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".

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.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Norton Simon Duveen Exhibition Primadonna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, January 9, 2015

Giorgione, Titian, and the Venetian Renaissance

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

Major Discoveries: (click on images to enlarge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palma Vecchio:Allegory

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

Rustic Idyll

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

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

ParisBordone: Mystic Marriage of S. Catherine

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

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

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

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

Titian: Courtesan

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

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

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

Lotto: Mystic Marriage of S. Catherine

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

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

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

Raohael: Vision of Ezekiel

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

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


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

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds

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

"In 1971, an incredible 1.2 billion copies of a single postage stamp were printed by the U.S. Postal Service. It was the largest stamp printing order in the world since postage stamps were first introduced in 1840. It was almost ten times larger that the usual printing of an American commemorative stamp. The stamp was one of two Christmas stamps issued that year. It depicted a Nativity scene by the Italian painter Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, and portrayed Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and two shepherds." (M.W. Martin: “Christmas in Stamps,” in Catholic Digest Christmas Book, ed. Father Kenneth Ryan, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1977.)

The scene is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its layers of meaning. Even a modern observer can see that this newborn King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Immaculate Conception in the Art of the Renaissance

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

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

Significant developments in the 15th century had brought the idea of the Immaculate Conception to prominence by the end of the century. In the first place, the century witnessed a continued increase in devotion to the Madonna, which naturally led to an increased interest in the "Conception." This interest was fostered by religious orders, most notably the Franciscans. Secondly, controversy about the doctrine between the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the two great teaching orders, contributed to its development.[i]

In 1438 the Council of Basel, no doubt responding to the upsurge of devotion to Mary, affirmed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but only after Papal legates and others had left the Council. Without Papal support the Council and its decrees could not become binding on the Church. Nevertheless, the concept of the Immaculate Conception had been given tremendous impetus. Nowhere did it receive greater support than in Venice.

In her study of Venetian patrons and their piety, Rona Goffen  argued that Venice itself became identified with the Immaculate Conception by the end of the Quattrocento.[ii] Besides the many churches and innumerable altars dedicated to the Madonna, churches like S. Maria dei Miracoli and S. Maria della Carita were dedicated specifically to the "Immaculata." In 1498, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was founded in Venice, and it worshipped at the Frari's famous Pesaro altar, itself dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.

 Two great figures played a key role in the spiritual life of Venice in the 15th century. Goffen noted the importance of the sermons of St. Bernardino of Siena, who was made a patron saint of Venice in 1470; and of Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first patriarch of the Republic.

In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nonetheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination.[iii]

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

The Papacy also played a role. Francesco della Rovere, the scholarly Vicar-General of the Franciscan order, was elected Pope Sixtus IV in 1471. In the previous year he had written a treatise on the Immaculate Conception in which he had tried to reconcile the differing opinions of supporters and opponents. Subsequently, he added its Feast to the liturgy for the entire Western Church, and ordered new offices to be composed. One was even composed especially for Franciscan use.

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

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

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

Grimani Breviary

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

Grimani Breviary

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

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

[i] For a comprehensive discussion of the doctrine and the controversy surrounding it see The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, History and Significance, ed. Edward Dennis O’Connor, University of Notre Dame Press, 1958, c. VI. See also the article on the Immaculate Conception in The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910.

[ii]Rona Goffen,  Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice,  Yale, 1986, p. 154.

[iii]Goffen, op. cit.  p. 79.

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

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

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