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, July 21, 2015

Doni Tondo Revision III: The Nudes in the Background




In recent years the five nude young men in the background of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo have received as much, if not more, attention than the Holy Family in the foreground. There would appear to be no agreement as to who they are or what they represent. Among other things, they have been variously interpreted as angels without wings, sinners, penitents awaiting Baptism, figures from pagan antiquity, or figures from the Old Testament.



In a paper, entitled “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo: Holy Family and Family Myth,” Andree Hayum concentrated on the scene in the background. [i] She noted the many different interpretations offered for the five nude men, but found the source in the Old Testament account of the drunkenness of Noah. She saw an obvious connection between the young men and Michelangelo’s famous depiction of the Noah story on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

But if one thinks of them as a constellation of three, the figures they recall are Michelangelo’s sons of Noah in the Sistine fresco of Noah’s Drunkenness. The most notable feature of Michelangelo’s sons of Noah is their nudity.[ii]
Michelangelo: Drunkenness of Noah



In her interpretation the three men on the viewer’s right in the Doni Tondo would be Noah’s sons Ham, Seth, and Japheth before the incident of their father’s humiliating drunkenness. After drinking of the fruit of the vine, Noah had fallen naked into a stupor in his tent. Ham looked upon his father’s nakedness but the other two averted their faces and covered him. When Noah awoke and realized what had happened, he cursed Ham. Hayum argued that the two innocent or sinless sons are therefore depicted after the episode on the viewer’s left.

There is a connection between the young John the Baptist in the midground of the Doni Tondo and the story of Noah. Not only did theologians and artists see the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Hebrew prophets, as a link between the Old and New Covenants, but also they had related the story of Noah to Baptism.

In the First Letter of St. Peter the saving of Noah and his family are seen as prefiguring Baptism. Just as the waters of the Flood wiped away sin, so too do the waters of Baptism. There can be no doubt of the prominence of the Noah story during Michelangelo’s time. Savonarola, his favorite preacher, had given perhaps his most famous series of sermons on Noah and the Flood right before the French invasion of Italy in 1494. A couple of years after the completion of the Doni Tondo Michelangelo featured the Noah story on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

Nevertheless, I have some questions about Hayum’s hypothesis. In the first place, where is Noah in the Doni Tondo? For Hayum this question was not a problem because she saw Noah in the figure of St. Joseph.

As in the sacrifice of Noah, the Holy Family alludes to Noah and his sibylline daughter-in-law. They have come to rest holding up the future male child. Like the ritual of sacrifice, the thanksgiving and the gift are one, and a sense of celebration prevails.[iii]

Noah’s daughter-in-law was reputed to be a sibyl and given the sibyls in the Sistine chapel, it was easy for Hayum and others to recognize a sibyl in Mary’s posture. Nevertheless, I believe it would be impossible to find another reference to Joseph as Noah. If anything, Noah is a type of Christ, not of St. Joseph. Noah’s salvation of mankind from destruction at the time of the Flood prefigured the salvation effected by Christ on the Cross.

My second question relates to the postures of the nude figures in the Doni Tondo. Rather than participating in the scene of their father’s drunkenness, they lounge about like modern Italian men on a street corner ogling passing young women. A similar posture can be seen in an earlier devotional tondo by Luca Signorelli that is usually called the Medici Madonna. Hayum and others have seen a connection between the five nudes in Michelangelo’s tondo and the four practically nude young men in Signorelli’s painting.


Luca Signorelli: Medici Madonna


In the foreground of Signorelli’s painting the Madonna sits on the ground while her son appears to be taking his first step. St. Joseph and John the Baptist are absent but a bust of the Baptist as a man appears in the fictive frame above the tondo with a banner reading “Ecce Agnius Dei”. However, the four young men in Signorelli’s tondo also appear to be idlers. It is hard to see how they could be the sons of Noah either before or after the incident of his drunkenness.

I would like to suggest that the nudes in both paintings are related to the story of Noah but that they are not his sons. In the Book of Genesis there is a brief reference to giants upon the earth. Here is an English translation of the Vulgate Latin.

Now giants (gigantes) were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. [Genesis 6:4]

The Golden Legend embellished the biblical account of the time of Noah.

This time men began to multiply upon the earth, and the children of God, that is to say of Seth, as religious, saw the daughters of men, that is to say of Cain, and were overcome by concupiscence and took them to their wives. This time was so much sin on earth in the sin of lechery, which was misused against nature, wherefore God was displeased…

A fuller account can be found in the apocryphal legends of the Jews. 

Unlike Istehar, the pious maiden, Naamah, the lovely sister of Tubal-cain, led the angels astray with her beauty, and from her union with Shamdon sprang the devil Asmodeus. She was as shameless as all the other descendants of Cain, and as prone to bestial indulgences. Cainite women and Cainite men alike were in the habit of walking abroad naked, and they gave themselves up to every conceivable manner of lewd practices. Of such were the women whose beauty and sensual charms tempted the angels from the path of virtue. The angels, on the other hand, no sooner had they rebelled against God and descended to earth than they lost their transcendental qualities, and were invested with sublunary bodies, so that a union with the daughters of men became possible. The offspring of these alliances between the angels and the Cainite women were the giants, known for their strength and their sinfulness…[iv]

The legends of the Jews ascribed a number of names to these giants but one was Nephilim, “because bringing the world to its fall, they themselves fell.” The modern Jerusalem bible does use the word Nephilim instead of giants to describe these troublemakers whose sins were so great that it took a flood to wipe them out. In addition to walking about naked, the Nephilim were noted for their arrogance and wantonness.
They knew neither toil nor care, and as a consequence of their extraordinary prosperity they grew insolent. In their arrogance they rose up against God…. It was their care-free life that gave them space and leisure for their infamies.[v]
The description of the Nephilim in the Jewish legends fits the depiction of the nude young men in the background of both Signorelli’s Medici Madonna and Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo. The painter of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel certainly had knowledge of the Book of Genesis. Scholars have demonstrated that he could have read the text in Italian because of the publication of the Malerbi bible in 1490 in the vernacular. He obviously used the Malerbi woodcuts in his work in the Sistine chapel.

Could he have been familiar with the folklore and legends of the Jews? Michelangelo grew up in a Florence that was a center of Hebraic studies.  Michelangelo trained at the Medici court where Pico della Mirandola was known for his knowledge of the Hebrew lore and traditions that were all lumped together under the heading of Cabala.  Most of Savonarola’s sermons were based on the books of the Old Testament. Also, Sante Pagnini, who succeeded Savonarola as Prior of San Marco, was a Dominican specialist in Hebrew language and grammar. He spent practically his entire career    translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin.

Why would Michelangelo place the proud giants or Nephilim in the Doni tondo? I can only offer the following guess. The painting is a devotional image. The Madonna elevates her infant Son in the way a priest elevates the Host at Mass. John the Baptist looks at the Host and utters the words of the Agnus Dei: Behold the Lamb of God…. But the full version of the ancient prayer is “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

The Nephilim represent the sins of the world. I suggest that they are the nudes in the background of both the Doni Tondo and Signorelli’s Medici Madonna. In both paintings the Madonna and Child have turned their backs to the nudes in the background. Instead of a Flood, the Lord has sent his only Son to take away the sins of the world.

###







[i] Andree Hayum, Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo: Holy Family and Family Myth. Reprinted in Michelangelo, Selected Scholarship in English, edited with Introduction by William E. Wallace, New York and London, 1995, V. 1.Life and Early Works, p. 421.

[ii] Hayum, op. cit. p. 424.

[iii] Hayum, op. cit., p. 427.

[iv] Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 1909, V. 1, c. 4. Available online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/loj/loj106.htm

[v] ibid.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Doni Tondo Revision II: John the Baptist



In the Doni Tondo Michelangelo placed the Holy Family outside in a landscape. He used the setting of one of the most popular legendary subjects of the day, the encounter of the Holy Family with the infant John the Baptist on the return from their sojourn in Egypt. Obviously, the infant John had also been saved from the murderous designs of King Herod. While the Holy Family had fled to the safety of Egypt, popular legends recounted the escape of the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth by taking refuge in a desert cave or grotto.


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

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

Leonardo’s so-called “Madonna of the Rocks” is a good example of the encounter with the young John the Baptist. Leonardo placed the meeting in the cave or grotto in which the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth took refuge. One version, now in London, even depicts the Baptist showing the little cross to the infant Jesus.

Leonardo’s equally famous depiction of Mary, her mother Anne, and the two young boys is also a version of the encounter in the desert. In the original cartoon Leonardo included the two boys but he substituted a lamb for the Baptist in the final version. Leonardo exhibited the cartoon on his return to Florence shortly before Michelangelo began working on the Doni Tondo but Michelangelo finished his painting before the completion of Leonardo’s final version.

In Michelangelo’s tondo the young John does not embrace or gambol with Jesus. Neither does he cozy up with the Holy Family or even join up with the group as he does in so many depictions. He stands behind or leans on a parapet that separates him from the Holy Family as if he were a member of a congregation. As Mary elevates her Child, it is as if John is observing the elevation of the Host at Mass. His words, “Behold the Lamb of God”, form part of the “Agnus Dei”, one of the most ancient prayers of the Mass.

The sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was reenacted at every Mass. When the priest elevated the Host at the Consecration, the congregation could not only see the Host but also a crucifix on the wall above or hung on the altar screen. It is difficult to know what went through an ordinary person’s mind at that point in the Mass. Early in the twentieth century Pope Pius X urged Catholics not to bow in reverence but to look upon the elevated Host and say to themselves the words of doubting Thomas, “my Lord and my God.” But during the Renaissance we most likely have to turn to the artists for the answer. When John the Baptist approached Jesus either as a child in the desert or at the Jordan years later, his words, “behold the Lamb of God” called to mind the elevation of the Host at the Consecration.

There are points of comparison between Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo and an earlier Florentine tondo by Luca Signorelli commonly called the Medici Madonna but actually a depiction of the return from Egypt. In the foreground the Madonna sits on the ground while her son appears to be taking his first step. St. Joseph is absent but a bust of John the Baptist as a man appears in the fictive frame above the tondo. Beneath the bust is a banner with the words “Ecce Agnius Dei”.

Luca Signorelli: Medici Madonna


Most scholars have noted that Michelangelo placed the Baptist in the midground of the Doni Tondo as a link between the Holy Family in the foreground and the five nude young men in the background of the Doni Tondo. It has been argued that the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Hebrew prophets, acts as a link between the Old and New Covenants.


In the background of the Signorelli tondo mentioned above there are also some practically nude young men in various poses. It has been argued that Michelangelo must have been aware of the Signorelli Medici Madonna. But in each case who are these nude young men, or what do they represent? This question is the one that seems to absorb modern scholarship the most, and I will turn to it in my next post. 

###

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Michelangelo: Doni Tondo Revision I


Last month I posted my initial thoughts on Michelangelo's Doni Tondo. Further reflection and reading as well as comments from friends and readers have led me to revise my interpretation. Below, find Part I of the revision. 




Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo is one of the greatest masterpieces of the High Renaissance. It is his only surviving panel painting and now hangs in the Uffizi in its original frame. Most scholars date it somewhere between Michelangelo’s completion of the David in 1504 and his departure from Florence to Rome in 1506. Like many of the masterpieces of this era, it has elicited many different interpretations. At first glance it appears to be simply a traditional rendering of the Holy Family but, on closer inspection, a number of questions arise.

In the foreground Mary, Joseph, and the Infant Jesus are situated  in a landscape. But what is going on? Is Mary handing the Child to Joseph, or is Joseph handing the Child to Mary? Why does Mary look as she does with muscular arms shockingly uncovered? What is Joseph doing in the painting? Why, despite tradition, has he been brought so prominently into the center to play an apparently key role? What is the young John the Baptist doing behind a parapet or wall in the midground? Finally, who are the five male nudes in the background, and why are they there?

As far as the first question is concerned, I originally agreed with  Giorgio Vasari’s view that Mary “presents” the child to Joseph. In his life of Michelangelo, Vasari wrote:

There came to Angelo Doni, a Florentine citizen and a friend of Michelagnolo. who much delighted to have beautiful things both by ancient and by modern craftsmen, a desire to possess some work by Michelagnolo; wherefore that master began for him a round picture containing a Madonna, who, kneeling on both knees, has an Infant in her arms and presents Him to Joseph, who receives him. Here Michelagnolo expresses in the turn of the head of the Mother of Christ and in the gaze of her eyes, which she keeps fixed on the supreme beauty of her Son, her marvelous contentment and her lovingness in sharing it with that saintly old man, who receives Him with equal affection, tenderness, and reverence, as may be seen very readily in his countenance, without considering it too long.[i]

Most modern scholars disagree with Vasari’s opinion. In a 1968 essay Mirella Levi d’Ancona, because of her belief that Michelangelo was supporting a Dominican view of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, saw the Child raising himself out of his mother’s body as if he was actually being born and sanctifying his mother at the moment of His birth. She wrote,

The Christ child—God incarnated in human form—is issuing from the body of the Virgin to take his human form, and at the same time blesses his mother, to bestow on her a special sanctification.[ii]


On the other hand, in 2003 Timothy Verdon believed that the source of the Doni Tondo could be found in Marsilio Ficino’s Neoplatonic concept of three kinds of love. As a result, Verdon argued that not only was Mary receiving the Child but that the man in the painting was not even St. Joseph.

the old man in the Tondo Doni seems to flout the tradition of a passive Joseph, separate from Mary, for the simple reason that he is not Joseph: he does not represent the surrogate father, but the real one, God, from whom the Son proceeds ab aeterno. Vasari was mistaken when he said that the old man “takes” the baby from Mary; it is rather the baby who emerges from the Father, with his left foot on the Father’s thigh and his little hands in Mary’s hair to maintain his balance. The Baby, with his right foot on Mary’s arm, is about to push himself up and over, in order to descend into the Virgin’s womb.[iii]

I now believe that neither view is correct. Vasari was often mistaken or ill informed but he was a close friend and confidant of Michelangelo. It would be almost the height of temerity to reject his eyewitness description of the central feature in this painting. Nevertheless, it would appear that he did not take more than a glance at the painting. For example, he saw the Madonna kneeling although she is obviously sitting.

It is so easy to overlook or ignore important and obvious details in a Renaissance masterpiece, but there are significant elements in the Doni Tondo that call for a new interpretation. Rather than handing off the Child to Joseph, I would argue that Mary is actually elevating the body of her Son in the same way that a priest elevates the Host or Body of Christ at the Consecration of every Mass. The keys to this interpretation are the hands of Mary, and the posture of Joseph.




The position of Mary’s hands and fingers cannot allow her to either hand the Infant Jesus off to Joseph or take the Child from him. As I pondered the painting, I asked myself where had I seen hands like that before. Eventually, I realized that Mary’s hands and fingers resembled a priest’s at the Consecration. After the Second Vatican council liturgical norms in the Catholic church were somewhat relaxed, but I remembered from my childhood that the priest would take the host between the thumb and forefinger of both hands before and during the elevation. Naturally, his other fingers would then close or cup in the shape of Mary’s as he raised the host. Since the priest’s back was to the congregation, he would raise the Host high above his head and look at it intently in the same way Mary does in the Doni Tondo.




In the art of the Renaissance it was common to equate the infant Jesus lying on his mother’s lap, or on the ground surrounded by various worshippers, with the Eucharistic host. The Portinari Altarpiece is one of the best examples. The infant Jesus lies on the ground surrounded by worshippers including angels wearing the vestments of altar servers. In Franciscan theology, for example, even when Mary was holding her infant Son on her lap, she was the altar on which the Eucharist rested.


Hugo van der Goes: Portinari Altaroiece

Verdon noted that his view partly arose out of a conversation with the late famed art historian Leo Steinberg. In 1974 Steinberg published a brief essay on the Doni Tondo in Vogue magazine. Steinberg’s reputation was so great that practically every commentator on the Doni Tondo refers to the Vogue essay. In that essay Steinberg saw deliberate ambiguity in Michelangelo’s famous painting that makes it very difficult to determine who is handing the Child to whom. But he did find four levels of meaning including a Eucharistic one. Here is his ending.

Christian tradition made the Virgin’s identity interchangeable with Ecclesia; and it made Joseph the typus apostolorum, protector and spouse of the Church, “guardian of the living bread for himself and the whole world” (St. Bernard). And as the maternal function of the Church culminates in the Mass, which engenders the sacramental body of Christ, so in the tondo, the unprecedented pitch of the Child above the Madonna prefigures the Elevation of the Host, of the Corpus Verum, the Eucharist—literally, a “Thanksgiving.”[iv]

Steinberg did note the “furled fingers” of Mary but only concluded that since no woman would ever receive a child in that way, “she must have just let it go.” So, in his opinion, the raising of the Child only “prefigures the Elevation of the Host….”




I would also like to point out that the garments of Mary indicate a priestly role. Michelangelo depicted her in her traditional red dress with her blue cloak or mantle draped over her legs. But there is also a green cloth wrapped around her on which a book, perhaps a Missal, rests. Green is still the color of the priest’s vestments on most of the Sundays of the Church year.

The concept of St. Joseph as protector and spouse of the Church is sufficient to explain his prominent position in the Eucharistic celebration. The man in Michelangelo’s tondo bears all the characteristics of St. Joseph as he was portrayed during the early decades of the sixteenth century. Joseph was increasingly depicted as a virile man quite capable of protecting his family especially on the flight into Egypt. One just has to look at Raphael’s Sposalizio in the Brera. In addition, the purple and gold coloring of his garments also identifies Joseph as from the line of King David.

Even more than these characteristics, the posture of Joseph confirms his identification. He is behind Mary and the Body of Christ. At the consecration of the Mass the sacrifice is offered to the Father above at the heavenly altar. Also, we see that Joseph is not standing since he does not tower over the sitting Madonna. Is he squatting awkwardly? Is he sitting on a hidden stool? We can only see his right leg but it is bent at the knee. It would appear that Joseph is kneeling or genuflecting as all worshippers do as the priest elevates the Body of Christ. At the same time his left hand is placed firmly on the Infant’s chest. Is he actually receiving Communion or just indicating the central  role of the Church in the acceptance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?

Even before the Reformation doubts had arisen about the Real Presence. The building of the great Cathedral in Orvieto in response to the Eucharistic miracle at Bolsena is one example of the Church's response to these doubts. Raphael's so-called Disputa in the Vatican Stanze is another response. 


to be continued…


###





[i] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston du C. De Vere, with an introduction and notes by David Ekserdjian, Everyman’s Library, 1996, v. II, p. 656.

[ii] Mirella Levi D’Ancona: The Doni Madonna by Michelangelo: An Iconographic Study. Reprinted in Michelangelo, Selected Scholarship in English, edited with Introduction by William E. Wallace, New York and London, 1995, V. 1.Life and Early Works, p. 404. This paper originally appeared in the Art Bulletin in 1968.

[iii] Timothy Verdon, Mary in Florentine Art, Firenze, 2003, pp. 97-98.

[iv] Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo,” Vogue, December, 1974, pp. 138.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Michelangelo: Doni Tondo


Note: I have had a change of mind on this post. Comments from friends led me to look more closely at the painting and go back and re-read some papers on the subject. I have posted the first part of my revision on May 31 on this site.  

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



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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonardo: Virgin of the Rocks. London.


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

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


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

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




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

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

###

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

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




[i]

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Norton Simon Duveen Exhibition Primadonna

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




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

###


Friday, January 9, 2015

Giorgione, Titian, and the Venetian Renaissance


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

Major Discoveries: (click on images to enlarge)



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


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


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



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

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

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



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



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

Palma Vecchio:Allegory

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

Rustic Idyll

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

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

ParisBordone: Mystic Marriage of S. Catherine

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


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



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



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

Titian: Courtesan

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



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



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

Lotto: Mystic Marriage of S. Catherine

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

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

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

Raohael: Vision of Ezekiel


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



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

###

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

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

drdestefano@mac.com


###