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".

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Giorgione: Sacred Art Guides

Chartres: South Rose Window with evangelists on shoulders of prophets to represent dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants.


Two great 19th century writers, Emile Male and Anna Jameson, were invaluable resources for me in my work on the Tempest. One was a professional French historian and the other was an English amateur but together they did more than anyone else to preserve the great works of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance from neglect and even destruction.

Emile Male was one of those great 19th century scholars whose work is often overlooked today not only by the general public but even by art historians. His three volumes on the religious art of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries were beautifully re-printed by Princeton University Press in 1986. The second volume in the series, Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century, is probably best known since it is still available in paperback as “The Gothic Image.”

Male was a pioneer in rediscovering the iconography of the artwork of the Gothic cathedrals after the ignorance of the Enlightenment, and the destruction of the French Revolution. In true 19th century fashion his work was based on innumerable visits to sites throughout France and Europe, but also on exhaustive examination of the texts that formed the basis for the conceptions of the artists.

When I looked for an explanation of the broken columns in Giorgione’s Tempest I recalled something I had read years before in “The Gothic Image.” Writing about the depictions of the Flight into Egypt in the Gothic cathedrals, Male wrote,

“Of all these legends, they scarcely used any other than the Fall of Idols….

Many medieval writers told that when Jesus entered the temple of Sotinen, called Hermopolis by others, he caused the idols to fall, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: “Behold the Lord will ascend upon a swift cloud and will enter into Egypt. And the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence”…When the governor of the town, Affrodosius, heard of the miracle, he went to the temple; when he saw that all the statues were broken, he worshiped Jesus….

The Church adopted the story of the Fall of the Idols, which like many apocryphal legends, grew out of a desire to justify a prophetic text, and it authorized the artists to represent it….The thirteenth century gave an abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend. There are neither town, temple nor priests…two statues falling from their pedestals and breaking in two suffice to recall the miracle.”
Emile Male: Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1986. Pp. 220-221.

Could this be the reason why Giorgione used two broken columns?

Anna Jameson seems like a character out of Jane Austen. She was born into a respectable middle class family but her father never had much to give her except an education, and after a bad marriage, she turned to writing about art to support herself.

Modern scholars don’t like to use an amateur like Mrs. Jameson but she was an eyewitness of an incredible array of art before the beginning of the art-historical era. It is likely that many of the paintings she saw were subsequently ruined, dispersed, or lost.

Like Emile Male she also had a great familiarity with the biblical stories and apocryphal legends that formed the basis for most of the great art of the Renaissance. When I saw that the young man in the Tempest must be St. Joseph, I turned to Mrs. Jameson for help. Here’s what she wrote.

"In German pictures, Joseph is not only old, but appears almost in a state of dotage, like a lean, wrinkled mendicant, with a bald head, a white beard, a feeble frame, and a sleepy or stupid countenance. Then again, the later Italian painters have erred as much on the other side; for I have seen pictures in which St. Joseph is not only a young man not more than thirty, but bears a strong resemblance to the received heads of our Saviour." Mrs. Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885. pp. 271-2.

Later when I realized that Giorgione might have depicted the Holy Family in the lost painting copied by David Teniers and mis-identified as “The Discovery of Paris,” I again found the answer in Mrs. Jameson’s account of the Encounter with the Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.

Mrs. Jameson noted that the encounter with the robbers has been “seldom treated” as an artistic subject but did indicate that she had seen two representations.

“One is a fresco by Giovanni di San Giovanni, which, having been cut from the wall of some suppressed convent, is now in the academy at Florence. The other is a composition by Zuccaro.”

In a later edition she provided a sketch of the Zuccaro “Encounter,” which shows Joseph assisting the Madonna down from the Ass at the behest of the armed robber. Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885. pp. 361-362.


Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

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