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"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Raphael: Czartoryski Portrait

Today, October, 28, marks the first anniversary of the death of Hasan Niyazi, a young art history buff and blogger from Australia. Before his very untimely death at about the same age as his idol Raphael, Hasan's blog, "Three Pipe Problem," had developed into one of the most popular art history blogs receiving more than 10000 page views each month. In remembrance of Hasan I would like to reproduce below one of the guest posts that he kindly allowed me to put on his site.

Raphael: Portrait of a Young Man
Lost during Nazi occupation of Poland

In a recent post at "Three Pipe Problem" Hasan Niyazi presented a very comprehensive study of the attribution and provenance history of a famed “Portrait of a Young Man”, usually attributed to Raphael. The painting was one of those looted from the Czartoryski collection in Poland by the Nazis during WWII and has still not been recovered.

Three Pipe Problem did mention that scholars have disagreed on the identity of the subject of the painting, and that even one, Oskar Fischel, had claimed that it was a young woman, and not a man. This struck a chord with me for on first glance the sitter appeared to me to be a woman of a particular kind.

Giorgione: Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)


The painting reminded me of Giorgione’s “Laura” where a young woman in a state of undress is partially covered with a man’s robe. Scholars of Venetian art have noted that both the disheveled look and the man’s robe indicate a courtesan. In “Giorgione, Myth and Enigma”, the catalog of the 2004 Giorgione exhibition, the entry for Giorgione’s “Portrait of a Young Woman” (Laura) noted the following.

According to Junkermann (1993) she is wearing a male garment, which far from being a reference to marriage, instead indicates that the model has adopted a typical male role, perhaps that of a poet; but that does not exclude that she may also be a courtesan. Her sumptuous fur-lined red garment is, more than an item of male attire, the winter dress of Venetian women of pleasure (Pedrocco 1990; Junkermann 1993; Anderson 1996), according to Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti (1590);… (catalog entry #8)

My first impression led me to take a look through other Raphael portraits of men and women. Even a cursory look at a Raphael catalog indicates that the hair of a Raphael man is rarely in such a long and stringy, even unkempt, fashion. Moreover, with one exception he never parts their hair in the middle or even exposes their foreheads. Men’s foreheads are usually covered with a cap that sits firmly on top of the head and not worn at the same rakish angle as in the lost painting. Raphael’s women, even Madonnas, inevitably have their foreheads exposed with hair neatly parted in the middle.





The portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni provide a striking example of hair fashion around 1505-6. The man’s forehead is covered with his cap firmly on top of his head. The woman’s long hair is parted neatly in the middle and her hair is covered with a diaphanous veil. Things are much the same ten years later if we compare the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione with “La Donna Velata”. Castiglione’s cap is firmly atop his head and completely covers his forehead. The donna’s forehead is uncovered with long hair parted neatly in the middle. The back of her head is covered with a long white veil. Even the famous “La Fornarina" has hair neatly parted in the middle but with her hair tied back with a scarf. Only in the “Double Portrait with a Fencing Master” is a man’s forehead exposed but in that case the hair is neatly trimmed and the man has considerable facial hair.

Raphael: La Fornarina


It is true that most of Raphael’s woman have hair well done up and combed but I think Raphael could have been depicting a courtesan here posing in her lover’s clothing. It looks like she’s sitting in her shift with a man’s robe casually thrown over her shoulder, and a man’s cap pinned to the back of her head as if to say, “she’s mine,” in a somewhat less obvious way than Raphael did in “La Fornarina.”

Hasan Niyazi’s post on “Three Pipe Problem” also provided some inadvertent information that supports a “young woman” reading.  Two early engravings taken from the painting or copies emphasized female characteristics especially the exaggerated curl of the lips. Also, Three Pipe Problem presented a striking detail from the School of Athens that would seem to indicate a juxtaposition of Raphael and his lover, the only two figures in the famous fresco looking out at the viewer. No one has ever accused Raphael of being a homosexual.

My first impression led me to get a copy of Oskar Fischel’s two-volume study of Raphael, a work that represented the culmination of a lifetime devoted to the rehabilitation of Raphael. Like the Czartoryski painting Fischel was also a casualty of the Nazis. He was born in 1870 and the book jacket describes him in this fashion. 

Oscar Fischel was a well-known art historian and scholar. Among the important appointments he held was that of Professor of Art in Berlin University. He was author of numerous works on Italian Art, Modern Art, the History of Costume and the History of the Theatre. But the theme that lay nearest his heart was the art of Raphael. He made this his life’s work.*

Unfortunately, Fischel’s career was interrupted in 1933 when he was dismissed from his post at the University of Berlin by the new Hitler regime. Student protests forced his reinstatement but he was finally dismissed in 1935. Apparently, museum officials in London were successful in bringing him to London where he died in 1939. His study of Raphael was translated and published in London in 1948 with the first volume containing text, and the second prints. The publisher summarized Fischel’s approach in this way.

Oscar Fischel contends that Raphael has been misrepresented in the same manner as Mozart. His natural grace and the apparent ease and fluency with which his work was accomplished have led to the charge that he was lacking in deeper understanding. The author is at pains to refute these criticisms. He reveals to us not the superficial, sentimental, pious and graceful artist, but a true poet and creator, interpreting the fundamental and essential meaning of life.
Fischel devoted only half a page to the Czartoryski painting discussing it right after the more famous “La Donna Velata.” To put it in context here are a few of his words on that woman that lead him into a discussion of the Czartoryski.
The Donna Velata of the Pitti Palace is the result of a commission of his very own, in the midst of the great frescoes and orders for altarpieces; it is a love-prompted improvisation on the most charming of themes—the innocence and womanly dignity of a young Roman woman of the people. The colour echoes this harmony of character…. (123)
Raphael: La Donna Velata

We know that the master found the purity of her young features, with the dark, beaming charm of her look, worthy of the otherworldly revelation of the Sistine Madonna. Years ago it was supposed that her still dazzling features, although quickly coarsened, might be recognized in the picture in the Czartoryski Gallery at Cracow. Once there was a much-disputed idea that it might be a self-portrait of Raphael, also that it perhaps represented the Duke of Urbino, or, finally, the Fornarina. Sebastiano del Piombo was mentioned as its painter, as so were as many other artists as there were experts who stood in front of the picture when it was at Dresden during the last war.
Fischel must have been among those experts who saw the painting in person while it was in Dresden. He saw a young woman.
the hair with its locks reluctantly breaking loose on the temples, and the deep-cut thumbs, warrant the conclusion that it is a woman who is here represented; also the secret of the bosom is rather betrayed than guarded by the fur cloak, not put on, but thrown as if on the spur of the moment over the shirt. This negligee has a poetic significance only if it is a woman who is in question. The right forearm seems to rest on the bottom of a lute. The white of the chemise, the gold and brown of the gown with its fur collar, the greenish-golden cover on the table, form with the gleaming flesh-tones, a boldly conceived harmony, gorgeous to a degree, which is gathered together within the grand, free form of the silhouette. The painting can be compared for triumphant power with the group of the Pope in the Attila; like this fresco, it is of inestimable value as the last evidence quite incontestably from Raphael’s own hand of his most personal chromatic expression. (125)
Raphael: Portrait of a Young Woman

Note. Hasan Niyazi was born in Cyprus but his family emigrated to Australia when he was a child. He called his adopted home Oz. I will think of him every time I hear Judy Garland sing "Somewhere over the Rainbow." Hasan admitted that he had no training in art history and that he got into it by sheer accident. Yet, hard work and a love of beauty led him over the rainbow to the land of Raphael and the Renaissance. ###





*Oskar Fischel, Raphael, translated from the German by Bernard Rackham, Volume I, Text, London, 1948, V. I. 






Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Vision of Ezekiel





The following discussion of the so-called "Vision of Ezekiel" originally appeared as a guest post on Hasan Niyazi's popular Art history blog, "Three Pipe Problem." This month marks the first anniversary of Hasan's untimely death last year at about the same age as his beloved Raphael. Since Hasan's site is not currently open, I am publishing some of my guest posts here. This post illustrates how Hasan and I worked together using our different skills and approaches.

In a 2011 post Hasan had discussed the controversy raging in Italy over the authenticity of a Raphael painting known as the “Vision of Ezekiel” now in the Pitti Palace in Florence. The question of whether this painting was by Raphael or one of his associates had little interest for me, but as I read on another question came to mind.

It would appear that the subject of the painting has been misunderstood ever since Giorgio Vasari mentioned it in his biography of Raphael.

Here is what Vasari wrote:

At a later period, our artist painted a small picture, which is now at Bologna, in the possession of the Count Vincenzio Ercolani. The subject of this work is Christ enthroned amid the clouds, after the manner in which Jupiter is so frequently depicted. But the Saviour is surrounded by the four Evangelists, as described in the Book of Ezekiel: one in the form of a man, that is to say; another in that of a lion; the third as an eagle; and the fourth as an ox. The earth beneath exhibits a small landscape, and this work, in its minuteness—all the figures being very small—is no less beautiful than are the others in their grandeur of extent.*

*Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, selected, edited and introduced by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, Volume II, New York, 1967. p. 41.

Vasari said that the subject of the painting is “Christ enthroned amid the clouds.” He did mention that Christ was surrounded by the four animals that Ezekiel saw in his vision. Even though the painting called to Vasari’s mind the vision of Ezekiel, the artist, whoever he was, must certainly have had a different vision in mind.

The vision in this painting is the vision of St. John from the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse). Let’s just compare the two visions. Here is the account from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel.

As I was among the exiles on the bank of the river Chebar, heaven opened and I saw visions from God….Ezekiel 1:1 A stormy wind blew from the north, a great cloud with light around it, a fire from which flashes of lightning darted, and in the center a sheen like bronze at the heart of the fire. In the center I saw what seemed four animals. They looked like this. They were of human form. Each had four faces, each had four wings. …As to what they looked like, they had human faces, and all four had a lion’s face to the right, and all four had a bull’s face to the left, and all four had an eagle’s face.  Their wings were spread upward; each had two wings that touched, and two wings that covered his body;… Their wings were spread upward; each had two wings that touched, and two wings that covered his body…Ezekiel 1: 4-12

Between these animals something could be seen like flaming brands or torches, darting between the animals; the fire flashed light, and lightning streaked from the fire. And the creatures ran to and from like thunderbolts.” Ezekiel 1: 13-14.

The animals are in Ezekiel’s vision but there is no God or Christ enthroned among them. Ezekiel’s vision found its way into the Book of Revelation, a book replete with imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures. Here is St. John’s vision (Jerusalem Bible).

My name is John…I was on the island of Patmos for having preached God’s word and witnessed for Jesus; it was the Lord’s day and the Spirit possessed me, and I heard a voice behind me, shouting like a trumpet, “Write down all that you see in a book…Revelation 1: 9-13. 
Then, in my vision, I saw a door open in heaven and heard the same voice speaking to me, the voice like a trumpet, saying, “Come up here: I will show you what is to come in the future.” With that, the Spirit possessed me and I saw a throne standing in heaven, and the One who was sitting on the throne, and the Person sitting there looked like a diamond and a ruby….In the center, grouped around the throne itself, were four animals with many eyes, in front and behind. The first animal was like a lion, the second like a bull, the third animal had a human face, and the fourth animal was like a flying eagle. Each of the four animals had six wings and had eyes all the way around as well as inside;…Revelation 4: 1-8.

In John’s vision God the Creator, “the One” sitting on the throne in the midst of the four creatures, is the most prominent figure. Vasari identified the figure as Christ but the figure more closely resembles Michelangelo’s images of God the Father in the Sistine chapel. Only later in John’s account would the Lamb join the One sitting on the throne.

In the “Vision of Ezekiel” the small figure on the left receiving the vision must then be identified not as Ezekiel but John, exiled on the isle of Patmos. It is hard to tell, but he seems to be on an island facing a broad expanse of sea rather than in a crowd of people at the bank of the river Chebar.

Some scholars have argued that there is a companion piece to the “Vision of Ezekiel” that did not find its way back to Italy after the fall of Napoleon. In his study of Raphael Jean-Pierre Cuzin discussed a small oil on panel of the Holy Family.


The kinship in style and execution of the small Holy Family and the Vision of Ezekiel in the Pitti Palace at Florence, which have the same dimensions is striking: the rounded, thick-set bodies, strongly modeled by black shadows and lively touches of light, and the vigorous impasto execution, invite one to see an identical hand in both pictures—that of Penni, for Konrad Oberhuber. Others have more often thought of Giulio Romano. The Vision of Ezekiel, unlike the neglected picture in the Louvre, counts among Raphael’s celebrated works; it is identified with a picture described by Vasari at Bologna in the house of Count Ercolani. **

**Jean-Pierre Cuzin: Raphael, His Life and Works, New Jersey, 1985. p. 226.

The small Holy Family is also a misnomer. It is actually a depiction of the encounter of Mary and the infant Jesus on their return from the flight into Egypt with her cousin Elizabeth and the infant John the Baptist. With or without St. Joseph this legendary meeting was a very popular subject since it marked the initial acceptance of the mission of Christ. Usually the Christ child accepts the small cross from the young Baptist but in this case he accepts the Baptist himself.

If the two paintings are companion pieces, they would then represent the beginning and the end of Christ’s mission. The meeting of the two infants in the Judean desert recalls the words of the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and in the vision from the Book of Revelation, the Lamb who was sacrificed will join “the One seated on the Throne.”

###

· 



Monday, September 29, 2014

Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert


                      
For over 50 years the Frick Museum in New York City has been my favorite museum. It is a small, easily navigated site quite unlike the Metropolitan only a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. Its magnificent collection of paintings, acquired for the most part during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by steel baron, Henry Clay Frick, spans the gamut of Western art from late Medieval to the Impressionists.*



You cannot visit the Frick and fail to notice that patrons invariably stop in the great central living room to stare and wonder at Giovanni Bellini’s famous, “St. Francis in the Desert.” On one occasion a museum employee confirmed my guess that this painting, despite the presence of works by the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, and Renoir, is the most popular in the whole collection.

Born in 1430 Giovanni Bellini is arguably the first great master of the Venetian Renaissance. The Venetian version of the Renaissance has long taken a back seat to the Florentine but in the last few decades it has come into its own and today most scholars would agree that Bellini and his younger successors, Giorgione, and Titian, can hold their own as painters with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Indeed, the Bellini family studio is now seen as one of the great sources of the Renaissance. Giovanni and his brother, Gentile, who at one point went to Constantinople to paint the Sultan, inherited the studio from their father, Jacopo. Andrea Mantegna, a great painter in his own right, married one of the Bellini sisters and exerted a powerful influence on the studio. Scholars also suspect that both Giorgione and Titian were apprentices at the Bellini studio before they broke out on their own.

Although he painted the St. Francis around 1480, Bellini continued to paint well into the next century. Until his death he was sought after and courted by public, religious, and private patrons. He is best known as a painter of Madonnas and groups of figures ranged around the Madonna and Child often called “sacra conversazione.” Nevertheless, the St. Francis is a unique work in the history of Renaissance art.


What is going on in the painting? St. Francis stands in the foreground a little off center wearing his familiar robe.  Behind him is a kind of wooden structure that seems to lead into a cave. The mid-ground is largely made up of a barren landscape whose primary occupant is a small horse or ass. Prominent in the upper left is an oddly shaped tree that appears to be leaning toward St. Francis. In the distant background we see a majestic towered city.

In one interpretation of the painting Francis is receiving the stigmata, the actual wounds of Christ on his own body.  His hands are outstretched but it is hard to see if there are wounds. Moreover, traditional elements usually employed in depictions of the stigmata episode are absent. His companion, Brother Leo, is not shown and neither are Christ or an angel.

I prefer the interpretation of John V. Fleming in From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis. In this often overlooked but extraordinary 1982 monograph Fleming argued that Marcantonio Michiel’s original description of the painting, when he saw it in the home of Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini, “St. Francis in the Desert,” was indeed correct.  Fleming saw the subject of the painting and every detail in it grounded in Franciscan spirituality.

The landscape in the painting is not La Verna, the site of the stigmata episode, but the desert of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. In particular, it is the Egyptian desert. The prominent animal in mid-ground is the Onager or wild ass of the desert while the heron standing before it is a bird of the Nile delta.


Franciscans often associated their founder with Moses and Elijah and their life in the desert. In the background beneath the city there is a shepherd tending his flock just as Moses did before his encounter with the Lord. Indeed, the leaning tree so prominent in the upper left is the famous burning bush in which the Lord appeared to Moses. It is a laurel which at the time was believed to be impervious to fire.

We also notice that Francis has removed his sandals and stands barefoot in the same manner as Moses.
The wooden structure behind Francis is a Sukkoth, variously translated as tent, hut, booth, or tabernacle, a kind of portable structure used by the Israelites in their wanderings in the desert. The Sukkoth also recalls the scene of the Transfiguration when Christ was revealed in His glory accompanied by Moses and Elijah to the three apostles, Peter, James, and John. Dumfounded, Peter offered to build three booths or Sukkoth for the Lord and his guests.



If we look closely, we will see beneath the right hand of Francis a rabbit in a hole in the rock, and beneath his left hand a jug. The rabbit was a symbolic reference to Moses who hid his face from the Lord and the jug is a reference to Elijah. Indeed, the abundant vegetation sprouting around Francis is a garden or carmel, another reference to Elijah who was supposed to have been the founder of the Carmelite order. Francis stands between Moses and Elijah in the same way as Christ stood between them at the Transfiguration. In Franciscan spirituality and imagery, Francis was the new Christ.

Just as Moses came to lead his people out of the slavery of Egypt, so too did Francis come to lead his followers out of the slavery of sin. The city in the background then is a place of danger and peril, both physical and spiritual. The desert is symbolic of the life of poverty and humility preached by the famous founder of the Franciscan order.


Most of the paintings acquired by Henry Clay Frick had a special meaning for him. A committed Mason, Frick admired Francis because of his love of Nature. Others who have viewed the painting since Frick added it to his collection perhaps have had their own reasons for admiring it. Even if we know nothing of Franciscan spirituality, Bellini’s painting is still an image of a human being standing open and receptive to the divine light and transforming the world because of it. 

###

* This review essay originally appeared as a guest post on Hasan Niyazi's popular Art history blog, "Three Pipe Problem." After Hasan's untimely death almost a year ago, his blog has been shut down although hopefully not forever. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Leonardo: Last Supper

The following review of Leo Steinberg's: “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper” originally appeared as a guest post on Hasan Niyazi's  Art History blog, Three Pipe Problem in 2012. After Hasan's premature death last October, his site has been shut down, hopefully only temporarily.  



The damage to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper is well known. Even after the most recent restoration the huge fresco that measures over 29 by 15 feet is in such perilous condition that viewing access is strictly controlled and limited.

We know from early copies that much of Leonardo’s work has been irretrievably lost or covered. Early on, the feet of Christ and the Apostles had so disappeared that the monks had no reluctance to put a door in the wall under the figure of Christ. We know of this from copies but even the earliest copies are often unreliable.  They either omit or alter certain important details. Finally, although the painting is still in its original venue, it is impossible to replicate the monk’s dining room and see the painting as its original viewers would have seen it.

Compared to the physical damage that Leonardo’s work has suffered, the interpretive damage has been even greater. It was this damage that Leo Steinberg set out to repair first in an extended essay, “Leonardo’s Last Supper,” that appeared in the Art Quarterly in 1973. Almost thirty years later in 2001 he published his definitive revised update, “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.”

I am not familiar with the critical reaction to either study except to the extent that Steinberg referred to it in the 2001 book. Nevertheless, anyone reading “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper” today would have to acknowledge that it a revolutionary masterpiece by one of the greatest art historians of the twentieth century.

In the introduction to his book Steinberg recalled two questions that he had raised in the 1973 study. “Is there anything left to see? And, Is there anything left to say?”
Of course his answer was positive.
What remains to be told about Leonardo’s Last Supper is not some residual matter previously overlooked; the novelty of the subject is the whole of the work responding to different questions. In the present study, the picture emerges as both less secular and less simple; contrary to inherited notions, it is nowhere “unambiguous and clear,” but consistently layered, double functioning, polysemantic.[i]
Steinberg took on an academic tradition that had been entrenched ever since the time of the Enlightenment, especially after Goethe’s famous essay claimed that Leonardo had depicted the psychological shock on the faces of the Apostles at the moment immediately following the announcement of the betrayal. Goethe’s interpretation had seemingly settled the matter for all future observers. Steinberg, however, blamed nineteenth secularism for a profound mis-reading.
In the art of the Renaissance, the obscurantism imputed to religious preoccupations seemed happily superseded. Ideal art was believed to reveal humane truths which the service of religion could only divert and distort. And it was again in Leonardo in whom these highest artistic goals, originally embodied in ancient Greece, seemed reaffirmed. In this projection of nineteenth-century values upon Renaissance art, the masterworks of the Renaissance were reduced to intelligible simplicity, and Leonardo’s Last Supper became (nothing but) a behavioral study of twelve individuals responding to psychic shock. [ii]
By 2001, almost 30 years after his originally study had been published, he could remark that his interpretation was “no longer news,” and that the “common view” was “no longer pandemic.” But I wonder if he was too sanguine. A quick web search found that the lead Wikipedia article began with the following pronouncement.
“The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him.”
Moreover, I suspect that today, one year after Steinberg’s death at the age of 90, his thesis is still only known by a small coterie of Art historians. I even think that most Art history graduate students are not required to read it.

Reading Steinberg’s “Incessant Last Supper” not only brings one deeper and deeper into a great masterpiece, but also deeper and deeper into the mind and culture of the genius who was Leonardo. However, since the common view holds that the painting depicts the psychological reaction to the announcement of the betrayal, I would like to concentrate on Steinberg’s analysis of Leonardo’s portrayal of the Apostles.

Beginning with the general principle “that nothing in Leonardo’s Last Supper is trivial,” Steinberg asserted that the subject of the picture was not merely the betrayal announcement but the whole story of the Last Supper; the Institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, and the significance of it all to the viewer.
Leonardo’s task,
never before attempted, was to collect in “conjoint presence” a super dozen male sitters strung across nearly 29 feet of wall, to convert the drag of enumeration into what he called a “harmonic total effect.”[iii]
Leonardo’s solution of the problem is “an untiring marvel” but first we must identify the Apostles. In their places from left to right there are Bartholomew, James (the eventual head of the Church in Jerusalem), Andrew, Peter, Judas, and John. On the other side there are James (the son of Zebedee), Thomas (who has thrust himself ahead of James), Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus (sometimes called Jude), and Simon.

anonymous copy, c. 1550

Much of the detail of the original has been lost but an anonymous copy c. 1550, gives a very good look at the hands and feet of the 13 men in the picture. Steinberg stressed the significance not only of the feet of Christ but of the Apostles. Christ’s feet are central and larger and they announce his impending crucifixion. The feet of the Apostles are there to be washed but also represent their role and future destiny.
this very night, each of these feet is washed and wiped dry by the Master. In view of the gospel…how negligible can these feet be; surely, this is their hour![iv]
While he stressed the importance of viewing Christ and the Apostles as a whole, Steinberg also broke them down into groups of six, three and two, and discussed the various relationships in these groups. Here are a few examples.



 Let’s start with the triad of Simon, Thaddeus, and Matthew on our right at the end of the table.  
A flotilla of six open hands in formation strains toward Christ, as if in immediate response to the word “take!” ….the Communion of the Apostles is imminent.[v]
Hands take on special significance. The “affinity” of the left hand of Thaddeus to the left hand of Christ “leaps to the eye.”
Thaddeus’ hand toward Christ; Christ’s toward us. It is missing a lot to dismiss the correspondence as accidental.
Feet, hands, even fingers are important. In the triad at Christ’s left hand (Philip, Thomas, James) the finger of Thomas, who has thrust himself forward toward Jesus, is a veritable sign marker, “the finger destined to verify the Resurrection, the Christian hope….“
this upright finger occurs in Leonardo’s rare paintings no less than four times, invariably pointing to heaven…The steeple finger is Leonardo’s trusted sign of transcendence…[vi]

The triad closest to Christ’s right hand includes Peter who denies, Judas who betrays, and John who remains to the end at the foot of the Cross.
The inner triad refers to imminent Crucifixion. It contains the dark force that sets the Passion in motion, then, behind Judas, St. Peter. Peter’s right hand points the knife he will ply a few hours hence at the arrest. And the interlocking hands of the beloved disciple are pre-positioned for their grieving on Calvary.
The figure of Judas who recoils from the plate is given special attention. Steinberg’s interpretation is buttressed by an analysis of a Leonardo drawing that depicts “the wretchedness of a man who had once been chosen by Jesus.”


Leonardo: study of Judas

Leonardo brought a tragic vision far in advance of what his contemporaries could fathom. The subjective experience of abjection never received more humane understanding.
The triad on the left furthest from Jesus includes Andrew, the brother of Peter, James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and Bartholomew. They are all interconnected. Andrew sits next to his brother and James places the hand of ordination on each of them. Peter’s knife points to Bartholomew and prefigures the form of his martyrdom. The pose of Andrew is particularly interesting.
For those who have seen a priest at the altar, who recall the corresponding pose of St. Francis stigmatized and, finally, Andrew’s own story, he is the Apostle whose lodestar is crucifixion….
At the end of the table Bartholomew has risen with his feet awkwardly crossed, an inexplicable oddity that has even led some copiers to correct Leonardo’s “mistake.” However, Steinberg noted one tradition that had Bartholomew crucified, a martyrdom he yearned for in order to emulate the Master.
Speaking of Jesus, no review can do justice to Steinberg’s discussion of the figure of Christ, no longer seen as a passive figure sitting back while the Apostles react to the betrayal announcement.
as the person of Christ unites man and God, so his right hand summons the agent of his human death even as it offers the means of salvation….the Christ figure as agent—both hands actively molding his speech, and both directed at bread and wine…[vii]
Unfortunately, Goethe only saw the painting briefly in Milan. In his analysis he relied on a copy that left out the bread and wine of the Eucharist. For Steinberg, the institution of the Eucharist is central to the painting.
Christ becomes the capstone of a great central pyramid…And midway between the…slopes of Christ arms and the floor lines that transmit their momentum, exactly halfway, there lies the bread, and there lies the wine.[viii]

I have only dealt with chapters 3 and 4 of “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.” Steinberg went on to show how the painting must be understood in terms of the whole room in which it was viewed, and even in terms of the whole complex of which S. Maria della Grazie was a part. The painting was a “willed visual metaphor.”
Within the geometry of the picture, the elements of the eucharist, placed in extension of Christ’s earthly presence, serve as conveyors: from the centrality of the Incarnate toward the faithful this side of the picture.
Steinberg backed up his interpretation with a virtuoso display of all the tools available to a modern art historian. He displayed a magisterial familiarity with the interpretive history; the texts; the traditional legends; the related paintings; and with the whole oeuvre of Leonardo. More than anything else, however, was his ability to immerse himself in the whole culture and devotion of Medieval and Renaissance Christianity.  He was born a Russian Jew and emigrated to America right after World War II. He somehow managed to graduate from Harvard and land a position at New York University where his original field was “Modern Art.” But he eventually gravitated to the Renaissance, and his integrity and great learning allowed him to see the “Last Supper” through the believing eyes of Leonardo’s contemporaries. ###






[i] Leo Steinberg, “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper,” 2001, pp. 12-13.
[ii] Ibid. p. 13.
[iii] Ibid. p. 77.
[iv] Ibid. p. 61.
[v] Except where otherwise noted this quotation and all the following can be found in the relevant sections of chapter IV, “the Twelve.”
[vi] Ibid. p. 70.
[vii] Ibid. p. 57.
[viii] Ibid,. p. 58.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Giorgione Scholarship

In 2003 the Council of the Frick Collection published an extended lecture by Charles Hope entitled “Giorgione or Titian? History of a Controversy.” * Hope’s essay was the inaugural lecture in a projected series of annual talks to be given by eminent art historians. At the time Charles Hope was director of the Warburg Institute in London, and one of the world’s leading Titian scholars.

The lecture was published in pamphlet form with many illustrations and I believe it is still available in the Museum’s bookshop. It should be required reading for any student of Giorgione or Titian.

Titian: Man with a Red Cap
Frick museum, NY


Hope used the Frick’s own “Portrait of a Man with a Red Cap” as the starting point for a critique of practically all previous Giorgione scholarship and connoisseurship.  He concentrated mainly on the history of Giorgione attributions and argued that the great majority involve pure guesswork. He believed that only a handful of paintings, including the Tempest, the Three Philosophers, and the Laura, could definitely be attributed to Giorgione.

After a very thorough review of the attribution controversies, he concluded,
we are faced here with a failure of connoisseurship, which, after more than a century of effort, has not produced a solution  that commands general assent, or indeed makes visual sense. All that we can say with complete certainty is that the overwhelming majority of the proposals that have been advanced must be wrong, because at most only one can be correct. (37)
How could so many distinguished scholars and critics have been wrong or have based their conclusions on such flimsy evidence? Here is Hope’s answer.
In one important respect the problem of Giorgione is paradigmatic of much modern discussion of Renaissance art. It is normally supposed, even if tacitly, that the history of art is a cumulative process, with each generation of scholars adding a little more knowledge to what had previously been discovered. Yet with Giorgione it is clear that nothing of this kind happened. Far from supposing themselves ignorant, scholars have always believed that they know a great deal about him and his Venetian contemporaries. Over the past couple of centuries some of the certainties inherited from earlier generations have had to be discarded, but there has been an almost universal reluctance to examine in a consistent way the basis on which our understanding of this artist and his circle was established. To do so would be to question the competence of most of those who have written on the subject, and this is something that no one, it seems, wants to do. As a result, the views of nineteenth century critics such as Crowe and Cavalcaselle, which were often based on the flimsiest evidence, have colored everything that has been written subsequently and the longer those views have gone unchallenged the greater the authority that they have acquired. (38)
Despite their well-known political inclinations, it would appear that most scholars are inherently conservative, especially when it comes to their own fields. They often will give lip service to “thinking outside the box,” but their devotion to traditional academic orthodoxies is pervasive. In my own experience I have found art history to be a very insular world.

I had never even heard of Giorgione at the time of the Hope lecture. It was two years later that by chance I noticed a black and white reproduction of the Tempest while preparing for a trip to Venice. I remember wondering why the nursing woman was nude, and also whether the couple had left the city in the background or were on their way to the city. An intuition led me to see the painting as a version of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt.


After almost 35 years as a financial advisor, I was getting close to retirement and the painting fascinated me. Many years before, I had received my PhD in History, and had taught European history for seven years at a local Connecticut college. I dusted off the old academic shelves and began to do some research on Giorgione and the Tempest. Fortunately, the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna had just sponsored a ground breaking Giorgione exhibition, and produced a magnificent catalog.

One of the first things I discovered was that not only did scholars fail to agree about Giorgione attributions, but also they could not agree on the subject matter of most of his paintings. It was just as Hope had claimed in his lecture. Each interpretation had been challenged by subsequent interpretations. The field was open to new interpretations that would not need to be based on the erroneous guesses of the past but on a fresh look at the paintings through eyes that had not been trained in the prevailing orthodoxy.

Since my interpretation of the Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” I have been able to also identify the subjects of a number of other mysterious Renaissance paintings. These include Giorgione’s so-called “Three Ages of Man” (Pitti Palace) as “The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man”; Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” (Borghese Gallery) as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen”; and Titian’s “Pastoral Concert” as his “Homage to the Recently Deceased Giorgione.” These papers can be found on my website.

Coincidentally, in 2005 I discovered that I had glaucoma. The young surgeon who examined me said that without surgery to relieve the pressure, I would be blind in three years. Fortunately, he is a genius and the surgery was successful. My vision is not the best but I can still see.

I put this post up today because it is the fifth anniversary of Giorgione et al…. I started the blog five years ago at the urging of Hasan Niyazi, the creator of the popular art history blog, Three Pipe Problem. Unfortunately, Hasan passed away last October but I will never forget our friendship and the debt I owe to him for guiding me through the intricacies of the blogosphere. Hasan’s site is currently down but there is hope that his friends will revive it. In the weeks to come I will reproduce some articles of mine that appeared on Three Pipe Problem over the past four years. ###

Hasan Niyazi



*Charles Hope: Giorgione or Titian? History of a Controversy, The council of the Frick Collection Lecture Series, NY, 2003.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Titian: Assumption of Mary


Titian’s huge altarpiece of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven is by far the most well-known and spectacular painting of that subject. The painting is more than 22 feet  high and 11 feet wide and was designed to fit behind the main altar of Santa Maria Gloriosa, commonly known as the Frari, in Venice. It still dominates the Frari, then as now the Franciscan center in Venice. It was begun in 1516 and completed in 1518 and was a sign that Titian had become not only the premier painter in Venice but also, one of the greatest in Europe. However, Titian was only one of many Italian masters who turned their attention to this subject in the sixteenth century. To give one example, a few years later Correggio painted a kind of Baroque version in the cathedral of Parma.



Depictions of the actual Assumption were a relatively new phenomenon in the early sixteenth century. In earlier times artists and patrons seemed to prefer depictions of what is known as the Dormition of Mary. This was a legendary event that supposed that at the end of her stay on earth, Mary fell into her last sleep. Then the Apostles were miraculously transported from their labors all over the world to be at her bedside. They were joined by her Son who took her soul directly to Heaven. Artists like Duccio depicted an infant that represented the soul of Mary in the arms of Christ.*
In the sixteenth century Titian and others would still retain the Apostles in the scene but would show Mary as a full grown beautiful woman rising up on her own to meet the Trinity. Her traditional red dress is a sign of her humanity, but the blue cloak that billows around her is a sign that she has been covered or cloaked by the Almighty. The primitive image of an infant in the arms of her Son would be discarded.
I believe that the change must have reflected the increased interest in the idea of the Immaculate Conception that had been developing since the beginning of the fifteenth century. If Mary was conceived without original sin, then Mary would not, following the words of St. Paul, be subject to death. It was Sin that ushered Death into the world. Therefore, the  Assumption of Mary is a corollary to the Immaculate Conception.
Significant developments in the 15th century had brought the idea of the Immaculate Conception to prominence by the end of the century. In the first place, the century witnessed a continued increase in devotion to the Madonna, which naturally led to an increased interest on the part of the populace in the "Conception." This interest was fostered by religious orders, most notably the Franciscans. Secondly, controversy about the doctrine between the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the two great preaching orders, contributed to the development of the doctrine.
This controversy brought to a head a debate about the "Conception" which had been going on among theologians during the previous two centuries. The Franciscans based their support not only on the great devotion to Mary on the part of their founder but also on the theological opinion of their great scholar, John Duns Scotus. Although no less devoted to Mary, Dominican theologians argued that since Christ had come to free all from sin, His own Mother should not be excluded. Their position was based on St. Paul, the early Church fathers, and even St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Dominican theologian, who had expressed reservations about the doctrine.[i]
 In 1438 the Council of Basel, no doubt responding to the upsurge of devotion to Mary, affirmed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception but only after Papal legates and others had left the Council. Without Papal support the Council and its decrees could not become binding on the Church. Nevertheless, the concept of the Immaculate Conception had been given tremendous impetus, especially in France and the Iberian peninsula. Nowhere, however, did it receive greater support than in Venice.
Rona Goffen, in Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, argued that Venice itself became identified with the Immaculate Conception by the end of the Quattrocento.[ii] By mid-century there were 20 churches and 300 altars dedicated to the Madonna. By the end of the century, churches like S. Maria dei Miracoli and S. Maria della Carita were dedicated specifically to the "Immaculata." In 1498, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was founded in Venice, and it worshipped at the Frari's famous Pesaro altar, itself dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.
 Two great figures had a tremendous impact on the spiritual life of Venice in the 15th century. St. Bernardino of Siena, a Franciscan Observant, had preached in Venice before his death in 1443. His impact must have been significant since he was made a  patron saint of the Republic in 1470.  Although unwilling to embroil himself in the controversy over the doctrine, he was devoted to Mary and known as an advocate of the Immaculate Conception. Even more importantly, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, Lorenzo Giustiniani, was a staunch advocate of the doctrine. Giustiniani died in 1453 but his sermons, especially on Marian subjects like the Annunciation and the Assumption, were well known and circulated widely after his death. Finally, his collected sermons were published in Venice in 1506 by which time he had come to enjoy almost beatified status. Referring to the sermons of these two giants Rona Goffen noted,

In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nonetheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination.[iii]

The Papacy also played a role. Francesco della Rovere, the Vicar-General of the Franciscan order and a leading Franciscan scholar was elected Pope Sixtus IV in 1471. In the previous year he had written a treatise on the Immaculate Conception in which he had tried to reconcile the differing opinions of supporters and opponents. In 1476 he responded to increased rancor among the contending orders with a Bull calling for an end to the controversy. Subsequently, he added the feast of the Immaculate Conception to the liturgy for the entire Western Church, and ordered new offices to be composed for the Feast. One was even composed especially for Franciscan use. Nevertheless, the controversy continued and both sides intensified their efforts, especially in Venice where the Frari, became a virtual shrine to Mary's Immaculate Conception.
Even though Marian beliefs like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are little understood and even mis-understood today by both believers and non-believers, students of the Renaissance must try to understand their importance in Italy and elsewhere on the eve of the Protestant reformation. Otherwise, it would be hard to understand the animus of Protestant reformers to Marian shrines and devotions.  ###




* For the Dormition of Mary see the nice discussion at art-threads.co.uk  in the section entitled Life of the Virgin

[i] For a comprehensive discussion of the doctrine and the controversy surrounding it see The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, History and Significance, ed. Edward Dennis O’Connor, University of Notre Dame Press, 1958, c. VI. See also the article on the Immaculate Conception in “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” 1910.

[ii]Rona Goffen,  Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice,  Yale, 1986, p. 154.

[iii]Goffen, op. cit.  p. 79.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Lorenzo Lotto: Crucifixion




Italian Renaissance master Lorenzo Lotto was born in Venice around 1480 but spent most of his long career working in provincial towns. Perhaps this is why he is not as well known as Giorgione and Titian, both of whom were born outside of Venice but did most of their work there.


Lotto’s most powerful and dramatic work was a Crucifixion* that still stands in its original site in the little church of Santa Maria in Telusiano in the small out of the way hill town of Monte San Giusto in the Marche. It is not too far from Loreto, the religious center where Lotto eventually spent the last years of his life.

Lotto’s Crucifixion shows that he could hold his own with the greatest of Renaissance masters. My wife and I saw the painting a few years ago as we traveled down the Adriatic coast. Our old guidebook described it as the "most dramatic and powerful" of all Lottos's large scale works, and so we decided to take a side trip out of our way in hope of finding it.  Although we are very thankful for the wonderful works of art preserved today in Italian museums, it is always special to see a work “in situ”, where it was originally meant to be seen.

It was not easy to find Santa Maria in Telusiano and we finally had to go into a local bank where a patron kindly offered to lead us there through the curvy narrow streets of the town. We parked outside a long stone staircase that went up and up between stone buildings packed closely together on each side.

It was hard to immediately recognize the church but we finally found a door that led into what was no more than a large chapel. It was dark inside and the church was empty except for a couple of ladies who seemed to be cleaning. We could hardly see the painting behind the only altar but one of the ladies pointed to a little box. We put a coin in and immediately the great magnificent painting (450x250cm) that took up almost the whole back wall was revealed.

Revealed is an understatement. The light, color, movement, physicality, and dramatic intensity virtually jumped out at us. In the foreground, the disciple John seems to lead the grieving blessed Mother right out of the picture. Behind them red-haired Mary Magdalene dressed in blue stretches out her arms in grief. A crowd of guards and onlookers stand beneath and around the three crosses that reach high into a dark sky. Jesus is in the middle flanked by the two thieves.

Standing in Santa Maria it is hard to examine the huge painting closely because the impression is so overwhelming. But on reflection we can say that Lotto has depicted the moment right after the death of Jesus. We can see the Roman centurion Longinus on his white horse immediately after he has placed the point of his lance in the side of Jesus to verify his death. He has released the lance and it is about to fall. He reaches both hands toward Jesus in the act of shouting, “truly, this man was the Son of God.”

The death of Jesus is also marked by a great wind that causes the garments of the thieves to billow as well as the Roman banner on the right where one can just make our the first letters of the name of Caesar Augustus. It would appear then that John is taking the Mother of Jesus away from the scene of horror.

Today, it is hard to imagine what churchgoers back in an obscure provincial town must have thought when they beheld this magnificent painting. They could never have seen anything like it before and must have known that a great master had been in their midst. Going to Mass in Santa Maria in Telusiano would never be the same. At the Consecration, as the priest at the altar raised high the consecrated host, their eyes would also behold the sacrificial victim raised high on Calvary in the dramatic and breathtaking altarpiece behind.

### 

*Lorenzo Lotto: Crucifixion, 1531. Santa Maria in Telusiano, Monte San Giusto, Macerata, Marche. (oil on wood, 450x250 cm). See detail below.