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".

Friday, June 15, 2018

Giorgione's Tempest: the Storm:

In my paper on Giorgione’s Tempest I looked at all the iconographical elements in the famous painting and tried to not only identify them correctly but also to put them together in a coherent whole. I understood that no piece could be left out of the puzzle or forced into place. Here I repeat a post that originally appeared on February 7, 2013 about the storm in the background, the last piece of the puzzle.

Years ago I was an avid fan of jigsaw puzzles, especially landscapes. My method was to put all the end pieces together first as a kind of frame. Then, I would proceed to do the prominent figures in the foreground and put them in their appropriate spaces. Finally, the background landscape would be filled in with the usually blue sky saved for last.

In the past few posts I have been going through the process of re-examining the pieces of the Tempest puzzle. First, I discussed the broken columns in the mid-ground and showed that they were commonplace in depictions of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. In subsequent posts I elaborated on my discussion of the prominent figures in the foreground. In my paper I had claimed that the young man on the left holding a pilgrim’s staff is St. Joseph watching over the Madonna and Child, and in two posts I presented other contemporary examples of young, virile Josephs. I then discussed the nursing Woman and showed that the white cloth draped over her shoulders and the mysterious plant in front of her helped to identify her as the Madonna.

Now, only the city and stormy sky in the background remain in order to complete the puzzle. In my paper I discussed both city and storm and I agreed with those who have seen that the city in the background could be Padua under siege in 1509 during the War of the League of Cambrai. 

Yet, Renaissance paintings are known for having many levels of meaning. The subject of the painting is the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and so the city in the background must be Judea from where the Holy Family had fled after Joseph had been warned to flee the murderous designs of King Herod. The storm would then represent the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

In his great work on Medieval iconography, Emile Male discussed the liturgical importance of the Massacre.

The Massacre of the Innocents, which might seem to be an episode of secondary importance, is closely linked with the Christmas feast. In fact, during the three days following Christmas, the Church celebrates the Massacre of the Innocents along with the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John the Apostle. The liturgists tell us that the Church desired to gather around Christ’s cradle the innocent children and the proto-martyr who were the first to shed their blood for the faith; *

Many artists depicted the actual slaughter. Giotto and Duccio provided prominent early examples, and the subject was not uncommon in the Renaissance. Nineteenth century art maven Anna Jameson saw many depictions of the distasteful subject, on her many travels, but also noted that the Massacre could even be hinted at in versions of the Flight into Egypt.

In pictures of the Flight into Egypt, I have seen it introduced allusively into the background; and in the architectural decoration of churches dedicated to the Virgin Mother, as Notre Dame de Chartres, it finds a place, but not often a conspicuous place; it is rather indicated than represented. **

In my paper I argued that the storm clouds and lightning in the background of the Tempest can indicate the massacre of the Holy Innocents, a martyrdom that the Church had always regarded as intimately connected with the passion and death of Christ. I tried to show that storm clouds and lightning were not mere emblems but actual symbols of death and destruction. For example, Joachim Patenir, a Giorgione contemporary, darkened the sky above the city in the background of his depiction of the Rest on the flight into Egypt. 

Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Here is Carlo Ridolfi’s description of a storm in a lost painting describing a scene of death and destruction by the early Titian.

It was then decreed by the senate that he should paint for the Sala del Gran Consiglio the armed encounter at Cadore between the imperial troops and the Venetians. In this work, he imagined the natural site of his hometown with the castle situated above on a high mountain where the flash from a lightning bolt in the form of an arrow is suspended and misty globes in the manner of clouds are forming, mixed among the terrors of the unexpected tempest; meanwhile the battlefield is obstructed by the horrible conflict of knights and foot-soldiers, some of whom were defending with their rapiers the imperial flag, stirred by the wind and boldly moving in the air. ***

Although not in a painting, Pietro Aretino gave a very vivid image of the scene of the Crucifixion in his “Humanity of Christ.”

Meanwhile the darkness which had lasted from the sixth hour to the ninth, grew so black that it seemed day had hidden beneath the cloak of night. The clouds driving through the air and obscuring vision resembled a thousand banners of vast size arrayed against the eye of the sun. The sky itself groaned in unprecedented horror. The pallid lightning flashed. The very globe appeared about to dissolve in mist. #

Finally, in my work on the Tempest I came to realize that the solitary bird on the rooftop in the painting comes from the Psalms and refers to Rachel lamenting her lost children. In the passage of Matthew’s gospel where Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt, the evangelist records the plight of the ”Holy Innocents,” and recalls the prophecy of Jeremiah,

A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting: it was Rachel weeping for her children,…because they were no more. 

The solitary bird on the rooftop in the background of the “Tempest” has hardly been noticed or discussed in all the scholarly literature but it recalls the lamentation of Rachel.The source for the bird can be found in Psalm 102, one of the seven Penitential psalms. (Jerusalem Bible 102, v.7-8).

I live in a desert like the pelican,
In a ruin like the screech owl
I stay awake, lamenting
Like a lone bird on the roof 

There is a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Nicholas Poussin that now can be found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is actually a depiction of the encounter with the young John the Baptist on the return of the Holy Family from Egypt. The Museum notes that they are surrounded by many cherubs. It is true that those in the trees have little wings but the ones on the ground do not. These I believe to be the Holy Innocents. They all look to be the same age as the infant Christ. 

 Poussin: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Edit: English Poussin scholar David Packwood has kindly supplied this information about the Poussin Rest.

Storm clouds do appear in Poussin's paintings of the Flight into Egypt, usually clouds and cross in a symbolic cluster surrounded by cherubs, who represent the Holy Innocents. See NP's Dulwich Flight and Cleveland one. I covered the New York "Rest on the Flight" in my Phd. It's possible that ALL the children represent the Innocents. There's a putto high up on the tree who has his arms outstretched in an "orans" gesture- and I think Poussin might have been alluding to the cross here, The iconography is very complex in this picture. Did you see the butterflies? I think these are symbols of the infants' soul. Some scholars think that the lake behind the children could allude to baptism. Diana di Grazia wrote a long article about it for the Poussin Cleveland conference way back in the 90s.There's lots of stuff on the Innocents in that. It's also significant that the children are the same age of Christ in the New York picture. According to Counter-Reformation doctrine and debates on infant baptism, Christ was the saviour of infants. Finally, I think the NY picture has a Neapolitan provenance. Significant because one of Poussin's patrons- the poet Marino- came from Naples and wrote a poem about the Massacre of the Innocents, which heavily influenced Poussin.

*Emile Male: Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1858, p. 186.
**Anna Jameson: Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885, p. 353.
*** Carlo Ridolfi: the Life of Titian, Penn State, 1996, p. 75.
# James Cleugh:The Divine Aretino. NY, 1966, 99. 196-7

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Giorgione: Marian Symbols in the Tempest

If it wasn’t for the nudity of the Woman in Giorgione’s Tempest, we would easily recognize the painting as a version of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” The broken columns in the mid-ground are commonplace in versions of the Rest. At the beginning of the sixteenth century St. Joseph was also being portrayed as younger and more virile than in earlier depictions. We also know that a nursing mother will almost always be the Madonna.

Besides the fact that the woman in the Tempest is nursing, there are two other elements that help to identify her as the Madonna. First, there is the white cloth that extends over her shoulders and even envelopes her son. Second, there is the plant featured so prominently in front of the woman. 

First, let’s consider the cloth. Although some have called it a shirt, it is obvious that it is not an article of a woman’s clothing. It is much too large. No only does it cover the child, but it also covers the woman’s shoulders and back, and then overflows onto the ground. What is it? In my interpretation of the Tempest I identified the cloth as the corporale, the white cloth that covers the altar at every Mass. In Franciscan spirituality Mary was identified as the altar on which the Eucharist was placed. 

In “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice” the late Rona Goffen, one of the most prolific Venetian Renaissance scholars, noted the connection between the Madonna and the Eucharistic altar. For example, in Giovanni Bellini’s famed Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari, 

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."* 

Later Titian would utilize the corporale in his famed Pesaro altarpiece. Goffen identified the white cloth on Mary’s head in that famous painting as the corporale:

the Madonna's veil recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.**

Titian: Pesaro Altarpiece, Frari

There are other examples. In the so-called “Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds”, variously attributed to Giorgione or Titian, the infant Christ lies on a white cloth that is placed on the stony ground. Many nativity scenes such as this one were actually depictions of the first Mass. The infant Christ, the Eucharist, lies on the white cloth that covers the stony ground.

A lost Giorgione painting that only exists in a seventeenth century copy was once thought to depict the story of the discovery of the infant Paris on Mt. Ida. It is actually a depiction of an encounter of the Holy Family with robbers, an apocryphal episode associated with the flight into Egypt. In that painting the infant Christ lies on a white cloth spread on the stony ground. 

Examples could be multiplied but the fact remains that no other explanation of the Tempest has tried to explain the significance of the white cloth.

Despite countless studies and interpretations, scholars have also avoided discussion of the plant in front of the woman. Some think that it is there to cover the woman’s nakedness although it is obviously doing a very poor job. Most interpretations don’t even mention it. If you take another look at the "Allendale Adoration" above, you will see that a plant (probably a bay laurel) also features prominently in that painting.

When I first saw the “Tempest” I wondered about the plant and thought that it might be one of the plants that are commonly associated with the Madonna. Knowing little about plants, I consulted my younger brother, a high school science teacher and master botanist. It is incredible to walk through the woods with him and hear him name every tree and plant and discuss their characteristics. Without flowers it is hard to identify, but he suggested that the root structure and the way it is growing indicate a nightshade.

Even I knew that the most well known nightshade was the deadly nightshade or belladonna, a plant that I subsequently found out was associated with witchcraft and the devil. Although poisonous, Italian women in Giorgione’s time commonly used belladonna extract to dilate and beautify their eyes. The belladonna plant became another piece of the Tempest puzzle that fit so easily into place. What else could explain the fact that the part of the plant below the heel of the woman had withered and died than the famous quote from Genesis 3:15? God speaks to the serpent about Eve and her offspring. 
I will make you enemies of each other:
You and the woman,
Your offspring and her offspring.
It will crush your head
And you will strike its heel. 
Modern scholars use either “he” or “it” to indicate that it is the offspring that will crush the head of the serpent. During the Renaissance the Latin Vulgate used “she” indicating the popular belief that it was the Woman who would strike at the serpent's head while it struck at her heel.


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

Goffen, op. cit., p. 114.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Giorgione: Maria Lactans

In 2006, when I first interpreted Giorgione’s Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt”,  I acknowledged that the nudity of the Woman in the painting was a great difficulty. A nude Madonna is so unique that it is unimaginable. Nevertheless, when I first saw the painting, I think the fact that the woman was nursing her child must have led me to see the Madonna. *

Giorgione: Tempest detail

If Giorgione had clothed the woman, or even just exposed one breast, no one would ever have failed to see the Madonna in this painting. The nursing Madonna or "Maria Lactans" was an extremely popular subject during this era. Usually she is depicted in a landscape with indications that the artist is representing a legendary episode on the flight into Egypt.

Here are some examples. First, we’ll look at two painters from the Netherlands who practically made a living by depicting this subject over and over again. 

Joaquim Patenier: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Joaquim Patenier painted many versions of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. In this version the Madonna sits squarely in the center draped in her traditional blue cloak with a white cloth on her head. One breast is exposed as she nurses her Child. St. Joseph's staff and pilgrim's basket are in front of her while off to the left he searches for food. Behind is a large stone ball atop what remains of the Egyptian temple that according to legend crumbled at the approach of the infant Jesus. In the background there is a depiction of a wheat field that is associated with another legend of the flight. In the left background storm clouds cover a city just as in Giorgione's Tempest.

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Gerard David and his workshop also turned out many versions of the "Rest." In these the Madonna is often just holding her Son on her lap but in the above painting in New York's Metropolitan Museum the Madonna's breast is exposed as she nurses her child. In the right background David depicted the Holy Family on their way into Egypt. A casual tour of the Met or most any museum will disclose other versions of the nursing Madonna by Netherlandish artists.

Italian artists also painted many versions of the nursing Madonna no doubt responding to the demands of patrons. Here are some examples by contemporaries of Giorgione. The Italian versions tended to be more naturalistic than those from the Netherlands and often omitted obvious apocryphal details. Here are examples by Bernardino Luini, Correggio, and Antonio Solario.

Bernardino Luini
Antonio Solario

In addition to the above five, a simple image search for "Maria Lactans" will reveal dozens of nursing Madonnas done by contemporaries of Giorgione. On the other hand, it is very difficult to find a pagan goddess or nymph nursing her child. Therefore, whenever we see a nursing mother, we should immediately think Virgin Mary. As far as the Tempest is concerned the question should not be, "Who is the Woman?" but "Why did Giorgione want a nude Madonna in this painting.?"

I have dealt with that question in my paper and in earlier posts on this site. I will reproduce these posts in the following weeks.


* A short essay appeared in the Masterpiece section of the Wall Street Journal on May 13, 2006. The full paper can be found on my website, MyGiorgione, along with other interpretations that followed upon the realization that this mysterious painting could be a "sacred" subject. I delivered the paper at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in 2010, held that year in Venice on the five hundredth anniversary of Giorgione's death.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Giorgione's Tempest: The Broken Columns

Giorgione: Tempest

The broken columns so prominently displayed in the mid-ground of Giorgione's Tempest are a significant iconographical marker in this famous painting. Practically, every commentator and interpreter has attempted to explain their origin and meaning, as well as their role in the overall subject.

Back in 2005, when I first saw the Tempest in a black and white image in an old travel book, I wondered whether the man and woman in the foreground had left the city in the background, or whether they were on a journey to the city. It was only after I sensed that Giorgione had depicted the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt that I understood that the Man and Woman had fled from the city in the background.

Like many Renaissance narratives the Tempest begins in the left background, proceeds through the mid-ground, and culminates in the figures in the right foreground. The Holy Family has fled from the stormy city in the background; crossed the bridge and river that represents the dividing line between Judea and Egypt; encountered the ruins and broken columns in the mid-ground; and finally found a place of rest and safety in the foreground. In the left foreground the man acts as an interlocutor drawing the viewer’s attention to the woman and child. Although the viewer’s eye is directed toward the woman, her gaze deflects the action back to the viewer.

I knew that my initial intuition had great difficulties. Even though she was nursing, a nude Madonna was unimaginable and a young, virile St. Joseph was certainly unusual. Depictions of the Flight into Egypt are based on a single verse in the gospel of Matthew but over the centuries legends had accumulated around the journey, and artists had delighted in depicting them.*

My first thought was to look into the work of the great nineteenth century art historian Emile Male, still the best source for Medieval iconography. I turned to “Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century”, the second volume of Male’s magisterial study, and found that of all the legends surrounding the arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt, artists “scarcely used any other than the Fall of Idols….” Male gave a brief description of the event.

Many medieval writers told that when Jesus entered the temple of Sotinen, called Hermopolis by others, he caused the idols to fall, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: “Behold the Lord will ascend upon a swift cloud and will enter into Egypt. And the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence”…When the governor of the town, Affodosius, heard of the miracle, he went to the temple; when he saw that all the statues were broken, he worshiped Jesus….
The Church adopted the story of the Fall of the Idols, which like many apocryphal legends, grew out of a desire to justify a prophetic text, and it authorized the artists to represent it….The thirteenth century gave an abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend. There are neither town, temple nor priests…two statues falling from their pedestals and breaking in two suffice to recall the miracle. **

Idols falling from a pedestal are the way the incident is depicted in the Biblia Pauperum. The two broken columns, standing right in the middle of Giorgione’s mysterious painting, giving an “abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend,” provided a confirmation of my intuition. Giorgione embellished the scene somewhat by including some nearby ruins.

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries these ruins were often seen in depictions of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. Flemish artists led the way in meeting the devotional demands of their patrons for this subject. One of Joachim Patenir’s most well known versions depicted the entire flight from the storm-shrouded city in the left background to the nursing Madonna in the foreground. Behind the Madonna are the remains of a broken structure. A large, round, stone ball sitting atop a block of stone seems to be all that remains of the ruined idols. 

Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

In Washington’s National Gallery Gerard David’s most famous depiction of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt shows the Madonna resting with her Child who holds a bunch of grapes in his hand. She sits atop what looks like the remains of a building foundation that is now just covered with dirt calling to mind the words of Isaiah: "the lofty city He brings down; He tumbles it to the ground, levels it with the dust." 

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Among Italian artists Cima da Conegliano would also depict the Madonna and her child atop a rocky foundation that would appear to be the remains of a structure. The fallen temple has become an outdoor throne for the Madonna and her Child. 

Cima da Conegliano: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

No Italian, however, liked to depict the ruins as much as Fra Bartolommeo, who became associated with Raphael in 1504 and then traveled to Venice shortly before Giorgione worked on the Tempest. His ruins are really elaborate.

Fra Bartolommeo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Giorgione could have been familiar with the work of any of these artists but I believe that his depiction of the fall of idols came from another source. In my paper on the Tempest I pointed out that Giorgione’s truncated columns are similar to those employed by Luca Signorelli in his 1504 depiction of the “End of the World” in Orvieto’s S. Brisio chapel. Domenico Grimani, the famous Venetian Cardinal and art collector, acted as one of Signorelli’s advisors on the project. Grimani had a summer residence near Orvieto.

Luca Signorelli: detail of "End of the World".

I know that other examples of broken columns have been found in emblem books and interpreted variously. Nevertheless, Giorgione’s columns and adjacent ruins are a piece of the Tempest puzzle that fits quite easily into a “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” interpretation.


*The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is only recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew. 

After they had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child with his mother with him, he left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:

I called my son out of Egypt

**Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century: A Study of Medieval Iconography and Its Sources, Princeton, 1984. p. 220.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Giorgione and Paris Bordone: A Virile St. Joseph

In interpreting the "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt," I discussed the reasons for Giorgione's unusual portrayal of St. Joseph as young and virile. I also provided another example in Raphael's "Sposalizio," an immediately popular depiction of the marriage of Joseph and Mary.

There are other examples such as the one by Giorgione's Venetian contemporary, Paris Bordone, which is now in a private collection. In this painting “ shown as young and virile, with a muscular bare leg, instead of as a frail and slightly foolish old man.” [Bellini, "Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting", 2007. Catalog entry #13]. In an earlier essay on this site I discussed the source of Joseph's muscular bare foreleg, as well as a stunning trick that Bordone used to display Catherine's bare inner thigh. I reproduce that post below.

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, c. 1524

The highlight of the 2006 art world must surely have been the magnificent exhibition of Venetian Renaissance painting jointly sponsored by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna. The exhibition, "Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and The Renaissance of Venetian Painting," also produced a beautiful catalog. Although the works of the three great masters named in the title were the focus of the exhibition, paintings by a few lesser known artists like Lorenzo Lotto and Paris Bordone were also included.

Indeed, one of Bordone's paintings, "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine," was a real eye stopping crowd pleaser in both locations. Painted around 1524, this extremely colorful and dramatic painting which measures about 58 by 102 inches tells the story of the legendary marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria to the Christ child.

According to the medieval legend which Crusaders brought back from the East, Catherine was a Queen of Alexandria around the middle of the fourth century. In the story Catherine, even as a young girl, was enamored of philosophy. By her teens she was a student of Plato and Socrates and surpassed all the philosophers of Egypt in knowledge and wisdom. At the death of her father she became Queen of Alexandria but resisted all efforts by her nobles to impel her to marry. Eventually she converted to Christianity in order to marry Christ for she regarded Him as the only one greater than her in status, knowledge and wealth. Subsequently, when Catherine rebuffed the overtures of the Roman emperor in Egypt to have her for his own, he had her put to death. Initial attempts to break her on a wheel failed and she was finally beheaded. The wheel would become the symbol by which she can easily be identified in Medieval and Renaissance art.

Next to Mary Magdalen, Catherine became the most popular female saint in the Middle Ages. She was "venerated by men as the divine patroness of learning," and by women as "the type of female intellect and eloquence, as well as of courageous piety and chastity." Her "mystic marriage" became a favorite subject for painters especially in convents where the nuns could look to her "mystic marriage" to Christ as a prototype of their own. This was especially true among the Dominicans whose favorite daughter, Catherine of Siena, was often paired in paintings with her namesake from Alexandria.

The most common way to depict the "mystic marriage" was to tie it in with the biblical account of the Flight into Egypt. Even though Catherine was supposed to have lived about 350 years after the birth of Christ, artists were not so much interested in historical accuracy as they were in an allegorical rendition of a soul's spiritual union with Christ. So Catherine is usually depicted meeting the Holy Family as they are about to return to Judea from Egypt. We know that it is the return from Egypt because we see the young John the Baptist in the painting. According to another legend the Holy Family met the future Baptist, who had fortunately escaped the massacre of the Innocents, on their return from Egypt.

Paris Bordone's depiction of "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine" is one of the most dramatic and unusual representations of this episode. Like other Venetian painters of the early 16th century, Bordone has chosen to move the Madonna and Child out of the center of the painting. They are at the left side with the cloth representing their throne hanging from a tree. The Madonna looks down and away from her Child at the Baptist who is depicted as a young boy clothed in his desert garb and leading a lamb. John looks at the infant Jesus as if to say "behold the Lamb of God."

More than anything else it is the portrayal of St. Joseph which is most dramatic and unusual in Bordone's painting. In a striking departure from traditional representations Joseph is portrayed as a virile young man. Moreover, he has been taken out of the background where we usually find him and placed right in the center of the painting. His powerful and uncovered foreleg is prominently displayed. As the beautiful Catherine approaches from the right, Joseph places his hand on her wrist and directs her outstretched finger to the wedding ring held out by the infant Christ.

As devotion to St. Joseph grew throughout the Quattrocento, he began to figure more prominently in representations of the Holy Family. His role as spouse, father, worker, and protector had a special appeal in the Renaissance. Nevertheless, in this painting there is something else going on that explains the central role of Joseph. In this painting Joseph is acting as a "proxy" for the marriage between Catherine and the infant Christ.

In marriages where the parties, usually royalty, were separated by distance, it was common to celebrate a marriage by proxy. Such a marriage was considered to be a real marriage, and not just a contract for some future event. In theory and practice both parties did not have to be present for a legal marriage to occur. It only required the consent of both even if one of the parties gave a written consent. It was not necessary for a clergyman to be present.

One particular way of "consummating" this marriage by proxy is alluded to in this painting. I don't know where or how it began, or how extensive it was, or when it ceased to be used but the practice was common in the 16th century. An ambassador or proxy would be sent to the court of the bride to perform the ritual. In the presence of notable witnesses, the young woman would be conducted to the nuptial bed wearing a loose fitting gown. The "proxy" would then remove his shoe and stocking from one leg before entering the bed. Apparently, he would then expose a part of her leg and touch it with his own to consummate the marriage.

Here is Hester Chapman's description of the "proxy" marriage of Mary Tudor, the beautiful 18 year old younger sister of Henry VIII to the elderly Louis XII of France in August 1514 at Greenwich. The Duc de Longueville acted as proxy.
After High Mass and a Latin sermon preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the marriage vows were exchanged and the ring was placed on the Princess's finger. The ceremonies did not end there. To make assurance doubly sure, Henry had arranged that symbolic intimacy should take place. Surrounded by his court and the foreign ambassadors...he talked informally with de Longueville, while Mary left to change her dress for a robe giving the effect of a nightgown. When she reappeared, Katherine and her ladies led her to a state bed, on which she lay down. De Longueville then advanced, pausing at the foot of the dais to take off one of his scarlet boots, thus revealing a bare leg. Lying beside the Princess, he touched one of her legs with his naked foot. His gentlemen then replaced his boot, and he came down into the hall, while Mary retired again to change into a ball-dress.

De Longueville acted as Louis XII. It was as if the King of France had really been there. From that moment Mary Tudor could call herself Queen of France.

Why did Paris Bordone choose to depict the "mystic marriage" of St. Catherine as a marriage by proxy? Countless paintings of the same subject during this era take a much more traditional approach. Catherine is usually shown in her regal robes kneeling before the Holy Family. Usually she is gazing lovingly at the infant Christ. Sometimes she will touch Him, and sometimes she will even cradle Him in her arms. Often, He is about to place a ring on her finger.

In fact, in another version of the "mystic marriage" Bordone also used the "proxy" theme. This painting hangs in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and appears to have been painted about the same time. In this version we again see the young, virile Joseph with his powerful foreleg exposed. However, now Joseph is placed on the right side and remarkably holds the infant Christ in his hands! Madonna, who has released her Child from her grasp, leans backward to hear Catherine's proposal. In this picture there is no John the Baptist.

Scholars date both paintings between 1520 and 1524. We are still in the High Renaissance but we are also in the beginnings of the Reformation. Perhaps after a century of growing devotion, Joseph had come to be seen as not only the protector of Madonna and Child but also as the protector of the Church. In these paintings does he represent the Church, the intermediary between God and man? In a "proxy marriage" the proxy was the representative of the King, and union with the proxy was union with the King. After Martin Luther's assault on the role of the Church as mediator, was Bordone or his theological advisor reaffirming the role of the Church?

In both paintings the Infant Jesus is moving away from the Madonna. Perhaps Bordone is recalling Christ's words about marriage. "For this reason a man will leave father and mother and cleave to his wife." But the painting could also refer to another biblical passage. "Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" In Franciscan spirituality the nude infant Jesus is equated with the naked Christ on the Cross and with the Eucharist on the Altar. Marriage is the sacrament of love, the complete giving of one's life for another. On the return to Judea, Christ would begin his journey to Calvary. The legendary Catherine would stay in Egypt and give her life for Him.

Finally, a word about Catherine. Her gown is pink, almost matching the color of her skin. Has Bordone exposed a part of her right thigh? It is almost impossible to notice in a reproduction. Even standing in front of the painting it is not immediately obvious. But looking closely her gown appears to have parted to reveal a dark band across her exposed thigh. Bordone has played a masterful eye-catching trick here leaving it to the beholder to make up his or her own mind. This painting certainly deserves modern scientific treatment to discover if there is anything in the underpainting that would indicate that Catherine bared her leg in the same manner as Mary Tudor.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Giorgione's Tempest: Soldier and Gypsy?

In 1530, 20 years after the death of Giorgione, Marcantonio Michiel saw the painting that would become known as the "Tempest" in the home of Venetian patrician, Gabriele Vendramin. In his notes Michiel wrote:"the little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco." Since that time most scholars have argued that Michiel's descriotion was off the mark. The man is not a soldier and the woman nursing a child is not a gypsy. Today, only a few diehards call the woman a gypsy. (See the end of this post for an analysis of Paul Holberton's hypothesis).

Why did Marcantonio Michiel mistakenly identify the nude woman and the man in the “Tempest” as “a gipsy woman with a soldier”? After all, the nude woman nursing an equally nude infant does not resemble contemporary descriptions of a gypsy. Moreover, the young man’s posture might resemble that of a soldier but he is neither armed nor armored.

It seems obvious that Michiel’s notes were hastily drawn and fragmentary but why did he guess “a gipsy woman with a soldier” for the two characters in the famous landscape? I would like to offer the following as an hypothesis.

In one of his sermons Savonarola criticized the artists of his time for depicting the Madonna dressed in splendor and finery. He said, “think ye that the Virgin should be painted, as ye paint her? I tell ye that she went clothed as a beggar.”

This quotation from Savonarola’s “Prediche sopra Amos e Zaccaria,” is found in Professor Pasquale Villari’s monumental biography of Savonarola, originally published in 1888 after years of research in original sources, many of which he discovered hidden in Florentine archives. In his work Professor Villari devoted a few pages to the famous or infamous Dominican friar’s views on art and poetry. *

Villari disputed the notion, popular in his time and even more popular in ours, that Savonarola was a reactionary opponent of Art, Poetry, and Learning. Although known to popular history as the moving force behind the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Savonarola was respected and admired by contemporary artists and philosophers.

Villari mentioned Fra Bartolommeo, the whole Della Robbia family, and Lorenzo di Credi, who according to Vasari was “a partisan of Fra Girolamo’s sect.” Vasari also wrote of Cronaca, “that he conceived so great a frenzy for Savonarola’s teachings, that he could talk of nothing else.” Even Sandro Botticelli was an ardent admirer “who illustrated the Friar’s works with beautiful engravings.

Finally, to prove his point Villari argued that ‘it is enough to mention the name of Michelangelo Buonarotti, known to be one of his most constant hearers, and who, in his old age, constantly read and reread the Friar’s sermons, and never forgot the potent charm of that orator’s gestures and voice.”

In the beginning of the 16th century it would appear that attempts were made to portray the Madonna as a poor beggar especially in paintings depicting the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. In these paintings Joseph was depicted as an armed protector of the Madonna and Child. Edgar Wind in “Giorgione’s Tempesta” referred to two unusual, almost inexplicable images of a soldier standing guard over a woman and child. Both of these paintings bore a striking resemblance to the "Tempest".

In the first, attributed by Wind to a “Follower” of Giorgione, there are three figures in a landscape. In the foreground a fully clothed but plainly dressed woman sits on the ground with her infant son standing beside her supported by her arm. She is left of center and looks to the right in the direction of an armored soldier standing guard. He leans not on a staff but on a formidable looking halberd, a weapon associated with the Swiss soldiers imported into Italy by Julius II during the Cambrai war. For Wind the subject of the painting was an allegory, “Fortezza and Carita,” the same subject he claimed for the "Tempest". This painting which I consider to be a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt could easily be described as a soldier and a gypsy.

The second painting Wind called “The Peaceable Warrior (ex bello pax).” He attributed it to Palma Vecchio, a contemporary of Giorgione. It is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it is identified as an “Allegory.” This painting is also a depiction of the encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt. In the center a young nude Jesus stands and embraces his equally nude elder cousin. A heavily armed Joseph stands off to the right watching over the Madonna and the children. A plainly dressed Madonna sits on the ground observing the children. She wears the headscarf or turban associated with gypsy women!

So even though Giorgione did not paint a “gypsy” woman or a soldier in the "Tempest", the similarity of his painting with depictions of a Madonna dressed like a beggar in the desert with a protector standing guard might have led to Michiel’s mistake 20 years later.

Below find my analysis of Paul Holberton's "gypsy" hypothesis. See Paul Holberton: “Giorgione’s Tempest”, Art History, vol. 18, no. 3, September 1995. (Holberton has posted the article on his website with a slide show.)

In a paper published in 1995 Paul Holberton argued that Marcantonio Michel’s original description of the woman depicted in Giorgione’s "Tempest" is indeed correct. He wrote, “the fact remains that although they differ in their descriptions of the man, both Michiel and the 1569 inventory [of the estate of Gabriele Vendramin] identify the woman as a gypsy.”

For Holberton the "Tempest" has a subject and it is a gypsy family wandering on the outskirts of society about to be engulfed by a storm. He pursues this thesis even though both Michiel and the 1569 inventory do not identify the man as a gypsy. For Michiel, he was a soldier, but in the 1569 inventory he had become a shepherd.

Holberton provided some very useful information on gypsies and the way they began to be depicted in art at the end of the 15th century but his thesis is full of holes. In the first place, he never really explained the nudity of the woman in Giorgione’s painting. He argued that gypsies were depicted as “primitives” but they still are not depicted in the nude. Certainly, there is nothing primitive about the woman of the Tempest. Look at her hair, for example. If she is a primitive, than you would also have to call the Dresden "Sleeping Venus" a primitive.

Secondly, the handsome young man of the "Tempest", dressed in the garb of a Venetian patrician, can hardly be called a primitive or a gypsy. There is no relationship between his finery and the nudity of the woman and child. How can they belong to the same family? None of the plates that Holberton presented in his paper shows such a striking dis-similarity in the clothing of the major figures.

Next, he confesses that he has no explanation for the broken columns and ruins in the painting. “What does the column symbolize? In my opinion it is no more symbolic than the trees…” Neither does he attempt to identify the plant featured so prominently in the foreground, nor does he see any significance in the city in the background.

Nevertheless, Holberton came so close. If he could only have seen the "Tempest" as Giorgione’s version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt", so much of his evidence would have fallen easily into place. Instead of claiming that identifications of images of the Madonna were mistaken, he should have asked why the Madonna came to be depicted wearing a gypsy headdress in some of the paintings he describes.

De' Barbari: Holy Family

At one point he argued that a de’ Barbari drawing could not be a Holy Family because of the gypsy headpiece of the woman. Yet, Correggio painted a Madonna and Child where the Madonna appears with a similar headpiece, and it is commonly called La Zingarella.

Correggio: Madonna and Child

*Professor Pasquale Villari, Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola, New York, tenth edition, 1909. pp. 495-499.