“Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love” interprets the painting in Rome’s Borghese Gallery 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. In her hand she holds the jar of ointment that is found in practically every depiction of the great sinner/saint. The antique relief on the sarcophagus-like fountain, which so far has eluded explanation, can now be seen to depict three great sinners: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and St. Paul falling from his horse.
This new interpretation followed upon two other major interpretive discoveries of works by Giorgione. Over five years ago I saw the "Tempest" for the first time and immediately hypothesized that it depicted the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt. Here is a brief abstract of my paper that attempted to identify all the iconographic elements in the painting.
“Giorgione’s Tempest.” This paper identifies the subject of the “Tempesta” 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 be Padua during the Cambrai war. The scraggly plant in the foreground is “belladonna” a plant associated with witchcraft and the Devil. The paper included a new interpretation of a “lost” Giorgione heretofore mistakenly called “The Discovery of Paris.”
Seeing the "Tempest" as a "sacred" subject led to a number of other discoveries. For example, I was able to see Giorgione"s heretofore inexplicable "Three Ages of Man" as the "Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man." Here is an abstract of the painting that now hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence.
“Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man” identifies this famous depiction of three half-length figures that now hangs in the Pitti Palace 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 commonly worn by priests at Mass points to the commandments that he has directed the man to follow. On the left, an aging, bald Peter, dressed in martyr’s red, invites the viewer to enter the scene.
I'd like to mention the methodology employed in the three above discoveries especially since it was remarkably similar. I am not a professional Art historian. I hold a doctorate in History but my specialty was 18th century British politics. I say "was" because I left academe 40 years ago to become a financial advisor. I never gave up my interest in history but it was on the back burner. About 15 years ago my wife and I began to travel in Italy and I became more and more interested in the art of the Renaissance. My wife and I are both Catholic and we shared an interest in religious art.
So when I first looked at the "Tempest" in 2005, maybe because I was an outsider, or maybe because of my interest in religious art, I immediately guessed that Giorgione had depicted a scene from the Flight into Egypt. My historical training made me understand that there were obvious problems with this interpretation. I realized that every major element in the painting would have to fit or else the hypothesis would fall to the ground. It would not do, as some have done, to ignore things that didn't fit the interpretation. For example, most interpretations of the "Tempest" have made no attempt to explain the "plant" in front of the Woman.
I proceeded with trepidation knowing that one inconvenient 'fact" could bring down the whole hypothesis. A good example would be the "bird on the rooftop" in the background of the painting. I had initially ignored it as being insignificant but when challenged on it last year, I was able to discover the source in the Psalms.
It was the same way with the "Three Ages of Man," and now with the "Sacred and Profane Love." An initial intuition that stemmed from seeing the paintings in Florence and Rome preceded the research. My wife and I were stranded in Rome last year because of the volcano eruption in Iceland. We decided to go to the Borghese gallery. When I first beheld Titian's magnificent canvas, I turned to Linda and said that the two women were Mary Magdalen.
On returning home the work of verification began. Each major element in the painting had to be explained. The work of all the leading scholars in the field had to be examined. To my surprise no one had ever seen the Magdalen in the painting. I didn't give up at this point because I quickly saw that there was no agreed upon interpretation of this famous painting. Moreover, some, like the late Rona Goffen, one of the most perceptive students of Venetian art, had provided great research findings that could support a Magdalen hypothesis even though they themselves could not see it.
My grandchildren tell me that in most video games the obstacles or enemies get more and more formidable as the game proceeds, and that at the end there is often an insurmountable obstacle. However, in the three paintings noted above the giants in the field had all demolished each other and the way was open for an amateur to use their discarded weapons and proceed to the goal.
These three paintings, one in Rome, one in Venice and the other in Rome, are prime examples of what Art historians mean when they refer to Renaissance paintings as enigmatic or mysterious. When such terminology is used it often means that there is no agreement in Art historical circles about the subject matter of the work involved. Finally, many of these interpretations often seem to ignore the actual paintings. Why, for example, has no one ever commented on the colors of the garments of the three men in Giorgione's "Three Ages of Man."
If an interpretation can explain all the elements in a painting and show how they relate to one another, can the painting be called enigmatical or mysterious?