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, April 4, 2015

Michelangelo: Doni Tondo

Is the Madonna in Michelangelo’s famed Doni Tondo handing her infant son to St. Joseph, or is St. Joseph handing the child to her? This question is one of many that arise from a look at this painting that is one of the greatest masterpieces of the High Renaissance. It dates to the first decade of the fifteenth century somewhere between Michelangelo’s completion of the David in 1504 and his departure from Florence to Rome in 1506.

What is your opinion? Here's a closer look.

In his Lives of the Painters… Giorgio Vasari said that even a quick glance at the painting indicated that Michelangelo depicted the Madonna handing the Infant Jesus to St. Joseph.

There came to Angelo Doni, a Florentine citizen and a friend of Michelagnolo. who much delighted to have beautiful things both by ancient and by modern craftsmen, a desire to possess some work by Michelagnolo; wherefore that master began for him a round picture containing a Madonna, who, kneeling on both knees, has an Infant in her arms and presents Him to Joseph, who receives him. Here Michelagnolo expresses in the turn of the head of the Mother of Christ and in the gaze of her eyes, which she keeps fixed on the supreme beauty of her Son, her marvelous contentment and her lovingness in sharing it with that saintly old man, who receives Him with equal affection, tenderness, and reverence, as may be seen very readily in his countenance, without considering it too long. Nor was this enough for Michelagnolo, who, the better to show how great was his art, made in the background of his work a number of nudes, some leaning, some standing, and some seated; and with such diligence and finish he executed this work, that without a doubt, of his pictures on panel, which indeed are but few, it is held to be the most finished and the most beautiful work that there is to be found. *

Despite Vasari’s opinion many modern scholars believe that the man in the painting is handing the Infant Christ to the Madonna. One scholar has even argued that the man in the painting is actually God the Father presenting the Infant to Mary as a kind of Annunciation without an angelic intermediary.**

Vasari was often mistaken or ill informed but he was a close friend and confidant of Michelangelo. It would be almost the height of temerity to reject his eyewitness description of the central feature in this painting.

An analysis of the real subject of the painting will show that Vasari’s eyes did not deceive him. In the Doni Tondo Michelangelo placed the Holy Family outside in a landscape. He used the traditional setting of one of the most popular subjects of the day, the encounter of the Holy Family with the infant John the Baptist on the return from their sojourn in Egypt. Obviously, the infant John the Baptist had also been saved from the murderous designs of King Herod. While the Holy Family had fled to the safety of Egypt, popular legends recounted the escape of the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth by taking refuge in a desert cave or grotto.

Scripture does not record how long the Holy Family remained in Egypt but the legends claimed that when they finally did return to Judea, they encountered the young John the Baptist in the desert. The significance of the meeting was not lost on theologians, ordinary folk, and the artists who found a ready market for paintings of the meeting of the two infants.

The meeting in the desert was regarded as a precursor to the meeting at the Jordan some thirty years later that marked the beginning of the public life of Jesus. At the Baptism of Jesus, John had proclaimed, “behold the lamb of God”, a prophecy of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. When artists portrayed the two infants meeting and sometimes embracing in the desert, they were depicting the acceptance by Jesus of his sacrificial mission. Sometimes the scene includes an actual lamb, or even a lamb in the place of John the Baptist.

Leonardo: Virgin of the Rocks. London.

Leonardo’s so-called “Madonna of the Rocks” is a good example of the encounter with the young John the Baptist. Leonardo placed the meeting in the cave or grotto in which the Baptist and his mother took refuge. The version now in London even shows the Baptist showing a little cross to the infant Jesus. Leonardo’s equally famous depiction of Mary, her mother Anne, and the two young boys is also a version of the encounter in the desert. Leonardo substituted a lamb for the Baptist in the final version.

Leonardo: Madonna and Child with St. Anne and  John the Baptist

Speaking of Baptism, I like the theory that the five nude figures in the background of the Doni Tondo also refer to Baptism. It has been argued that the three sons of Noah are shown on our right but that the third, who looked upon his father's nakedness, is omitted on the left. In the First Letter of St. Peter it is stated that the saving of Noah and his family from the Flood prefigured Baptism. 

A New Covenant was established after the Flood. Jesus claimed that John the Baptist was the last and greatest of its prophets. Accordingly, the young Baptist is behind the parapet that separates the Old from the New and gazes at the Christ Child being raised up by his Mother as if she were a priest elevating the Host at the Consecration of the Mass.

Not only does Mary elevate the Child, but also she hands Him to St. Joseph. In the preceding century theologians had elevated the humble carpenter to the role of patron and protector of the Church. Indeed, the descendant of King David is often depicted wearing gold, the color of royalty. In the Doni Tondo I believe that Michelangelo went even further. Joseph is now a symbol of the Church or people of God. At the outset of his mission on Earth, Mary delivers the Child to the Church that is commissioned to carry on His mission.

There can be multiple levels of meaning in a Renaissance painting. It is also possible that the Doni Tondo includes the hope that Agnolo Doni’s wife would present him with a male son and heir.


Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston Du C. De Vere, with an introduction and notes by David Ekserdjian, Everyman’s Library, 1996. V. II. Part III. Michelangelo, p. 656.

**Timothy Verdon, Mary in Florentine Art, 2003, pp. 91-99.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Norton Simon Duveen Exhibition Primadonna

Last year on a trip to California I visited the famed Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena to see a small painting ( 31.7 x 24.1 cm) that the Museum labels, “Head of a Venetian Girl.” The trustees of the Museum still like to attribute the painting to Giorgione even though the label indicates that most scholars today give it to Titian.

I revisited the Norton Simon this January to see an exhibition entitled “Lock, Stock, and Barrel: Norton Simon’s Purchase of Duveen Brothers Gallery” only to discover that the young Venetian had become the poster girl for the whole exhibition that began last October and will run until April 27 of this year. In its introduction to the exhibition, the Museum noted that the young girl or ‘courtesan’ played a key role not only in the exhibition but in the Museum’s history.

Behind the beguiling Portrait of a Courtesan lies one of the many fascinating tales of Norton Simon’s determination to assemble a remarkable collection of art.

The Museum’s excellent website and related video, narrated by curator Carol Togneri, give the full story but here is a brief summary. A few years after the close of the Second World War Norton Simon approached Duveen Brothers Gallery in New York City in an attempt to buy the aforementioned portrait of the young woman. Even back then, a Giorgione acquisition would have added immeasurably to Simon’s collection.

The firm of Duveen Brothers had been started by the legendary art dealer Joseph Duveen who died in 1939 after a long career dealing in Old Masters. Although Norton Simon had originally inquired about the painting of the young woman, he eventually offered to buy about a half dozen other Duveen holdings. Finally, as the process of negotiation went on, he offered to buy everything the Duveen Gallery owned including its Park Avenue mansion. The offer was accepted and  except the Park Avenue property everything went west to California.

Most of the Duveen holdings were put into storage and only a few of the major ones were ever publicly exhibited.  The current Duveen exhibition is the Museum’s attempt to exhibit a much larger sample of the entire acquisition. It has been beautifully mounted and displayed. Even the frames are well worth seeing.

Still, the small painting of the young woman has been given pride of place. Today even a small Giorgione or Titian is priceless. Earlier at Giorgione et al… I argued that the young girl or courtesan depicted in a partial state of undress was Mary Magdalen, one of the most popular subjects in the art of the Renaissance. I also believe that Giorgione portrayed Mary Magdalen in a similar pose and state of undress in the painting usually labeled “Laura”.

However, I would just like to add some words on the subject of the attribution. I agree with those scholars who give the painting to the young Titian who worked with Giorgione on the fresco decoration of the exterior walls of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.  I am not good at stylistic analysis but I would say that the face of the young woman in the Norton Simon painting bears a close resemblance to the face of the adulteress in Titian’s “Christ with the Adulteress”, an early Titian now in the Glasgow Museum.  Indeed, contemporary Venetians tended to lump all the sinful women of the gospels into Mary Magdalen.

Secondly, the Norton Simon woman wears a multi-colored striped shawl over her shoulder. The same shawl can be seen in one of Titian’s much later depictions of Mary Magdalen. Can this be just a coincidence? 

During his long career Titian became the most prolific painter of Mary Magdalen. In my paper on the Sacred and Profane Love I have argued that the two women in that painting now in the Borghese Gallery both represent the Magdalen; one as courtesan and the other as repentant sinner. The Norton Simon "Portrait of a Young Girl" could well be Titian's first attempt while still under the influence of Giorgione.


Friday, January 9, 2015

Giorgione, Titian, and the Venetian Renaissance

Since 2005 I have made what I consider to be four “major” discoveries in the field of the Venetian Renaissance. I list them below along with some “minor” discoveries that have flowed from my initial intuition that Giorgione’s Tempest has a “sacred" subject. Essays on the major discoveries can be found on my site, MyGiorgione.

Major Discoveries: (click on images to enlarge)

Giorgione: The Tempest. In this paper the subject of the Tempest is identified as The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The nude woman nursing an infant is the Madonna. The man is St. Joseph with his staff. The broken columns are commonplace in depictions of the “Rest.” The city in the background is Judea from where the Holy Family has fled but could also represent Padua during the war of the League of Cambrai. The scraggly plant in the foreground is “belladonna” a plant associated with witchcraft and the Devil. The source of the lone bird on the distant rooftop is found in the Psalms. The paper included a new interpretation of a “lost” Giorgione heretofore mistakenly called The Discovery of Paris.

Giorgione: Three Ages of Man. In this essay the subject of this painting of three half-length figures that now hangs in the Pitti Palace is identified as the Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man. The subject derives from an episode in the Gospel of Matthew. The young man in the center, whose clothing indicates his wealth, has just asked how he can achieve eternal life. On the right, Jesus dressed in a green vestment points to the commandments that he has directed the man to follow. On the left dressed in martyr’s red, Peter acts as an interlocutor and invites the viewer to enter the scene.

Titian: Sacred and Profane Love.  In this paper the subject of Titian’s magnificent painting in Rome’s Borghese Gallery is identified as The Conversion of Mary Magdalen. The finely dressed Woman is Mary Magdalen in the guise of a Venetian courtesan. The nude Woman is the converted Magdalen in the process of throwing off her worldly finery. The antique relief on the sarcophagus-like fountain, which so far has eluded explanation, can now be seen to depict great sinners: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and St. Paul falling from his horse.

Titian: Pastoral Concert. This paper identifies the subject of this famous painting that now hangs in the Louvre as Titian’s Homage to the Recently Deceased Giorgione.  The well-dressed young man in the painting is the recently deceased Giorgione and the young man in rustic attire is Titian himself. The two nude women are both Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry. At least four signs in the painting indicate that the Giorgione has died. All the Giorgionesque elements in the painting are signs of Titian’s homage to his deceased friend and mentor.

“Giorgione’s La Tempesta” was first presented at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in Venice in April 2010. It was subsequently presented at the annual meeting of the South-Central Renaissance conference in St. Louis in March 2011. My paper on Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love was presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the South-Central Renaissance conference held in New Orleans.

For want of a better word I call the following minor discoveries.

Giorgione: The Discovery of Paris. As mentioned above a re-interpretation of a lost Giorgione usually called The Discovery of Paris is part of my paper on the Tempest. I identify the subject of the painting as The Encounter with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt. This essay can also be found at MyGiorgione.

Giorgione: Judith. Scholars have long puzzled over Giorgione’s depiction of the bare leg of the legendary Jewish heroine in this painting now in the Hermitage. In my essay, that can also be found at MyGiorgione, I argue that the reason for the bare leg can be found in the biblical narrative itself. An essay on the Judith can be found at MyGiorgione.

Palma Vecchio:Allegory

Palma Vecchio: Allegory. Scholars have noted the similarity of this painting of four figures in a landscape to Giorgione’s Tempest. The painting is attributed to Palma Vecchio or a follower by the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it is now in storage. The Museum calls it Allegory but it is actually a version of the legendary encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on the return from Egypt. See blog post at Giorgione et al… for a discussion of this and the following painting.

Rustic Idyll

Follower of Giorgione: Rustic Idyll. Scholars have also noted the similarity of this painting to the Tempest. It was called  Rustic Idyll by Edgar Wind and is now on loan to the Fogg Art Museum. In my opinion it is also a version of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”

Discussions of the following paintings can be found using the search bar or labels at my blog, Giorgione et al…

ParisBordone: Mystic Marriage of S. Catherine

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. In two versions of the mystic marriage of St. Catherine Paris Bordone portrayed a young virile St. Joseph. The first painting is in a private collection but was a standout in the 2006 Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition jointly sponsored by Washington’s National Gallery and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. So far, no one has come up with a plausible explanation for the prominently featured bare leg of St. Joseph. In my interpretation that can be found at Giorgione et al… both Joseph’s bare leg and Catherine’s exposed thigh are derived from the ritual associated with a marriage by proxy. The second version is in the Hermitage.

Giorgione: Three Philosophers. I agree with those who see the three men in this painting as the three Magi or wise men at the moment when they first behold the star. However, I believe that I am the first to argue that the color of their garments represents their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow. I also agree with those who see this soulful bust of a young man holding an arrow as the popular martyr, St. Sebastian. His pose bears a striking resemblance to Raphael’s unmistakable depiction of the saint. I added my own two cents to the debate by pointing out that the young man’s garment is red, the color of martyrdom.

Giorgione: Laura. I don’t think that I am the first to identify this young woman as Mary Magdalen but at Giorgione et al… I bring together the reasons why students should consider this woman as the very popular sinner turned saint. The Three Philosophers, the Boy with an Arrow, and the Laura are in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Titian: Courtesan

Titian: Flora. Like Giorgione’s Laura, I also believe that Titian’s Flora is one of his many renditions of Mary Magdalen. In the same way, I also argue that Titian’s Courtesan in the Norton Simon collection is also Mary Magdalen. The latter certainly bears a resemblance to Giorgione’s young woman with breast partially exposed.

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds. In all the controversy concerning this painting, usually called the Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds, the real meaning of the painting has been overlooked. Just as in the famed Portinari Altarpiece, Giorgione has depicted the first Mass, with the infant Christ lying on a white cloth just as the Eucharist lies on a white cloth or corporale laid on the altar during Mass.

Titian: Madonna of the Rabbit. Despite its common title this painting is a version of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. The Madonna hands her infant son to Catherine in the same way that a priest would hand the host to a communicant. In an essay at Giorgione et al… I have argued that the white rabbit featured so prominently in the center is also a symbol of the Eucharist. Moreover, I disagree with most scholars and believe that the man at the right with a flock is actually St. Joseph.

Lotto: Mystic Marriage of S. Catherine

Lorenzo Lotto: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. This version of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. We see the Madonna holding her infant son who places his hand on the book Catherine is holding. Catherine looks away from the child to a kneeling man with a long staff with a spear point at its end. Scholars guess that the man is either St. Thomas or St. James but there is no reason for either to be in Catherine’s dream. I have identified the man as St. Joseph, the man most commonly found in versions of the mystic marriage.

Giorgione: Homage to a Poet
Giorgione: Saturn Exiled or Homage to a Poet. London’s National Gallery attributes this painting to Giorgione and calls it Homage to a Poet. A leading Giorgione scholar has recently interpreted it as Saturn Exiled. In my interpretation the seated figure dressed in regal attire but with a forlorn look on his face could only be the Jesus as The Man of Sorrows, one of the most popular images of the Renaissance.

Titian: Presentation of the Virgin
Titian: Presentation of the Virgin. Scholars have not been able to identify the old woman seated so prominently in the foreground of this famous painting in the Accademia in Venice. I have identified her as the prophetess Anna mentioned in the biblical account of the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple.

Raohael: Vision of Ezekiel

Raphael: Vision of Ezekiel. Scholars attribute this painting to Raphael or a follower and from Vasari’s time on the subject has been mis-identified. I have identified the subject as The Vision of St. John on the Isle of Patmos taken from the Book of Revelation.

Giorgione: Castelfranco Altarpiece. In this famous painting that is located in the Cathedral in Giorgione’s hometown of Castelfranco, I believe that Giorgione placed the Madonna and her Child on the heavenly altar referred to in the Mass of the Roman rite. In addition, I wonder about the position of the viewer of this masterpiece.


Note: For personal reasons I will not be putting up posts in the next two months. I would like to wish all my readers a Happy New Year.

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione's "Adoration of the Shepherds", often called the "Allendale Adoration", is one of the most popular paintings in Washington's National Gallery. At this time of year it is a Christmas card perennial. It was also used in one of the most popular US stamp issues.

"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 Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, and portrayed Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and two shepherds." (M.W. Martin: “Christmas in Stamps,” in Catholic Digest Christmas Book, ed. Father Kenneth Ryan, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1977.)

The scene is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its layers of meaning. Even a modern observer can see that this newborn 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.

For those interested in a discussion of the painting, I reproduce an earlier post below. I include some introductory material on Giorgione.   Merry Christmas.

Giorgione is the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance artists. Mysterious not only because so little is known about his short life, but also because no other great painter’s work has led to so many questions of attribution and interpretation.

Giorgione was a “nickname” and contemporary documents refer to the painter as Zorzo da Castelfranco. Castelfranco is a walled town west of Treviso. about an hour away from Venice via modern commuter rail. We do not know how or when the young Giorgione arrived in Venice. In those days it is likely that he traveled down the Brenta to Padua and then on to Venice by canal. We do know that by the time of his death in 1510 at about the age of 33, he had become the favorite painter of the Venetian aristocracy.

The subject of the "Allendale adoration" is a depiction of the adoration of the shepherds who have left their flocks to seek out the newborn Savior after hearing the angel’s announcement.
Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made know to us..” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
Luke’s account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds is the traditional gospel at the midnight Mass on Christmas . The actual arrival of the shepherds at the stable in Bethlehem is the passage used for the gospel reading for the Christmas Mass at dawn.

The relatively small size of the painting indicates that it was done not as an altarpiece but for private devotion. Although the subject is clear, there is a deeper meaning.* Why is the infant Jesus lying on the rocky ground and not in a manger or feeding trough? Why is he naked? Where are the swaddling clothes?

Actually the newborn infant is lying on a white cloth that just happens to be on the ends of Mary’s elaborate blue robe that the artist has taken great pains to spread over the rocky ground. Giorgione is here using a theme employed earlier by Giovanni Bellini and later by Titian in their famous Frari altarpieces. The naked Christ is the Eucharist that lies on the stone altar at every Mass. The altar is covered with a white cloth that in Rona Goffen’s words “recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.” In Franciscan spirituality Mary is regarded as the altar.
Clearly, the viewer-worshipper is meant to identify the Madonna with the altar and the Child with the Eucharist. Bellini's visual assertion of this symbolic equivalence is explained by a common Marian epithet. The Madonna is the "Altar of Heaven." the Ara Coeli, that contains the eucharistic body of Christ” Ave verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine.**
The “Adoration of the Shepherds” represents the first Mass. This is not such an unusual concept. Many years ago I attended a talk on the famous Portinari altarpiece that now hangs in the Uffizi. The speaker was Fr. Maurice McNamee, a Jesuit scholar, who argued that Hugo van der Goes had also illustrated a Mass in that Netherlandish altarpiece around the year 1475. His argument centered on the spectacular garments of the kneeling angels that he identified as altar servers wearing vestments of the time. He called them “vested angels,” and they are the subject of his 1998 study, “Vested Angels, Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish Painting.”

His Eucharistic interpretation explained the naked infant on the hard, rocky ground. The infant Christ is the same as the sacrificial Christ on the Cross. In a study of Mary in Botticelli’s art Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel referred to this connection.
it needs to be pointed out first of all that the Renaissance era saw the spread of practices of individual devotion to be carried out primarily in the home…From the theological perspective attention should then be drawn to the emergence of a new trend that…tended to identify the mystery of the Incarnation with the Redemption itself, focusing on the Passion with much less fervour than in the past: whence the growing popularity of  ‘incarnational’ iconographies celebrating the word made flesh, such as pictures of the Infant Jesus in his mother’s arms…while the demand for images with Christ on the Cross, very common in the fourteenth century was drastically reduced.***
It would appear that Giorgione has used the same motif although his angels have become little putti who hover around the scene. The shepherds represent participants in the Mass who kneel in adoration. 

There are many other iconographical details in this painting that could be discussed. Joseph’s gold robe indicates royal descent from the House of David. The ox and ass in the cave are symbols of the old order that has been renewed with the coming of Christ. So too would be the tree trunk next to the flourishing laurel bush in the left foreground. The laurel is a traditional symbol of joy, triumph, and resurrection.

Finally, it has been noticed that Giorgione has moved the main characters off to the right away from their traditional place in the center. Rather than diminishing their importance this narrative device serves to make all the action flow from left to right and culminate in the Holy Family.  Giovanni Bellini had done the same thing in his “St. Francis in the Desert,” and later Titian would use this device in his Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari.


*Two recent catalogs have offered interpretations. See Mario Lucco’s entry in Brown, David Alan, and Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006. Also see the very strange interpretation of Wolfgang Eller in Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.

**Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986. P. 53.

***Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel, “The Figure of Mary in Botticelli’s Art.” Botticelli: from Lorenzo the Magnificent to Savonarola, 2003. (ex. cat), p. 56.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Immaculate Conception in the Art of the Renaissance

In my interpretation of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt", I argued that Giorgione had the audacity to portray a nude Madonna in an attempt to depict Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Although the era of the Renaissance witnessed a tremendous increase in interest in the Immaculate Conception, artists were struggling to find a way to depict the mysterious doctrine that had no settled artistic tradition to use. Below is a section from my paper that sought to explain Giorgione's idiosyncratic use of a nude nursing Madonna as the Immaculate Conception.

The explanation lies in the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine of which every Venetian would have been aware. Simply put, the doctrine affirms that Mary had been created free from the stain of original sin inherited by every other descendant of Adam and Eve. Indeed, Mary was regarded as the "new" or "second" Eve.

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 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 teaching orders, contributed to its development.[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. Nowhere did it receive greater support than in Venice.

In her study of Venetian patrons and their piety, Rona Goffen  argued that Venice itself became identified with the Immaculate Conception by the end of the Quattrocento.[ii] Besides the many churches and innumerable altars dedicated to the Madonna, 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 played a key role in the spiritual life of Venice in the 15th century. Goffen noted the importance of the sermons of St. Bernardino of Siena, who was made a patron saint of Venice in 1470; and of Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first patriarch of the Republic.

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]

After his death in 1453, Giustiniani’s sermons circulated widely and were finally published in Venice in 1506.

The Papacy also played a role. Francesco della Rovere, the scholarly Vicar-General of the Franciscan order, 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. Subsequently, he added its Feast to the liturgy for the entire Western Church, and ordered new offices to be composed. One was even composed especially for Franciscan use.

Art followed doctrine although the doctrine was a difficult subject to render. After all, it dealt not with Mary's birth but with her conception. Early attempts in the 15th century had crudely attempted to portray an infant Mary in the womb of her own mother, Anne. By the end of the century this image, which bordered on heresy, was being replaced by a combination of three symbolic images taken from different scriptural sources.

First, there was the image of the woman crushing the serpent beneath her heel from Genesis 3:15. The Latin Vulgate gave this passage as, "inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem et semen tuum et semen illius ipsa conteret caput tuum et tu insidiaberis calcaneo eius." "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed; she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel." This image first began to appear in the early 15th century.[iv]

Secondly, there was the image of the spouse from the Song of Songs 4:7, "Thou art all fair my love, and there is no stain in thee." In this image, the "tota pulchra es," Mary is not a Madonna holding her infant Son, but a beautiful woman standing alone and surrounded by images from the Old Testament that symbolize her purity and role. Rona Goffen noted the prevalence of this image in the devotional literature of the time especially in the “offices for the feast of the Immaculate Conception by Nogarolis and by Bernardino de Bustis.”[v]

Grimani Breviary

Finally, the image of the woman from the Book of Revelation "clothed with the sun" with "stars in her crown" and standing on the crescent moon (which would become the standard after the Reformation) began to appear. These images were rarely used alone but most often in combination. In the Grimani Breviary, named for the Venetian cardinal and art collector who was a contemporary of Giorgione's, there is a miniature of the Woman of the Apocalypse and the "tota pulchra es."[vi] Interestingly, on the facing page in the Breviary there is an image of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”

Grimani Breviary

Advocates of the Immaculate Conception regarded Mary as a new Eve, whose status was the same as Eve's before the Fall. Giorgione had the audacity to portray a "nude Madonna" as Eve would have appeared before the Fall.

Addendum:  In the "Tempest" the Madonna's heel is shown over a dead section of a plant that looks like belladonna, a plant associated with witchcraft and the devil. Despite the storm in the background of the painting, the woman is clothed only in bright sunlight. Finally, no one has ever doubted her beauty. She is "all fair." ###

[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.

[iv]For a discussion of these images see Maurice Vloberg, "The Immaculate Conception in Art," in  The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception,  University of Notre Dame Press, 1958, pp.463-507.

[v] Goffen, op. cit. p.149.

[vi]The Grimani Breviary, Levenger Press, DelRay Beach, Florida, 2007, plate 109. See also, Vloberg, op. cit.  plate XIV.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giorgione: Tempesta Pentimenti

In my interpretation of Giorgione’s “Tempest” as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” I did not include a discussion of the "pentimenti"or “changes of mind” in the painting. I believed that the painting should be evaluated on what Giorgione finally decided he wanted the viewer to see.

 I add a discussion here because much has been written about the “pentimenti” and their significance. While not necessary in supporting an interpretation of the painting as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt," the "pentimenti" do not contradict it, especially the heretofore inexplicable little man on the bridge. See the following essay (slightly revised) that originally appeared at Giorgione et al…. in 2010 after I had presented my paper at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America held that year in Venice on the 500th anniversary of Giorgione’s death in 1510.

In "Giorgione, Myth and Enigma," the catalog for the ground breaking 2004 Giorgione exhibition, the essay on the "Tempesta" by Giovanna Nepi-Scire included a discussion of “pentimenti” or “changes of mind” revealed by the scientific exploration of what lies beneath the surface of the famous painting.*

X-ray and radiographic technology did shed some light on the techniques of the painter and the materials he used but the results were inconclusive when it came to the meaning and subject of the painting. The "pentimenti" did not reveal much of Giorgione's original intention. Or did they?

One of the discarded figures in the underpainting had already received much attention from scholars. Originally, the canvas included a nude woman dipping her legs in a stream at the lower left hand corner. The catalog article indicated that some scholars believe that this figure provides an important clue even though the radiographic image is so indistinct that it is impossible to say whether the figure was even part of the original painting, or whether it was even painted by Giorgione.

For some, however, the “bathing woman” indicates that Giorgione originally intended the painting to contain two women. This contention would necessarily send the hunt for a “subject” into an entirely different direction.

However, the size of this bathing figure in relation to the nursing woman led the author of the catalog entry to reject the theory that Giorgione had originally intended to place two women in the painting.

 In addition, the proportions appear slightly larger than those of the man and the nursing woman in the final version. If this figure really was part of the initial version, then there must have been a male figure on the right… [p. 192]

Interestingly, a “bathing Madonna” would not be out of place in a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” One of the apocryphal legends refers to a fountain near the Egyptian village of Matarea that sprang up to nourish the Madonna and her child. In his “Madonna della Scodella,” Correggio painted a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Mary dipping a bowl into a stream.

Correggio: Madonna della Scodella

But, in my opinion, there is a much more telling pentimento. The Catalog indicated that the radiographic technology revealed,

the presence of a figure walking across the bridge in a long robe and carrying over his right shoulder a stick with a suspended load. (p. 192)

According to the Catalog this discovery contributed “nothing to the deciphering of the painting,” and there has been very little discussion of the little man since. I do not have an image of the man, but during my brief stay in Venice, I visited the Accademia and one of the authors of the Catalog article pointed out to me where the little man stood on the bridge.

A walking man with a stick bearing a sack over his shoulder is easily recognizable as a pilgrim. St. Joseph’s sack is commonplace in depictions of the Flight into Egypt. Often in depicting the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” artists used a narrative format, which included the actual journey in the background and the resting figures in the foreground.

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight

In Gerard David’s version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the Madonna sits in the foreground nursing her Son while in the background she rides atop the Ass with Joseph trailing behind on foot carrying over his shoulder a stick with a suspended load.

This piece of evidence fits no other interpretation of the "Tempest." Why would a pilgrim be in a mythological or classical setting? It is only explicable in reference to the “Flight into Egypt.” Because the man is on the bridge, he must have been in the original painting but then Giorgione changed his mind. I can only guess that he realized he didn’t need it or that it would have been cumbersome to also include a miniature animal and rider.

To argue that Giorgione depicted a traditional subject in the Tempesta should in no way detract from his greatness. Another article in the Catalog [“Giorgione’s Materials and Painting Technique: Scientific Investigation of Three Paintings,”] indicated that in technique Giorgione was more traditional than commonly believed.

One could say that the artistic revolution caused by Giorgione does not necessarily translate into strictly technological innovation….Instead, there is clear evidence of an ability to utilize the extensive materials available in Venice and of a sound knowledge of the painting techniques accumulated by Venetian workshops during the 15th century….This demonstrates how the greatness of an artist is in no way bound by ‘vile matter.’ [p. 260]

Scientific analysis has its value but there are two problems with attempts to get below the surface of any painting. First, what scholar would be happy with criticism of his or her work based on a discarded first draft of an essay? Wouldn't any of us want analysis and criticism to based solely on the finished product? Why should it be any different for a universally acknowledged master like Giorgione? Second, there is the danger that in looking beneath the surface we might divert our attention from the actual finished product and fail to see what the painter finally wanted the viewer to see.


* Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, edited by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi-Scire, Vienna, 2004