If it wasn’t for the nudity of the Woman in Giorgione’s “Tempest”, we would easily recognize the painting as a version of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” The broken columns in the mid-ground are commonplace in versions of the Rest. In recent posts we have also seen that at the beginning of the sixteenth century St. Joseph was being portrayed as younger and more virile than in earlier depictions. We also know that a nursing mother will almost always be the Madonna.
Besides the fact that the woman in Giorgione’s “Tempest” is nursing, there are two other elements that help to identify her as the Madonna. First, there is the white cloth that extends over her shoulders and even envelopes her son. Second, there is the plant featured so prominently in front of the woman.
First, let’s consider the cloth. Although some have called it a shirt, it is obvious that it is not an article of a woman’s clothing. It is much too large. No only does it cover the child, but it also covers the woman’s shoulders and back, and then overflows onto the ground. What is it? In my interpretation of the “Tempest” I identified the cloth as the corporale, the white cloth that covers the altar at every Mass. In Franciscan spirituality Mary was identified as the altar on which the Eucharist was placed.
In “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice” the late Rona Goffen, one of the most prolific Venetian Renaissance scholars, noted the connection between the Madonna and the Eucharistic altar. For example, in Giovanni Bellini’s famed Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari,
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."* (53)
Later Titian would utilize the corporale in his famed Pesaro altarpiece. Goffen identified the white cloth on Mary’s head in that famous painting as the corporale:
the Madonna's veil recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.**
There are other examples. In the so-called “Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds”, variously attributed to Giorgione or Titian, the infant Christ lies on a white cloth that is placed on the stony ground. Many nativity scenes such as this one were actually depictions of the first Mass. The infant Christ, the Eucharist, lies on the white cloth that covers the stony ground.
A lost Giorgione painting that only exists in a seventeenth century copy was once thought to depict the story of the discovery of the infant Paris on Mt. Ida. It is actually a depiction of an encounter of the Holy Family with robbers, an apocryphal episode associated with the flight into Egypt. In that painting the infant Christ lies on a white cloth spread on the stony ground.
Examples could be multiplied but the fact remains that no other explanation of the “Tempest” has tried to explain the significance of the white cloth.
Despite countless studies and interpretations, scholars have also avoided discussion of the plant in front of the woman. Some think that it is there to cover the woman’s nakedness although it is obviously doing a very poor job. Most interpretations don’t even mention it. If you take another look at the "Allendale Adoration" above, you will see that a plant (probably a bay laurel) also features prominently in that painting.
When I first saw the “Tempest” I wondered about the plant and thought that it might be one of the plants that are commonly associated with the Madonna. Knowing little about plants, I consulted my younger brother, a high school science teacher and master botanist. It is incredible to walk through the woods with him and hear him name every tree and plant and discuss their characteristics. Without flowers it is hard to identify, but he suggested that the root structure and the way it is growing indicate a nightshade.
Even I knew that the most well known nightshade was the deadly nightshade or belladonna, a plant that I subsequently found out was associated with witchcraft and the devil. Although poisonous, Italian women in Giorgione’s time commonly used belladonna extract to dilate and beautify their eyes. The belladonna plant became another piece of the “Tempest” puzzle that fit so easily into place. What else could explain the fact that the part of the plant below the heel of the woman had withered and died than the famous quote from Genesis 3:15? God speaks to the serpent about Eve and her offspring.
I will make you enemies of each other:
You and the woman,
Your offspring and her offspring.
It will crush your head
And you will strike its heel.
Modern scholars use either “he” or “it” to indicate that it is the offspring that will crush the head of the serpent. During the Renaissance the Latin Vulgate used “she”. ###
*Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, p. 53.
Goffen, op. cit., p. 114.