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".

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Titian: Presentation of the Virgin

David Rosand’s  “Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Scuola della Carita” appeared in the Art Bulletin in March, 1976. * It would be hard to imagine a more thorough and better researched paper than this one by the late Columbia professor who during his long career became one of the leaders in the field of the Venetian Renaissance.

In his essay Rosand proposed to “take a new look at Titian’s painting, to consider it on its own terms, the details of the composition as well as its broader contexts….” He examined the patronage, the social function of the picture, the position of the image within the history of its type, the relationship of the picture to its physical site, as well as the conditions under which it was to be seen.

He stressed that he was departing from the traditional nineteenth and early twentieth century view of the painting as an example of Renaissance naturalism with little attention to its iconography. Rosand’s study is primarily iconographical. He demonstrated that practically every detail in the painting is important, and that all the details fit together to form a unified whole. 

In this brief review I would like to highlight some of the most significant iconographic details that Rosand explored as a guide to viewing the painting. I would also like to disagree with his analysis on one significant point. 

Titian’s painting is still in the place in which it was originally meant to be seen although the nature of the site has changed around it. Venice’s Accademia, its famous art museum, was originally the church of S. Maria della Carita, the home of the Confraternity della Carita, one of the leading social and charitable organizations in sixteenth century Venice.
Around 1534 the confraternity commissioned Titian to do a painting of the Presentation of the Virgin for a particular wall in one of its rooms. 

The Presentation was a very popular subject in Renaissance Venice both before and after the Reformation. The subject was based on the legendary story of Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary. Giotto had immortalized the story back in the thirteenth century on the walls of the Scrovegni or Arena chapel in nearby Padua.

According to the legend the sacrifice of Joachim, a prosperous sheep raiser,  was rejected by the priests of the Temple because he and his wife were childless, a sign of divine disfavor. Banned from the Temple, Joachim left his wife and went to live in the fields with his shepherds and flocks. However, he made an offering in the wilderness and not only was it accepted by God, but he was also told to return home to his wife, Anne, who had also been given a sign that they would be blessed with a child.  They met at the Golden Gate of the city, exchanged a kiss, and Anne conceived and bore a daughter Mary. In thanksgiving the joyous couple resolved to offer their child to service in the Temple.

The offering of the child is the focal point of Titian’s painting although Titian depicts her ascending the steps seemingly on her own volition in much the same way that she appears to rise on her own in his earlier Assunta. Rosand noted that Titian surrounded the young Mary with “a full mandorla of golden light”, something unprecedented and full of meaning.
the Virgin does indeed rival and outshine the natural light entering through the windows of the room; she is the light beyond the light of nature, a radiance more brilliant than the sun….The wisdom texts, the basis of the Marian celebration, afford then a means of reading Titian’s Presentation, allowing us to determine the significance of many of its supposedly merely picturesque details within the context of a controlling thematic structure. [68]
Instead of mere naturalistic, pictorial details, the sunlight, the clouds, and the mountains in the background all relate to the theme of the painting: “the diffusion of … divine light into the world. “
Rising behind the pyramid is a great cumulus cloud, its luminous shape dominating the left side of the canvas….one ought to expect this form, moving so majestically over the landscape, to assume a meaning beyond its obvious naturalistic function. And I would suggest that this meaning derives from the same wisdom texts with which Titian was so evidently familiar. {Ecclesiasticus 24: 5-7} “as a cloud I covered all the earth: I dwell in the highest places, and my throne is a pillar of cloud.” In this form the divinity presides over Titian’s landscape, becoming with the pyramid a monumental hieroglyph of the divine immanence, while on the opposite side of the picture the Virgin’s radiance speaks of its ultimate incarnation for the salvation of mankind. [70]
In a section entitled “Dramatis Personae”, Rosand identified the various onlookers to the Virgin’s ascent up the steps of the Temple. ** He rejected the opinion of Vasari and others that these were merely portraits of contemporaries including Titian himself. The main characters relate to the theme of the painting and derive from scriptural sources.

Oddly enough Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary, while centrally placed, are somewhat obscured. Joachim stands with his back to the viewer with his hand on his wife’s shoulder. Anne wears a little cap and certainly does not stand out as do other women in the painting.

Rosand followed the lead of Leo Steinberg in identifying the beautiful young woman dressed in gold and white at the foot of the steps as Mary’s elder cousin, Elizabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist. 
The beautiful young woman at the foot of the stairs, so often carelessly identified as Anna, acquires by her prominence within the composition a rather distinctive significance…. care has been taken to distinguish her from the rest of the procession. Dressed in gold and white, stately yet modest, seen in pure profile, she seems to reflect in her larger person the figure of the Virgin herself, and this connection is made explicit by the indication of her companion. [73-4]

Again following Steinberg’s suggestion, Rosand identified the younger priest at the top of the stairs as another major figure in the Infancy narrative, Zacharias, the future husband of Elizabeth.

At the top of the stairs stands the second priest, receiving special focus by the upturned glance of the young acolyte; he too is in profile, but facing left. These two figures…are isolated as a couple within the composition, formally responding to one another across the distance of the staircase.

Rosand departed from earlier guesses and argued that the figures at the left of the painting, dressed mainly in black, must be the patrons. “The eight obvious portraits in Titian’s picture must surely represent the chief officers of the Carita…” In particular, the one in red must be the Guardino Grande who for solemn feasts would be dressed in “crimson robes and ducal sleeves.” [74]

The woman at the left holding a baby and stretching out her hand is a mendicant, a personification of Charity, the primary work of the confraternity. “Titian elevates her, or rather the entire action to the status of a personification, or enactment, of Caritas…”

Finally, at the outset of his paper Rosand admitted that the old woman looking on besides the steps has perhaps been the greatest single mystery of the painting.
The old egg-seller in front of the stairs has inspired more comment than any other single figure in the composition. [56]

 He noted that most interpreters see her as a mere “pictorial detail” but argued that she represented much more. Panofsky had seen her as a personification of Judaism but Rosand was more specific. 
Instead of a representatives of the Jews as such, we have here, then, a personification of Synagogue. And it is to this tradition that Titian’s old egg-seller, as the unreconstructed Synagogue, belongs. [72]
However, his description of the traditional appearance of Synagogue does not fit his explanation.
an old woman dressed in tattered black garments. In her right hand she holds, inverted, the Tablets of the Law; in her left is the broken Roman vexillum, a red banner emblazoned with the gold letters S.P.Q.R [73]
Actually, the figure in black behind the two priests at the top of the stairs better fits the description of Synagogue.

The egg-seller is old but her clothing indicates an elevated, even exalted status. Her gown is the same blue as the young Virgin’s and her head is covered with a white shawl that Titian had sometimes used in depictions of the Madonna. Rosand had argued that the gold and white of Elizabeth’s garments indicated her status but why ignore the garments of the old woman.? Cima da Conegliano in an earlier version of the Presentation, that is often compared with Titian’s, also clothed the egg seller in blue and white.

Cima da Conegliano: Presentation of the Virgin

I believe that the old woman could very well be Anna the Prophetess, who appeared in the gospel account of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Scripture records that she had been a Temple denizen for years and it is not hard to imagine that Venetian artists would have wanted to also depict her attendance at the Presentation of Mary.

It is true that she does not look at the young Mary ascending the steps. But her back is turned to the Temple and she looks toward or perhaps past the assembled figures who are also illuminated by the divine light that comes from the left.


*David Rosand: Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Scuola della Carita. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 58. No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 55-84.

** Rosand noted that 15 was the traditional number of steps and if one looks carefully, you can see two more steps behind the high priest. (Thanks to my friend David Orme for pointing this out.)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

J.P. Morgan's Madonnas

One of my favorite art venues in New York City is the Morgan Library, the former home of famed financier and collector J.P. Morgan. My wife and I and a friend visited the Morgan early this summer to see two exhibitions. The first, “Henry James and American Painting,” examined the novelist’s interest in art as well as his friendship with a number of painters of the time. The second, “Poussin, Claude, and French Drawings in the Classical Age,” was drawn largely from the Museum’s huge collection. Despite the title, the drawings exhibited a continued interest in religious or sacred subjects in the classical era.

Morgan Library: West Room

The exhibitions were excellent but for me the highlight of any visit to the Morgan is the West Room, J.P. Morgan’s own personal study. It is an extremely spacious room whose walls are covered with opulent red wallpaper or fabric. His magnificent wooden desk is at one end and when he sat behind it, he would have faced a large fireplace above which was his own large portrait. To me the most striking thing about the room is that the great financier chose to surround himself with at least five paintings featuring the Madonna and Child.

As you enter the room and look at his desk you immediately notice on the wall behind what certainly looks like a Madonna done by the great early Venetian Renaissance master, Giovanni Bellini. In the painting the Madonna sits off to the right with her nude infant Son on her lap. The Child raises his hand to bless a kneeling donor. Four saints stand as witnesses. The Museum labels the saints as Paul, George, and two unidentified female martyrs with the one facing the viewer perhaps being St. Cecilia holding a martyr’s palm.

After Giovanni Bellini

The Museum’s website indicates that while the painting bears the appearance of a Bellini, it was done by Marco Bello, a member of Bellini’s workshop, who obviously followed the master’s guidelines. The Bellini workshop was in the business of providing high quality devotional objects for its Venetian clientele. The painting was done in tempera on panel but later changed to canvas. It measures 29 ½ by 43 inches.

Across the way, two similar paintings flank the fireplace on the wall facing Morgan’s desk. On the right we see a Perugino of a kneeling Madonna with two saints adoring the Christ child who lies on bare ground. The Morgan’s website identifies the saints as St. John the Evangelist and “an unidentified female saint, perhaps Mary Magdalene.” I can accept Mary Magdalene, but I find it hard to see John the Evangelist in this painting. I know that Renaissance artists often portrayed the youngest Apostle as beardless and with long hair, but the saint on the left certainly looks like a woman to me. I believe that the part in the middle of her hair is a tipoff.


The website also notes that the inscription on the frame is from Psalm 45 and refers to the Christ child. “Fairer in beauty are you than the sons of men; grace is poured out upon thy lips; thus God has blessed you forever.” It’s too bad that Perugino’s clumsy bambino does not bring out the beauty of the child in the way that his pupil Raphael might have done.

The painting is in tempera on wood and measures 34 1/2 by 28 3/8 inches. The Morgan dates it to ca. 1500.

On the other side of the fireplace is a painting of the Madonna and child by Francesco Francia, who, like Perugino, was one of the artists in great demand by patrons at the end of the fifteenth century. Francia was a goldsmith by trade who worked mainly in his home town of Bologna. The Museum’s website notes that depictions of “the Virgin and Child with saints are predominant among his major surviving works.” 


The Madonna stands behind a parapet supporting her child who stands on the parapet. The child is nude but old enough to stand. In respect to the child Francia did a much better job than Perugino. Madonna and Child are flanked by St. Dominic holding a lily, and St. Barbara holding a martyr’s palm as well as a replica of the tower in which she was imprisoned by her pagan father.

The painting is oil on panel and measures 32 and a half by 26 and five eighths inches.

Near the Francia, on the adjacent wall, are two other Madonnas. Morgan could have looked up from his desk and seen all three together. The first is a tondo labelled the Madonna of the Magnificat. It looks like a Botticelli but the Museum notes that it is only from the master’s workshop.

After Botticell

The Museum indicates that "the title derives from the opening words of the Virgin's song of exaltation, Magnificat anima mea dominus (My soul doth glorify the Lord)." It is in oil on panel and measures 37 3/8 inches in diameter. The Museum dates it c. 1490.

The second is by Cima da Conegliano and is labelled, “Virgin and Child with SS. Catherine and John the Baptist. The Museum trivializes the painting somewhat by claiming that “the Christ child leans back to play with John the Baptist’s cross,” but the many depictions of this incident make it clear that Jesus is in the act of taking up his own cross or mission. This action is then tied in with the acceptance of the ring which the Madonna offers to S. Catherine who in her mystic marriage will join herself with Christ and take up her own cross. In her hand she holds the martyr’s palm.

Cima da Conegliano

The Museum notes that “Cima asserted his authorship of the painting on the small piece of paper (cartellino) affixed to the parapet in the foreground, an element considered a signature of his work.” The painting is in oil on panel and measures 25 3/8 by 38 5/8 inches.

The Francia was acquired by Morgan in 1907,  and the other four in 1910/11. Morgan lived during the Pre-Raphaelite movement and that might explain his interest in these paintings, even the copies. I suspect, however, that he had his own personal reason for lining his study with images of the Madonna.