When I first saw Giorgione’s Tempest in a black and white image in an old travel book, I wondered whether the man and woman in the foreground had left the city in the background, or whether they were on a journey to the city. It was only after I sensed that in the “Tempest” Giorgione had depicted the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt that I understood that the Man and Woman had fled from the city in the background.
The famous and mysterious painting can be viewed as a narrative. The Holy Family has fled from the stormy city in the background; crossed the bridge and river that represented the dividing line between Judea and Egypt; encountered the ruins and broken columns so prominently depicted in the mid-ground; and finally found a place of rest and safety in the foreground.
Like many Renaissance narratives Giorgione’s “Tempest” begins in the left background, proceeds through the mid-ground, and culminates in the figures in the right foreground. The man in the left foreground acts as an interlocutor drawing the viewer’s attention to the woman and child. Although the viewer’s eye is directed toward the woman, her gaze deflects the action back to the viewer.
I knew that my initial intuition had great difficulties. Even though she was nursing, a nude Madonna was unimaginable and a young, virile St. Joseph was certainly unusual. My first thought was to look into the work of Emile Male, still the greatest source for Medieval iconography. The Flight into Egypt is based on a single verse in the gospel of Matthew but over the centuries legends had accumulated around the journey, and artists had delighted to depict them.*
I turned to “Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century”, the second volume of Male’s magisterial study, and found that of all the legends surrounding the arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt, artists “scarcely used any other than the Fall of Idols….” Male gave a brief description of the event.
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, Affodosius, 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.
Idols falling from a pedestal are the way the incident is depicted in the Biblia Pauperum. The two broken columns, standing right in the middle of Giorgione’s mysterious painting, giving an “abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend,” provided the first initial confirmation of my intuition. Giorgione embellished the scene somewhat by including some nearby ruins.
During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries these ruins were often seen in depictions of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. Flemish artists led the way in meeting the devotional demands of their patrons for this subject. One of Joachim Patenir’s most well known versions depicted the entire flight from the storm-shrouded city in the background to the nursing Madonna in the foreground. Behind the Madonna are the remains of a broken structure. A large, round, stone ball sitting atop a block of stone seems to be all that remains of the ruined idols.
|Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt|
In Washington’s National Gallery Gerard David’s most famous depiction of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt shows the Madonna resting with her Child who holds a bunch of grapes in his hand. She sits atop what looks like the remains of a building foundation that is now just covered with dirt calling to mind the words of Isaiah: "the lofty city He brings down; He tumbles it to the ground, levels it with the dust."
|Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt|
Among Italian artists Cima da Conegliano would also depict the Madonna and her child atop a rocky foundation that would appear to be the remains of a structure. The fallen temple has become an outdoor throne for the Madonna and her Child.
|Cima da Conegliano: Rest on the Flight into Egypt|
No Italian, however, liked to depict the ruins as much as Fra Bartolommeo, who became associated with Raphael in 1504 and then traveled to Venice shortly before Giorgione worked on the “Tempest”. His ruins are really elaborate.
|Fra Bartolommeo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt|
Giorgione could have been familiar with the work of any of these artists but I believe that his depiction of the fall of idols came from another source. In my paper on the “Tempest” I pointed out that Giorgione’s truncated columns are similar to those employed by Luca Signorelli in his 1504 depiction of the “End of the World” in Orvieto’s S. Brisio chapel. Domenico Grimani, the famous Venetian Cardinal and art collector, acted as one of Signorelli’s advisors on the project. Grimani had a summer residence near Orvieto.
|Luca Signorelli: detail of "End of the World".|
I know that other examples of broken columns have been found in emblem books and interpreted variously. Nevertheless, Giorgione’s columns and adjacent ruins were a piece of the “Tempest” puzzle that fit quite easily into a “Rest on the flight into Egypt” interpretation. ###
*The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is only recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew.
After they had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child with his mother with him, he left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:
I called my son out of Egypt
**Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century: A Study of Medieval Iconography and Its Sources, Princeton, 1984. p. 220.