My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Titian: Assunta or Assumption of Mary

Titian’s Assunta, the magnificent, huge altarpiece that dominates the basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the Franciscan center in Venice, established him as the foremost painter in Venice, and set him on his way to international stardom.

The painting is an oil on panel that because of its size required 24 panels in all. It measures 690 cm by 360 cm, or 22 feet, 8 inches by 11 feet, 10 inches. During the nineteenth century it was removed from the Frari and placed in the Accademia, but in 1919 it was returned to its original location over the main altar. It was subsequently restored.

Giorgio Vasari gave a brief description of the painting in his biography of Titian. It is obvious that he saw the painting in person.

He then executed the high-altar in the Church of the Friars Minors, called the Ca Grande, a picture of Our Lady ascending into Heaven, and below her the twelve Apostles, who are gazing upon her as she ascends; but of this work, from its having been painted on cloth, and perhaps not well kept, there is little to be seen. *

Vasari did not give much thought or provide much analysis of the painting. He said that he could not see it very well but I also suspect that he took it for granted that his readers would have in their blood a full understanding of the background and significance of the subject depicted.

Today, we no longer have the theological or spiritual background that even an ordinary Venetian would have had in the time of Titian. We almost have to approach paintings like the Assunta as if we were trying to decipher the religious practices of some lost tribe in the Amazon. Art historians almost have to act like archaeologists or anthropologists in deciphering the art of the Renaissance.

The painting derives from the medieval concept of the Dormition of Mary, the Madonna, the Virgin Mother of God. According to legend, at the time when Mary’s time on earth was coming to an end, she fell into a deep sleep. Miraculously, all the Apostles were brought back from their far-flung missionary activity to be present at the end. Then, her son Jesus would appear on the scene with a baby in his arms that represented the soul of his mother that he was about to take up into Heaven.

Titian brought the Apostles together at the base of his painting. Peter sits in the middle with an open grave before him. A beardless John in red stands at the left clothed in bright red. The other prominent figure dressed in red with his back to us could either be James, the third of the triumvirate that witnessed the Transfiguration, or Thomas, the doubter, shown in the act of reaching for the Virgin’s girdle or sash, another popular legend.

But Titian has departed from the typical Dormition account. Jesus does not appear to take his mother’s soul to heaven. Mary has been raised from the dead by the Father. She has triumphed over death just like her son. Her dress is the traditional red, the color of her humanity, but her cloak is the traditional blue, the color of the divinity. The colors recall the words of St. Paul that are still used in the Catholic liturgy on the Feast of the Assumption.

When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
'Death is swallowed up in victory.
where, O death, is your victory?
where, O death, is your sting?

The best discussion of the sources and meaning of the painting can be found in Rona Goffen’s study, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, still the best introduction to the art of the Venetian Renaissance. Below I include an excerpt of her analysis of the source and meaning of Titian’s masterpiece, a sermon by Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, whose collected sermons were published in Venice in 1506. **

There is another text, however, that can almost be read as the libretto for Titian’s “opera,” and that is the sermon for the feast of the Assumption by Lorenzo Giustiniani, the venerable first patriarch of Venice. Giustiniani’s language in this sermon is derived from the great biblical canticle of love, the Song of Songs. … 
 If we read Giustiniani’s sermon standing before the Assunta—as, historically and theologically, one ought to do—then a significant equivalence is revealed between the words and the image. The patriarch’s sermon might almost be a description avant la lettre of Titian’s altarpiece; and, for reasons that will become apparent, it seems that the artist or his Franciscan patrons must indeed have been referring to Giustiniani’s text, or something very like it. However,…their use of the text also involved a significant editorial revision, so to speak. Whereas the patriarch described Mary’s funeral, Titian alluded to it only indirectly and perforce by representing the Apostles who had come to bury her. 
 Giustiniani introduced his narrative of the Assumption with images of God’s redemptive love for mankind….Giustiniani’s sermon closes with a reiteration of this theme of salvation and Mary’s role as our benevolent mediatrix. Exalted as the queen of heaven “above the troops of angels,” the Virgin turns her merciful gaze toward us… 
 Titian’s Assunta, “aflame with love,” is enframed by the statue of the Redeemer above and, below, the tabernacle relief of the man of Sorrows. Thus the Assunta, like Giustiniani’s sermon, is surrounded, as it were, by the theme of God’s loving act of redemption and Mary’s role in making this possible. 
 The Assumption is a joyous triumph: “today with great joy the Virgin has triumphed in heaven, and she has seen what she desired to see…And she saw…face to face, the face adorned with the whiteness of immortality,…The patriarch continues…As she was free of every corruption of mind and body, she was thus foreign to the pain of death”. 
 Mary’s assumption into heaven even evoked the wonderment of the angels who witnessed it, as envisioned by Titian and expressed in the question ascribed to them by Lorenzo Giustiniani, again quoting the Song of Songs (3: 6 and 6: 9). The heavenly host exclaim: “Who is this who comes to us with such a great party of angels, almost like the breaking dawn, beautiful like the moon, elect like the sun…? Let us honor her who comes to us like a pillar of smoke of the aromas of myrrh and of incense.” Giustiniani went on to relate, and Titian to anticipate, how Christ greeted his mother in heaven, addressing her in the language of the Canticle as he welcomed her to her throne as Regina Coeli: “Come, my mother of Lebanon, come my dove, my Immaculate one, my lovely one, gentle and dignified as Jerusalem, you will be crowned…Ascend to the throne that I have prepared for you, take the crown set with gems.” 
 In Giustiniani’s sermon, the Virgin responds to this welcome with wonder and humility: “Have I merited this?...What can I render to my Lord in exchange for all these things…? I shall choose the holy words of customary humility that you have taught me. I shall not draw back, nor shall I contradict, but consent to your will, with a reverent acquiescence of mind, and with those same words that I spoke when I conceived you…Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” 
Goffen argued that the Assunta marked the beginning of a new era not only for Titian but also for Venetian and European art. On the other hand, it also marked the end of an era. In 1517, as Titian was working in his studio on the Assunta, Martin Luther was posting his 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg. Within a few years fanatical iconoclasts were destroying paintings and statues of Mary all over Europe.


*Giorgio Vasari: Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston Du C. De Vere, with an Introduction and Notes by David Ekserdjian, V. 2, New York, 1996. Pp. 785-6.

**Rona Goffen: Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Bellini, Titian, and the Franciscans, Yale, 1986. (103-106)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Valentin de Boulogne at the Met

Last week my wife and I finally got to see the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition, Valentin de Boulogne, Beyond Caravaggio, that closes today after a run of three months.  The Met did a remarkable job of assembling 45 of the 60 extant paintings of this early seventeenth century artist who, like Caravaggio, died at a relatively young age. 

On its website the Met provided this introduction to Valentin:

Although he is not well known to the general public, Valentin has long been admired by those with a passion for Caravaggesque painting. His work was a reference point for the great realists of the 19th century, from Courbet to Manet, and his startlingly vibrant staging of dramatic events and the deep humanity of his figures, who seem touched by a pervasive melancholy, make his work unforgettable.

After viewing the paintings which were beautifully hung in a number of rooms, it would be hard to dispute the Met’s description.  Valentin came on the scene right around the time of Caravaggio’s death and obviously learned from the master.  His paintings, many of a very large size, are startlingly vibrant and dramatic, and full of the humanity of his figures both secular and sacred. 

Like Caravaggio he depicted musicians, tavern goers, gamblers, pick-pockets, and card sharps in action. Nevertheless, most of the paintings in the exhibition showed that Valentin’s patrons still desired sacred subjects, and that some subjects still retained their popularity despite the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, or the reforms of the Council of Trent.

Titian: Denial of Peter
Metropolitan Museum, NY

For example, the exhibition contained more than one painting of the denial of Peter. The Met’s permanent collection features a Titian version of the denial that illustrates continuity as well as development. Titian used the contrast of light and dark long before Caravaggio and Valentin, but did not place the scene among a crowd of disinterested bystanders for dramatic effect.

Valentin de Boulogne: Denial of Peter

In the same way, I found it interesting to compare Valentin’s two versions of Judith, the Jewish heroine, with Giorgione’s version completed a century before. In one version Valentin followed Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi in depicting Judith in the act of beheading Holofernes. However, in another version we see a much less bloody scene with a stately composed Judith calmly standing with the severed head at her side in much the manner of Giorgione.

Valentin de Boulogne: Judith

Valentin de Boulogne: Judith

Giorgione: Judith

Protestant reformers rejected the Book of Judith as apocryphal but the story obviously remained popular in Catholic Rome.  I suspect that Judith’s enduring popularity was not just because she was viewed as a savior of her people from an oppressive tyrant. Looking at these paintings I saw a woman defending her own virtue and chastity. Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece was one of the most popular poems of this era for much the same reason. 

Here is a link to an excellent brief video introduction of Valentin and the Met exhibition by Met curator Keith Christiansen. Alternatively, the video can be viewed below.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Giorgione: Castelfranco Altarpiece

Commentators have always regarded Giorgione’s Castelfranco Altarpiece as a unique and original work of art. It is Giorgione’s only known altarpiece, and although he used a traditional subject, he characteristically brought it to a new level.

Giorgione: Castelfranco Altarpiece
Oil on panel, c. 1504
200.5 cm x 144.5 cm
Castelfranco Veneto

In a 2009 study of Giorgione, written in conjunction with the exhibition in Giorgione’s home town of Castelfranco Veneto that commemorated the five hundredth anniversary of the painter’s death, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo wrote:
it would be unjust to diminish the importance of the very personal reworking that this young talent dared to express when he found himself standing before the great blank spaces of the panel,…[His] lifting the Madonna up to the highest possible height…but at the same time using that ‘emblematic” green cloth to tie them together and taking the back out of the chapel so that a preponderant landscape element might be added…is indicative of an approach that was totally original and free of conditioning. *
The story of the altarpiece was told best by Salvatore Settis in an extremely well researched essay that appeared in the catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition, jointly sponsored by the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. For obvious reasons the Altarpiece was not included in the exhibition, but the essay by Settis was one of the highlights of the catalog.

I have reviewed the Settis article previously and would just note here that Settis argued that the donor’s connection to Sicily helped to establish the identity of the armored saint. It’s neither St. George nor St. Liberalis, the patron saint of the Cathedral, but St. Nicasius, a popular Sicilian saint holding the banner of the Order of Jerusalem.

In this case, the only candidate is St. Nicasius, venerated in Palermo and Messina, where his cult is associated with that of St. Francis (exactly as in the Altarpiece).**
In his essay Settis reproduced a journalist’s description of the painting from 1803 that I copy here as a model for seeing and understanding.
 “Above a floor covered in square tiles of marble of different colours rises a Sarcophagus of Porphyry, on which is painted the coat of arms of the noble family Costanzo. Tuzio, famous warrior, disconsolate because of the death of his son, having ordered the erection of the Altar, it appears that the painter has delicately tried to alleviate his pain, placing behind the Tomb in an elevated position, a throne of whitish marble, on which sits Our Lady, on her knees her small Divine Child, with his head turned to observe the Sarcophagus itself. Behind the Virgin and supporting her on one side is a piece of inlaid marble. The entire base of the Throne is covered by a most beautiful tapestry, which hangs down a little…so far as to cover the sarcophagus, emerging from beneath the folds of the rich crimson robe…Behind the Sarcophagus and at the height of the Throne the picture is framed by a most beautiful crimson velvet, descending to the floor, which gives a pyramidal layout and artificially divides the upper part of the foreground of the painting. On the right…stands St. George…Of his feet, the right rests on the floor, the left on a small step leading up to the Sarcophagus,…St. Francis stands with both feet on the lowest level of the floor…”  ***

My wife and I saw the Altarpiece in the spring of 2010. We had attended the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America that had been held that year in Venice, and decided to take the train to Castelfranco to see if we could get into the Giorgione exhibition. That Sunday was the closing day and the exhibition was sold out but we were able to see the Altarpiece on display in the Cathedral next door.

The first thing I noticed was the relatively small size of this extraordinarily beautiful painting that had been so carefully cleaned and restored in Venice only a few years before. It would certainly be dwarfed by Giovanni Bellini’s famed Venetian altarpiece in the church of S. Zaccaria that was completed in 1505. The small size of the “Castelfranco Altarpiece” stems from the fact that it was meant not for the high altar in a Cathedral but for a small funerary chapel.

I would just like to add an observation that has been inspired by Settis’ study. Above the sarcophagus there is a white marble altar on which the Madonna’s throne rests. But Franciscan spirituality regarded the Madonna herself as an altar on which her Son, the Eucharist, is placed. For confirmation we need only look at the white cloth underneath the Infant that also covers Mary’s head. It is the corporale that always covers an altar. Giorgione would later use the corporale in his famous “Tempest” where it winds around Mother and Child in much the same way.

But why two altars? On occasion a funerary chapel is opened for Mass. At the height of the Mass, immediately after the consecration, the priest utters an ancient formula: “Lord, let your angel take this sacrifice to your Altar in Heaven.” At every Mass the sacrifice offered at the earthly altar would be merged with the eternal sacrifice of the Heavenly Altar. In Giorgione’s painting we see the Heavenly Altar (Mary) right on top of the earthly altar.

This concept, that seems so strange to viewers today, is reinforced by Giorgione’s artistic genius. Where is the viewer in this painting? We are not at floor level with the saints. We seem to look down on them. How is it possible for us to see the landscape in the background behind the curtain? The landscape in which we live is in the background. The figures in the foreground are in another world.


*Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo: Giorgione, Milan, 2009, 167.

**Salvatore Settis: “Giorgione in Sicily–On the Dating and Composition of the Castelfranco Altarpiece.” In Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004, 144.

***Settis, 135.