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".

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




Sunday, November 16, 2014

Giorgione, Vasari, and a Judith Fresco.

In his “Lives of the Artists” Giorgio Vasari placed his brief biography of Giorgione right after Leonardo da Vinci’s and ranked the young Venetian master, who died tragically in 1510 at about the age of 34, with the great Florentine master. Even though Vasari visited Venice on at least two occasions, it is hard to determine what Giorgione works he saw with his own two eyes.  But there can be no doubt that he saw Giorgione’s frescoes on the exterior walls of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the center of the German merchant community situated on the Grand Canal near the Rialto bridge.

The Fondaco dei Tedeschi had burned to the ground in 1504, and the Venetian government hastened to rebuild the structure so important to its trade with the North. The new building was finished by 1507, and the young Giorgione was given the commission to decorate the exterior walls. The commission was a sign of Giorgione’s elevated artistic status, and its completion only added to his fame. The Venetian weather eventually did havoc on the Fondaco frescoes but the spectacular figures and colors were still evident when Vasari saw them a little more than three decades after Giorgione’s death.

Although extremely impressed, Vasari confessed that he could not understand the subject or the meaning of much of the work. He concluded that in the Fondaco frescoes, Giorgione
thought only of demonstrating his techniques as a painter by representing various figures according to his own fancy. Indeed, there are no scenes to be found there with any order or representing the deeds of any distinguished person, of either the ancient or the modern world. And I for my part have never been able to understand his figures nor, for all my asking, have I ever found anyone who does. In these frescoes one sees, in various attitudes, a man in one place, a woman standing in another, one figure accompanied by the head of a lion, another by an angel in the guise of a cupid; and heaven knows what it all means. *[274-5]

However, Vasari did identify one figure as the biblical heroine Judith. **

Over the door which leads to the storerooms for the wares, a seated figure of a woman is depicted. She has the head of a dead giant at her feet, as is the custom in representations of Judith; and this head she is raising with a sword, while speaking, at the same time, to a figure in the German habit, who is standing, still further beneath her. What or whom this figure may be intended to represent, I have never been able to determine, unless, indeed, it be meant for a figure of Germany. [275]




Fortunately, we have a print copy of the Judith fresco from a seventeenth century engraving. It shows Judith dressed in the finery described in the biblical account, with her bare leg resting on the head of Holophernes. *** At the bottom left is a half-length figure of an armored warrior who looks up at Judith. Given that the Fondaco was the German center, I suppose it was natural for Vasari to claim that the man in the scene represented Germany. Interestingly, like many art historians since his time, when Vasari has difficulty identifying a figure he gives it an allegorical interpretation.

I believe that the identity of the man in the Judith fresco can be discovered by taking a closer look at the Book of Judith. Whether in Vasari’s time or ours, churchgoers tend to be aware only of the highlights of biblical stories. But even a quick reading of the relatively short Book of Judith shows that a foreign warrior played a key role in the narrative. It is Achior, the leader of a contingent of Ammonite mercenaries serving in the army of Holophernes.

At the outset of the story Holophernes had asked his various lieutenants for information about the Israelites who dared to oppose his army from their mountain fortress of Bethulia. Achior came forward and recounted the history of the Israelites and the many times that their God had delivered them from adversity. He concluded that unless the Israelites had offended their God, it would do no good to attack them. Holophernes was shocked by this impudent prophecy, and had Achior left bound hand and foot near the Israelite walls to fulfill a prophecy of his own.
As for you, Achior, you Ammonite mercenary, who in a rash moment said these words, you shall not see my face again until the day when I have taken my revenge on this brood of fugitives from Egypt….you will not die, until you share their ruin. ****

The Israelites took Achior into their stronghold and treated him well after they heard his account of what had transpired with Holophernes.

The rest of the story was well known during the Renaissance. Although the book of Judith came to be rejected by Protestant scholars, it was very popular in the early Christian church, and its popularity continued right into the Baroque era in Catholic circles. During the Renaissance Judith was often paired with David for both were examples of God using the weak to triumph over the strong. Judith also came to be seen as a prototype of Mary.

However, the little known Achior made one more appearance at the end of the narrative. After Judith brought the head of Holophernes to the Israelite camp, she asked that Achior view the enemy general’s head in a kind of ironic twist to Holophernes’ own prophecy.

“call me Achior the Ammonite for him to see the man who thought so meanly of the House of Israel and recognize this as the man who sent him to us as a man already doomed to die.”…No sooner had he arrived and seen the head of Holophernes held by a member of the people’s assembly than he fell down on his face in a faint. They lifted him up. He then threw himself at the feet of Judith, and prostrate before her exclaimed: 
May you be blessed in all the temples of Judah
And in every nation;
At the sound of your name
Men will be seized with dread….

Subsequently, Achior professed his belief in the God of the Israelites, was circumcised and converted.

Vasari was mistaken in his identification of the warrior on the Judith fresco but there still could be a bit of allegory involved in its placement on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.  I suspect that the placement of this scene on the Fondaco wall was a sign of the relationship between Venice and the German community in Venice. It is not hard to imagine that Venice was represented there by Judith, and the German community by the foreign Warrior looking up at her.

###

*Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, Volume I, a selection translated by George Bull, Penguin Books, 1968. All selections from Vasari are from these editions. Page numbers are in brackets.

**Vasari attributed this fresco to Giorgione but its location on the Merceria side of the Fondaco would indicate that it was done by Titian. However, I do believe that Giorgione was responsible for the whole iconographic scheme including the cartoons of all the work. In any case, this essay is about Vasari's eyewitness view and interpretation.

*** Judith’s bare leg has been discussed in an earlier post on this site.

**** All biblical quotations are from the Jerusalem Bible.





Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Raphael: Czartoryski Portrait

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

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

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

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

Giorgione: Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)


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

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

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





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

Raphael: La Fornarina


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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






Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Vision of Ezekiel





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

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

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

Here is what Vasari wrote:

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

###

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

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




Monday, September 29, 2014

Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert


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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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


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

###

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Leonardo: Last Supper

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

anonymous copy, c. 1550

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



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

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


Leonardo: study of Judas

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

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






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