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, December 15, 2012

Giorgione's Tempest: The Young Man

In my interpretation of Giorgione’s "Tempest" as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” I identified the young man situated so prominently in the left foreground as St. Joseph. In Giorgione's famous painting the young man stands at the left side of the painting holding a staff. The staff alone should be enough to recognize Joseph but in my interpretation I also discussed his pose and placement in the painting. I acknowledged that the youth and obvious virility of the man was a difficulty, but subsequent investigation has only confirmed my initial intuition.

In recent years scholars have documented the tremendous increase in devotion to St. Joseph that took place in the fifteenth century, a development that continued right through the Reformation. The increasing devotion, that included the establishment of the Saint’s feast day by Pope Sixtus IV in 1479, naturally made St. Joseph an  important figure in the art of the Renaissance.

In this artistic development the image of St. Joseph began to change to accommodate the thought of theologians like Jean Gerson, the sermons of preachers like Bernardino of Siena, and the demands of patrons and devotees. A new Joseph began to appear. Instead of as a sleepy old man, he began to be depicted as younger and virile: strong enough to protect the Madonna and Child especially on their arduous and potentially dangerous flight into Egypt.

Here I would like to present some other images of Joseph by contemporaries of Giorgione that I discovered in my search for a young Joseph. None are as a young as Giorgione’s man but still they appear strong and vigorous enough to protect the Madonna and Child. 

Raphael's "Sposalizio" is perhaps the most striking example. Raphael's version of the marriage of the Virgin became immediately popular after its completion in 1504. The differences between Raphael's version and the one by his old mentor Perugino have long been noted, but it is obvious that Raphael took pains to make his Joseph younger and more vigorous than Perugino's. Raphael's version is on the left and Perugino's on the right. Click on image to enlarge.

Below is a Raphael version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt". This Joseph sports grey hair and beard but he is certainly no more than middle-aged and looks vigorous enough. Moreover, he is dressed in royal purple and gold and has been brought into the center of the picture. He carries the legendary staff or rod that always identifies St. Joseph.

After painting the Sposalizio, Raphael moved to Florence in 1504 where he became associated with Fra Bartolommeo, a painter who had become a Dominican friar after the death of Savonarola. Both painters must have influenced each other. In a version of the encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on the return from Egypt  Fra Bartolommeo depicted a young, beardless Joseph.

Fra Bartolommeo: Encounter with the Baptist

Fra Bartolommeo did travel to Venice in 1508 to work in the Dominican house on Murano but I don't think it is necessary to posit a direct influence on Giorgione. The idea of a younger, virile Joseph was in the air, especially since his protection of the Madonna had long been seen as implying protection of the Church. After Giorgione's death in 1510 contemporary Venetian painters continued to portray a young, virile Joseph. Paris Bordone, for example, provided striking examples in versions of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, an event that was usually placed in the desert of Egypt.

One of Bordone's versions is in a private collection but was featured prominently in the 2006 Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition jointly sponsored by Washington's National Gallery and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In the exhibition catalog we can see a well-built Joseph in the center with his bare muscular leg prominently displayed. I have argued elsewhere that this scene represents a "proxy"marriage where Joseph stands in for the infant Jesus who is obviously too young to marry.

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

Bordone used the same device in a depiction of the "Mystic Marriage" now in Leningrad. Once again, a young, virile Joseph displays his powerful leg. He is not an old man.

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

No one has done more to document the increasing devotion to Joseph and its resulting influence on pre-Reformation art than American scholar, Carolyn Wilson. In a paper presented as the 1998 annual Joseph lecture at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, her description of Joseph in a 1566 version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Santi di Tito could well be used to describe Giorgione's man in the Tempest.

Artists in our period sought in innumerable ways to convey Joseph’s protectorship of Mary, and, of course, her Child. These efforts are apparent not only when we observe expressions of Joseph’s strenuous exertions in scenes of the Flight into Egypt or of his tender solicitude in examples of the rest on the Flight but also when we note the inclusion in Nativity scenes of the accoutrements that signal his preparedness for the imminent escape from Bethlehem and from Herod. The latter include, for example, in Santi’s altarpiece the walking staff that the virile figure grips…
Looking still at this picture, we observe, too, that the placement of Joseph at the lower left foreground puts him near the devout spectator of the work…as his or her mediator. St. Joseph is also in position to stand guard, as he does with confidence and elegance, over the Virgin and Infant…*
The Man in Giorgione's "Tempest"  exhibits the same confidence and elegance.

In the next post I will discuss other images that have heretofore gone unrecognized as St. Joseph.###

*Wilson, Carolyn: “St. Joseph as Mary’s Champion: Examining the Distinctive Connection between the ‘Madonna del Giglio’ the ‘Compagnia di San Giuseppe,’ and the Church of San Giuseppe in Florence,”  1998 St. Joseph lecture given at St. Joseph’s University, printed in Joseph of Nazareth, ed. By Joseph F. Chorpenning, O.S.F.S., Philadelphia, 2011. p. 90. In that same volume see the fine essay on Jean Gerson's influence by Brian Patrick McGuire : “Becoming a Father and a Husband: St. Joseph in Bernard of Clairvaux and Jean Gerson.”  


  1. Great research on the young Joseph. It forces us to adopt a more virile approach to the Faith.

    1. James:

      Thanks for your comment. What you say may well ;have been the attitude of some Renaissance painters and patrons.