I did discover that he had a keen interest in depicting episodes on the flight into Egypt. In the next three years Hasan and I engaged in some cross pollination. His knowledge of Raphael was of great value to me, and I like to think that my work on Giorgione and "sacred subjects" was of great value to him. He particularly liked the post I reproduce below on Raphael, Giorgione and the Flight into Egypt.

Raphael: The Holy Family under a Palm Tree*

In the first decade of the 16th century the work of Raphael indicates a strong interest in episodes on the Flight into Egypt. During his Florentine period (1504-1508) Raphael did at least two versions of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."

One is a tondo, the “Holy Family under a Palm Tree,” dated c. 1506/7 and currently on loan since 1945 to Scotland’s National Gallery. This painting reflects the naturalism that Italian artists liked to bring to the subject, but also an increased importance for St. Joseph.The prominent palm tree in the background is the only reference that Raphael gives to the popular apocryphal legends surrounding the flight. According to the legend the palm or date tree bent down at the command of the Child so that Joseph could pick its fruit and feed his wife.

In the foreground Joseph is not depicted as a little old man off to the side in search of food. He has been given a prominent position front and center. He holds his simple pilgrim’s staff but is dressed in royal purple and gold. He is no longer a doddering old man and seems capable of protecting the Madonna and Child. Surely, his prominence reflects the growing importance of Joseph in the first decade of the century for Raphael’s patron as well as for most believers.

Raphael: The Holy Family with the Young St. Joseph

Another Raphael “Rest” is the “Holy Family with the Young St. Joseph” in the Hermitage and dated around 1506. The three figures are in an enclosure that looks out on a landscape. Again Joseph is not depicted as a decrepit old man but as a beardless middle-ager.

These two versions of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” are only a hint of the interest of Raphael and his patrons in the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt. Many of the great Madonnas that Raphael painted during his Florentine period are depictions of the meeting of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt.

In Legends of the Madonna Mrs. Anna Jameson gave the background for this legendary meeting.**

Thus, it is related that among the children whom Herod was bent on destroying, was St. John the Baptist; but his mother Elizabeth fled with him to a desert place, and being pursued by the murderers, “the rock opened by a miracle, and closed upon Elizabeth and her child;” which means, as we may presume, that they took refuge in a cavern, and were concealed within it until the danger was over. (356)

Mrs. Jameson added that this meeting has led to some confusion in the minds of artists as well as viewers.

It is nowhere recorded, either in Scripture or in the legendary stories, that Mary and Joseph, in their flight were accompanied by Elizabeth and the little St. John; therefore, where either of these are introduced, the subject is not properly a Riposo, whatever the intention of the painter may have been…366.

Many of Raphael’s most famous Madonnas are versions of this meeting despite their popular appellations.

Painted in 1505 the “Terranuova Madonna” (Berlin, Staatliche Museum, Gemaldegalerie) shows the Infant Christ perusing the scroll presented by the Baptist. The writing clearly refers to the Lamb of God. Inexplicably, another infant looks on. In the left background is a city that represents Judea, and in the right background are the rocks that formed the hiding place of the Baptist.

In 1506 the famous “Belvedere Madonna” (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) shows the Christ Child accepting the sacrificial cross from the kneeling Baptist. Again they are in a landscape with a city in the background.

In the “La Belle Jardiniere” of 1507 (Paris, Louvre) the Christ Child looks up at his mother as John announces the mission. In a study Raphael has Christ looking directly at John.

Dated about 1507 the “Canigiani Holy Family” (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) is a much more elaborate version of the “Encounter with the Baptist.” With obvious reference to depictions of this scene by Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael adds Elizabeth and a prominent Joseph with his staff and golden robe.

Also in 1507 “The Holy Family with a Lamb” (Madrid, Prado) substitutes a lamb for the Baptist. Again in gold Joseph leans on his staff and observes the child riding the lamb.

Finally, around the end of the Florentine period Raphael painted the “Esterhazy Madonna” (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts). The Infant Christ points to the scroll.

What explains the popularity of the “Encounter with the Baptist on the Return from Egypt” in the first decade of the 16th century? It was common to transpose the events of Christ’s maturity to his infancy. The meeting with John the Baptist at the river Jordan is reflected in this earlier meeting on the return from Egypt. John's words, "Behold the Lamb of God," marked the beginning of the salvific mission of Jesus.

Raphael’s interest in these desert scenes reflected the devotion of wealthy patrons as well as humble worshippers. Who can doubt that Giorgione and his patrons did not share the same interest? In the Tempest Giorgione went far beyond the standard image of the “Rest on the Flight” but all the iconographical elements are there.

Vasari described Giorgione as a painter of Madonnas and portraits. The same description could apply to Raphael in the first decade of the 16th century. At the height of what later would be called the High Renaissance both young masters were responding to the great demand for sacred subjects like the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."


Note: Shortly before his tragic, early death Hasan Niyazi had done a post on Raphael's Madonna of the Cardellino (Goldfinch). In one of his last messages to me he thanked me for a comment on the post and indicated that his Raphael favorite had changed since 2010.

Thank you for the kind comment. You may be aware that the Madonna del Cardellino is my favorite Raphael.

*The source for the attributions and dating of the Raphael paintings in this post is Jean-Pierre Cuzin, "Raphael, His Life and Works," 1985.

**Mrs. Anna Jameson:" Legends of the Madonna," Boston, 1885.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Jesus and Mary Magdalen

When my wife and I travel to visit family, I always like to look into local museums if time allows. Recently we spent the whole month of February in the San Francisco bay area primarily to help our youngest daughter who was expecting her first child. Although she was two weeks late in delivering, mother and baby boy Jacob are doing well. We were doubly fortunate since our home state of Connecticut experienced the worst February weather in years.

We did not get to visit any of San Francisco’s noted museums but we did attend Mass regularly at St. Joseph’s Basilica on the island of Alameda across the bay from the city. The large colorful stained glass windows of the Church are interesting examples of Christian iconography, as well as a kind of window into the art history of the early twentieth century in America. The original Gothic church in Alameda, that dated back to the latter half of the nineteenth century burned to the ground in 1919. Back then the church primarily served Alameda’s Irish community and it would appear that they lost little time in rebuilding. The new church was built in California Mission style and the new windows reflected a mixture of traditional Catholic themes as well as a hint of the liturgical reform movement that had been launched by Pope Pius X a decade earlier.

St. Joseph's Basilica, Alameda*

All the windows depict events from the life of Christ. This may seem obvious but it was not always the case back in an age dominated by glass artisans like Tiffany. It was common then to see church windows devoted to the lives of saints or even secular subjects like prominent men and women or pretty landscapes. The spiritual revival that followed the end of the First World War led many architects and designers to reject nineteenth century models and reach back to the era of the early Middle Ages for inspiration.

So on one side of St. Joseph’s Basilica the windows depict scenes from the infancy of Christ. The first is a depiction of the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, a scene made famous by Raphael in his Sposalizio. Next is an Annunciation, followed by the Visitation. In the latter scene the pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who is also with child. In a departure from tradition Elizabeth kneels before Mary and her Child. I had never seen a kneeling Elizabeth before.

Visitation, St. Joseph's Basilica, Alameda

The actual Nativity is saved for another place and the next window depicts the Presentation of the baby Jesus to the aged Simeon in the Temple. Then, the fifth window depicts the Flight into Egypt where Joseph leads Mother and Child astride the familiar ass to safety. Joseph, the patron saint of the Basilica, is in all of these windows.

On the other side of the church five windows depict an unusual selection of scenes from the life of Christ. In the first he presents the keys to St. Peter while the second is the healing of the blind man. Then we see Christ with Martha and Mary followed by another miracle, the raising from the dead of the son of the widow. Finally, Christ meets Mary Magdalen in the garden after the Resurrection.

The Risen Christ with Mary Magdalen
St. Joseph's Basilica, Alameda

This last image deserves comment since it contains some unique features. It could easily be mistaken for a meeting between Christ and his Mother. Their attitudes are calm and both are dressed sedately. However, Christ holds a staff that could represent a gardening implement. Mary Magdalen initially mistook him for a gardener. Also, the Magdalen looks up into his eyes in a way never associated with his Mother. Although there is no trace of the nudity or flamboyance that can be seen in Titian’s “Noli me Tangere”, the depiction is full of emotion.

With his right hand Christ firmly grasps the Magdalen’s wrist to prevent her touching him, but the fingers of his left hand can be seen behind her head in a very tender gesture. I have never seen this before and it seems to me to be more moving than anything done by even the greatest Renaissance masters.

The Basilica of St. Joseph was built in cruciform style and there are three windows that can be seen in the transept. As one faces the altar the right transept contains a Nativity, the beginning of Christ’s stay on earth, and on the left there is an Ascension, the end of his earthly sojourn. Right above the altar is a Crucifixion with Madonna, St. John, and Mary Magdalen at the foot of the Cross. We can imagine the pastor, architect, and window artisan agreeing back in 1919 that the image above the altar should coincide with the sacrifice on the altar at every Mass.

There are five other windows that deserve mention. In the transept two windows can only be seen from the Altar. One depicts the Good Shepherd, and the other depicts “Christ Knocking at the Door”, a popular nineteenth century subject. In the original baptistry at the back of the church there are two windows, one a traditional Baptism of Christ, and the other a depiction of Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Finally, in the choir loft there is a window that depicts Christ pointing to his Sacred Heart and appearing to St. Margaret Mary, a French nun.

The windows of St. Joseph’s not only depict traditional scenes from the life of Christ but they also provide insights into the spirituality of the people who rebuilt the church in Alameda after the fire of 1919. As I said above, the church was primarily made up of descendants of Irish immigrants who had come to California in the previous century. The choice of windows was probably a joint decision between the pastor, architect, and window studio. The laity were rarely involved but all the windows do represent contemporary devotional subjects.
Today, the Irish priests are gone and the new pastor is a dynamic young priest from India. The associate priest is from Vietnam, and a young Deacon is of Mexican ancestry. They reflect an extremely diverse and enthusiastic community that has arisen from many traditions. Still, the beautiful windows link them all together to a history that goes back to the early days of the Church.


* Please excuse the poor quality of my photos.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Venice in 1500



It is hard to imagine today but in the year 1500 Venice was the greatest power on the European continent. Founded in the fifth century by refugees seeking the protection of its lagoons from barbarian invaders, the city had become the leading commercial power in the Mediterranean world by the fifteenth century, especially after it had emerged victorious in its life and death struggle with archrival Genoa. Subsequently, Venice became much more than a sea power by gradually extending its dominion over the various cities in the surrounding mainland, the so-called Veneto. This process was largely completed by 1500 and Venice was even beginning to make incursions into the Papal States.

In 1500 none of the other cities in Renaissance Italy could compare with Venice in wealth, military power, or political stability. Florence was mired in civil strife after the downfall of the Medici. Pope Alexander VI and his notorious son, Cesare Borgia, were attempting to regain control over the various warlords of the Papal States, but events were to show that their efforts were built on sand. The fall of the House of Sforza in Milan had made that city and Genoa puppets of the French monarchy. Even the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily was mired in conflict between French and Spanish claimants to the throne.

At the same time France, Spain, England and Germany hardly existed as unified nations and were only beginning to be in a position to challenge Venice after a century of internal disorder and ruinous wars. Still suffering from the ravages of the Hundred Years War, the crafty Kings of France were contending with powerful local nobles while at the same time engaging in costly foreign adventures. In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella had spent the first 30 years of their reigns subduing not only rebellious nobles but also eliminating the last vestiges of Moslem Granada. It would take decades before the discoveries following the voyage of Columbus would help refill the depleted treasuries of Castile and Aragon. England was no better off. The Hundred Years War had been followed by the Wars of the Roses, and although Henry VII was to prove a skillful and resourceful ruler, the success of his Tudor dynasty was by no means assured. Despite the presence of the Holy Roman Empire, the various German states, both large and small, were disorganized and relatively poor. In 1509 it took the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of France, and the Papacy led by the warrior Pope Julius II to inflict a serious but only temporary defeat on Venice at the battle of Agnadello. Within a couple of years the Venetians had recouped most of their losses in the Veneto.

 By 1500 only the Ottoman Empire stood as a serious rival to the power of Venice. The conquest of Constantinople had finally brought an end to the last vestige of the Roman Empire, and established a secure foothold for the Sultan in Europe. Venice appeared to be the only state in Europe with the wealth and sea power necessary to resist further Moslem expansion. Although the Venetians seemed to prefer negotiations with the Infidel in order to safeguard their commercial interests, on occasion they did resort to military action to protect their overseas colonies.

Historians can look back and mark the downfall of Venice to 1453 with the fall of Constantinople, or in 1492 with the discovery of the “New World” by Columbus, but in 1500 the hegemony of Venice in the Mediterranean world seemed secure. The great city-state had existed for over 1000 years, and it would survive as an independent entity for another 300. In 1500 Venice was not just a city, or even a city-state, it was a great island empire.

Contemporary commentators noted that the unique government of Venice provided the stability that lay behind its greatness. Venice was a republic and not a monarchy. The titles of King and Queen were forbidden in Venice. The Doge, the chief executive officer, was elected for life and the position was never hereditary. However, the position of Doge had all the trappings of monarchy. The Doge’s palace on St. Mark’s square was unrivalled in Europe. The ancient and magnificent Church of San Marco was the chapel of the Doge and not the cathedral of the Patriarch of Venice. In fact, only recently had the position of Bishop of Aquileia been elevated to that of Patriarch. Despite the exalted title the appointment of the Patriarch was in the hands of the Venetian government. More than any other country in Europe, the Venetian church was firmly controlled by the state.

The Doge was chosen from the ranks of the patrician families that effectively ruled Venice. Although titles of nobility were also forbidden, Venetian patricians formed the most aristocratic class in all Europe. Unlike England, for example, where the King could elevate wealthy or powerful commoners to the ranks of the nobility, newcomers could not be added to the ranks of the patricians for any reason. In Venice wealth and military prowess were not sufficient to enter the ruling class. It was a closed caste. Positions in the Senate, the Venetian governing body, were reserved for patricians.

Although socially inferior to the patrician class, a host of humanist scholars, scribes, and lawyers played a key role in serving the State and its rulers. Forbidden by law and custom to marry either above or below their caste, these ‘mandarins’ performed both actual and virtual service to the State. At the head of the humanist bureaucracy was the Grand Chancellor, the highest-ranking non-patrician in the government. In most cases his position was also a lifetime appointment. Other humanists served as legal advisors, scribes, and even diplomats. Their virtual service to the State was just as important. They were the writers and historians who used their classical learning to extol the greatness and the destiny of Venice. In other Renaissance centers humanists might place their own studies first and even challenge traditional culture and religious orthodoxy. But Venetian humanists, even those who came from abroad, placed themselves and their learning at the service of the State.

The various merchant and manufacturing classes that made up the rest of the city’s population could be found in any other thriving medieval city, but no other city could match the wealth and prosperity of the Venetians. Venice was the Big Apple.

The artists of the city were regarded as mere craftsmen and they belonged to the guild that represented house painters and wallpaper hangers. The steady demand for devotional images for both public and private use was being augmented as the new century opened by the increasing needs of wealthy patrons to fill their new palaces with beautiful works of art.

Only at the turn of the century would the two Bellini brothers, Gentile and Giovanni, achieve independent fame and recognition. The correspondence of Isabella d’Este shows that Giovanni Bellini had become a kind of super star able to call his own shots and keep wealthy patrons in waiting. It was into this environment that Giorgione and Titian, two young artists from the Veneto, arrived in Venice to seek fame and fortune.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Titian: Madonna of the Rabbit

Titian’s “Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and a Shepherd” is commonly called the “Madonna of the Rabbit” because of the white rabbit prominently featured in the center. The rabbit is held by the Madonna with a thin white cloth that is hardly visible today. The relatively small painting ( 71 x 87 cm.) that bears Titian’s own signature is in the Louvre and most scholars date it to 1530 although some believe it could have been laid in as early as 1520.

The Louvre’s website provides a very comprehensive video examination of the painting featuring curator Jean Habert. He begins with a discussion of Titian’s naturalism and suggests that these figures in a landscape could almost be a genre painting, something like a picnic in the countryside. Nevertheless, Habert admits that it is obviously a religious painting and a “sacra conversazione” in particular. The Madonna and Child are in conversation with St. Catherine while the shepherd off to the right represents pagan antiquity.

This description echoes what can be found in recent catalogues beginning with the 1991 “Titian, Prince of Painters” where the essay on the painting was also written by Habert. Subsequently, Filippo Pedrocco discussed the painting in his Titian catalog of 2001, and then two years later David Jaffe wrote the article in another exhibition catalog, entitled simply “Titian”. #

Despite this virtual unanimity the painting is still largely misunderstood. The title, Madonna of the Rabbit, is almost childish and the painting is not a “sacra conversazione.” The painting is a version of the “Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine”, a very popular subject in the early sixteenth century.

It is very difficult for scholars today to understand the importance of St. Catherine in the Renaissance. It would even be difficult for a modern devout Catholic. Writing in the nineteenth century Anna Jameson noted that Saints Catherine, Barbara, Ursula, and Margaret were in a class by themselves.

Other female martyrs were merely women glorified in heaven, for virtues exercised on earth; but these were absolutely, in all but the name, Divinities… with regard to these, all such traces of an individual existence seem to have been completely merged in the abstract ideas they represented. The worship of the others was confined to certain localities, certain occasions; but these were invoked everywhere, and at all seasons; they were powers…and though the Church assumed that theirs was a delegated power, it was never so considered by the people. They were styled intercessors; for when a man addressed his prayers to St. Catherine to obtain a boon, it was with the full conviction that she had power to grant it. *

In “Sacred and Legendary Art” Mrs. Jameson devoted a long section to St. Catherine, her legend, and her representations in art. Although largely forgotten today, the legend must have been well known during the Renaissance especially given the fact that the famous monastery that bore her name on Mt. Sinai had become a favorite pilgrimage site. Let me just paraphrase Mrs. Jameson’s telling of the story with special attention to elements that might help to explain Titian’s painting.

According to the legend Catherine was born late in the third century to the pagan King and Queen of Egypt. By the time she was fourteen the young princess had already won renown for her great beauty and intellect. At that point her father died and she acceded to the throne. Despite her breeding and wisdom, her noble subjects insisted that she find a husband who could assist her in governing the Kingdom. She agreed but only if they could find a man whose wisdom and wealth exceeded her own. Of course, no such man could be found.

However, the Madonna, from her place in heaven, intervened and directed an Egyptian hermit to approach Catherine and tell her that Mary’s son is more than worthy of her hand. Then, Catherine has a dream and is taken up into the heavens where she enters into a room filled with beautiful saints and angels. They take her deeper into the sanctuary where she is introduced to Madonna herself, who then escorts her into the presence of her Son. But Jesus turns away and refuses to accept her. At this point, an anguished Catherine wakes from her dream. What had gone wrong? She seeks out the hermit who tells her she was rejected because she was a heathen. Immediately, Catherine takes instruction and is baptized a Christian.

Now Catherine has another dream. Once again she is welcomed into Heaven and ushered into the presence of the Madonna who presents her to her son and vouches for her by saying that she herself has become godmother to Catherine at the baptism. This time the Lord accepts Catherine and places a ring on her finger, a ring that is still there when she wakes from the dream.

It is only after this “mystical marriage” that Catherine would go on to suffer torture and death at the hands of a cruel Roman tyrant whose offers of marriage she spurns.

Titian’s painting is not about historical accuracy. It is an account of Catherine’s dream. Painters typically portrayed the mystical marriage as taking place in the Egyptian desert three hundred years before the time of Catherine. The Holy Family is returning from their sojourn in Egypt when Catherine comes upon them.

In Titian’s version of the Mystic marriage Catherine is easily identified by her regal, golden finery although she is somewhat disheveled. Her red robe has fallen around her thighs. She kneels on a wooden box that most commentators have identified as the broken wheel, the famous instrument of her later torture. She has taken the Christ Child in her arms and while he appears to look away, he strokes her chin with his hand.

Madonna sits on the ground wearing her familiar red dress and blue robe. She has obviously handed the child off to Catherine but still looks intently at him. Scientific investigation of the underpainting has revealed that she was originally looking at the man off to the side. Her right arm is hidden but her left hand holds, with a hardly visible white cloth, a striking white rabbit.

The man on the right dressed in rustic clothing is usually called a shepherd but he can only be St. Joseph. Who else would be with Mary and the Child in the Egyptian desert? In contemporary paintings of the same subject by Paris Bordone and Lorenzo Lotto he would figure even more prominently. Both Bordone and Lotto portrayed Joseph as quite young and virile and in one Bordone version, now in the Hermitage, Joseph’s garb is also rustic. 

Paris Bordone, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

Moreover, even when commentators have called him a shepherd, they note some regal features like the laurel wreath in his hair. Some think it might even be a portrait of Titian’s noble patron. The fact that the underpainting shows that the Madonna was originally looking at him also points to his elevated status. Joseph sits on the ground stroking another animal, either a black sheep or ram.

Titian’s “Madonna of the Rabbit” is full of Eucharistic significance. In the 1991 catalog entry Jean Habert noted:

The fruit in the basket…gives the scene, notwithstanding the naturalism of a motif that indicates autumn, a mystical significance of redemption, since these fruits are the symbols of the Passion (original sin redeemed by the wine of the Eucharist). **

There is much more than the fruit in the basket to indicate the Eucharist. The strawberry plant in front of St. Catherine is often associated with an earthly paradise, but can also symbolize the Passion. The prominent plant in the foreground to the viewer’s right appears to be the cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex), with its characteristic five pointed leaf. It was common in Europe and was often used in Medieval architectural decoration. This painting would seem to indicate that its five leaves symbolize the five wounds of Christ.

The Passion of Christ was re-enacted at every Mass and in Franciscan theology Mary was regarded as the altar on which her child is consecrated. Her infant son and the symbolic white rabbit are one and the same. The Infant looks at the rabbit to affirm their identity. Habert claimed that the rabbit is a sign of Mary’s purity or fecundity but why then would she be holding it with a white cloth? In her study of Titian’s famed Pesaro altarpiece Rona Goffen noted the symbolism of the white cloth or corporale. A white cloth is always placed on the altar on which the host rests. *** 

Catherine like all her pious admirers has just offered herself to the Lord and now receives Him from Mary. Catherine herself holds the Infant with a white cloth. It’s as if she had just been handed the communion host by a priest. Joseph sits off to the right and strokes a black sheep or ram, itself recalling the Eucharistic symbolism of the scapegoat from Leviticus 16:20-22.

When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.
Years ago famed art historian Erwin Panofsky noted that it is important to go beyond the naturalism and beauty of these famous and mysterious Renaissance paintings.

In a work of art, “form” cannot be divorced from “content”; the distribution of color and lines, light and shade, volumes and planes, however delightful as a spectacle, must also be understood as carrying a more-than-visual meaning. ****

In the years immediately following the onset of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church responded with renewed devotion to the Eucharist. Artists and their patrons naturally followed suit. Titian, Bordone, and Lotto became increasingly responsive to the devotional needs of their patrons.

# Notes from these sources are appended below.

* Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, ed. By Estelle H. Hurrl, II, Boston and New York, 1895, v. II, 458.

**Titian, Prince of Painters, 1991, cat. entry #23.

*** Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, 114.

****Titian’s Allegory of Prudence: a Postscript, in Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Garden City, NY, 1955, p. 168.


Edit. I have edited the original version of this post to include a brief discussion of the two plants in the foreground. I owe the identification of the cinquefoil to my brother, a master botanist.

Appendix: See below for notes from recent catalogs.

Titian, Prince of Painters, exhibition catalog, Washington, 1991.

209. # 23. Madonna of the Rabbit (Jean Habert)
(signed bottom left on St. Catherine’s wheel: TICIANUS F.

Hourticq [1919] maintained that Federico II is represented as a shepherd crowned with laurel leaves, visible on the right of the painting.

The herd of rams could allude, according to Hope, to the duke’s role as head of state.

X-radiography, published by Hours (1976), has revealed numerous pentimenti, as was normal with Titian. However, a rabbit, cut in half on the lower right of the painting, seems to be the result of bad restoration…

The pose of the Virgin was modified, and hence also her dress, which became more stylish, as did that of St. Catherine. In an earlier version the Virgin turned her face toward the shepherd, which would tend to confirm the elevated status of this figure who from the beginning was crowned with laurel….In the final composition, the Virgin restrains a white rabbit, which was added in this phase, becoming a dominant motif.

The fruit in the basket…gives the scene, notwithstanding the naturalism of a motif that indicates autumn, a mystical significance of redemption, since these fruits are the symbols of the Passion (original sin redeemed by the wine of the Eucharist). The white rabbit became in Venice, from Durer and Giovanni Bellini onward, the symbol of the fecundity of Mary without sin and thus of the revelation of the incarnation (Panofsky). The Virgin holds the rabbit with a white cloth which has become almost illegible with time and clumsy restoration, underlining the sacred nature of the animal, symbol of Mary’s purity.

Filippo Pedrocco: Titian, Rizzoli, NY, 2001.

147. #85. Madonna and Child with St. Catherine of Alexandria and a Shepherd (Madonna of the Rabbit)
Canvas 71 x 87 cm. Paris, Louvre.

147. “an important illustration of Titian’s style at the beginning of the 1530s. It shows a return on Titian’s part to Giorgionesque models, especially in the rendering of the broad landscape and the figure of the shepherd on the right (variously identified as St. Joseph or St. John the Baptist, or a portrait of the patron),

147. X-ray examination showed that in an initial version the head of the Virgin was turned toward the shepherd behind her and that her arms were crossed over her chest….The many subsequent modification prompted Beguin (1980) to claim that the work was executed in two phases—the first version in 1520, and the second in 1530.

Charles Hope: Titian, ed. David Jaffe, London, 2003.

118. # 18. The Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and a Shepherd (‘The Madonna of the Rabbit’) 1530.

The female saint is usually identified as Saint Catherine as she appears to be kneeling on her wheel, but it could be read as a chest with a drawer. The painting is one of the most highly finished jewels in Titian’s oeuvre. Evert blade of grass, flower and gold thread is lovingly described….The basket containing grapes and an apple (perhaps alluding to the Eucharist and to the Fall) underlines the devotional intent of the image.

The animated child, the most dynamic of the figures, is the focus not only of the viewer’s attention but also the Virgin’s and St. Catherine’s. He reaches towards the rabbit in a touching, naturalistic gesture, and the rabbit pricks up its ears. The Virgin’s caress of the rabbit is echoed by the shepherd’s putting a black animal usually identified as a sheep, and close examination does suggest a ram’s horn just below the shepherd’s hand.

The royal status of Saint Catherine of Alexandria justifies her rich and fashionable attire,…She carefully holds the child but does not touch his sacred skin…

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Giorgione: Christmas Stamp

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds

"In 1971, an incredible 1.2 billion copies of a single postage stamp were printed by the U.S. Postal Service. It was the largest stamp printing order in the world since postage stamps were first introduced in 1840. It was almost ten times larger that the usual printing of an American commemorative stamp. The stamp was one of two Christmas stamps issued that year. It depicted a Nativity scene by the Italian painter Giorgio Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, and portrayed Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and two shepherds."*

The Postal Service probably picked Giorgione’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” because it was one of the most prized possessions of Washington's National Gallery. The scene is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its real meaning. Over a year ago I discussed the meaning of the painting to Giorgione's Venetian contemporaries but on another level it has a universal meaning.

This King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion.

Merry Christmas to all.

* M.W. Martin: “Christmas in Stamps,” in Catholic Digest Christmas Book, ed. Father Kenneth Ryan, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1977.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Titian at the Norton Simon Museum

On a recent trip to the Los Angeles area to visit one of my daughters I had an opportunity to visit the famed Norton Simon Museum in nearby Pasadena. The information brochure for the Museum indicated that in the twentieth century Norton Simon, a wealthy industrialist, accumulated “a renowned collection of Old Masters, Impressionists, Modern art, and masterpieces from India and Southeast Asia.” Simon’s collection found a home in Pasadena in 1974 when he and a new Board of Trustees took control of the former Pasadena Art Museum.

Despite the breadth of the collection and the beautiful grounds, I must confess that I went there to see a small painting that the Museum still attributes to Giorgione even though the label indicates that many scholars today give it to Titian.

The Museum calls the painting, “Head of a Venetian Girl” although it is more than a head. In his study of the early Titian Paul Joannides called it a “Bust of a Young Woman” but added “Courtesan” in parenthesis. He claimed that it was certainly by Titian and dated it around 1510. The painting is only 31.7 x 24.1 cm in size. It is so small that Joannides believed that it might be a fragment of a larger narrative. Nevertheless, the Museum has done a superlative job of hanging the painting. It is featured by itself behind glass in an entranceway to a large gallery. On the other side of the entrance is a small portrait by Giovanni Bellini of Joerg Fugger.

You can see why it might be called a courtesan because no respectable Venetian woman would have sat for a portrait in such a disheveled state. Joannides said that it brought to mind a Mary Magdalen but he quickly dismissed the idea. In an earlier post I have argued that his initial intuition was correct. I believe that this early Titian was one of the first of many versions of Mary Magdalen that he did during his long career.

Titian and other contemporaries liked to portray a beautiful Magdalen in a state of partial undress. They depicted her in the process of discarding her worldly finery after her conversion experience. It is not just the similarity to other paintings that would lead one to consider this woman as Mary Magdalen. There are certainly elements in the painting that suggest the great female saint.

Titian used her multi-colored striped shawl in a later, unmistakable depiction (Naples) of the penitent saint. It is true that there is no sign of her jar of ointment in the Norton Simon woman but standing in front of the painting I wondered why Titian had chosen to make this woman a redhead. Italian ladies today like red hair and some did try to bleach their hair during the sixteenth century but red hair seems to be mainly a characteristic of Mary Magdalen. Earlier Giovanni Bellini had depicted a striking red haired Magdalen without the ointment jar standing to one side of the Madonna and Child.

Moreover, as I was looking at the painting a security guard came over and cautioned me not to stand too close.  He turned out to be a graduate student and we discussed the painting. When I mentioned Mary Magdalen, he asked about the ring on her finger. It’s amazing how you can look at a painting so many times and still not see some details. I had never noticed the ring before but there it was on her left index finger. What is its significance? Is the ring one of her courtesan’s jewels or does it symbolize a bride of Christ? It is on the index and not the traditional wedding ring finger. Did women during this time wear their wedding bands on the index finger? In a version of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine Paris Bordone directs Catherine’s hand to the infant Jesus who holds a ring in his hand. Her index finger is pointed to receive it.

Some might say that it makes no difference if a painting is an unknown woman, a courtesan, or Mary Magdalen. On the flight home from California I read an essay by famed Art historian Erwin Panofsky in a collection of his writings entitled, “Meaning in the Visual Arts.” In the essay on Titian’s “allegory of Prudence,” Panofsky wrote:
In a work of art, “form” cannot be divorced from “content”; the distribution of color and lines, light and shade, volumes and planes, however delightful as a visual spectacle, must also be understood as carrying a more-than-visual meaning.
Art history is not the same thing as art appreciation. I believe the role of the art historian is to view the work of art as a window into the world of the past: to see things as the artist, his patron, and his contemporary viewers might have seen them. The paintings of Bellini, Giorgione and Titian are important primary sources for our understanding of the real nature of the Venetian Renaissance.