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".

Friday, January 25, 2013

Giorgione's Tempest: the Woman Clothed with the Sun

In my interpretation of Giorgione’s "Tempest" as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” I argued that the nudity of the nursing Madonna is the painter’s idiosyncratic attempt to depict the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In this post I will discuss other attempts by contemporaries of Giorgione to also depict the concept of the Immaculate Conception.

Although only proclaimed a dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854, the Immaculate Conception of Mary was a subject of great debate and controversy in the years up to and including the Renaissance. For centuries theologians had debated the question with the Dominicans and Franciscans, the two preaching orders, taking the lead. Only in the late fifteenth century did Pope Sixtus IV, a Franciscan, attempt to put an end to controversy by adding the feast of the Immaculate Conception to the liturgy of the entire Western church.

As so often happens, the action of Sixtus IV was in response to a tremendous upsurge in devotion to Mary in the fifteenth century. This devotion inevitably led to attempts at artistic depiction. But the concept was a difficult one to depict. Even today many Catholics still confuse the dogma of the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin birth. But the dogma does not refer to the birth of Jesus to a virgin or even to Mary’s own birth. The dogma refers to the freedom of Mary from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception in the womb of her own mother. The great nineteenth century historian Emile Male described this mysterious idea that finally blossomed at the time of Giorgione.

toward the end of the fifteenth century, a mysterious idea that had been secretly geminating in man’s soul for more than five hundred years, suddenly blossomed. It now seemed clear to theologians that the Virgin could not have partaken of original sin, being especially exempted from the law by divine decree. Mary, the perfect model of newly created humanity, like Eve at the time she was created by the hands of God, had come into the world free of the burden of sin.*
It was not easy to depict this mysterious, spiritual idea.
The task was difficult. How was one to represent the Virgin as a pure concept? How convey her creation without sin, by God’s decree, her existence in his thought before the creation of time?
In my paper I discussed what might be called the three major templates. But here I would just like to focus on the one that eventually gained the most popularity: the image from the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) of the woman clothed with the Sun, with the stars in her crown, and with the Moon at her feet.

Here is the image from the Breviary done for Cardinal Grimani, a prince of the Church from one of the leading Venetian families and a noted patron and collector of art. The Grimani Breviary was a product of the Netherlands.

Grimani Breviary: Immaculate Conception
Woman in the sky clothed with the Sun

In “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice” Rona Goffen argued that both Giovanni Bellini’s Frari triptych and Titian’s Assunta represented “the dedication of the Frari to the Immaculate Conception in visual imagery that suggests the similarities of the Madonna, and hence her church, with the Most serene republic of Venice.”**
It appears to me that the visual imagery must include the gold background of both paintings and that both artists were thinking of a way to depict a woman clothed with the Sun.

Giovanni Bellini: Pesaro chapel, Frari

Titian: Assunta, Frari
In a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” dated around 1516-18 Correggio used an unusual color scheme for the clothing of the Madonna. Her cloak is the traditional blue but her dress, usually a shade of red, has been painted a yellow gold. Was this Correggio’s way to depict the Woman clothed with the Sun? In her doctoral dissertation on the iconography of the flight into Egypt, Susan Schwartz wondered why a depiction of the Rest should have been placed in the Capella della Concezione of the church of San Francesco in Correggio.***

Correggio: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

In the Tempest Giorgione had the audacity to depict the Madonna on the flight into Egypt as the Immaculate Conception clothed only with the bright sun that shines upon her despite the dark storm clouds in the distance.

Finally, a few years after Giorgione's death a Native American, Juan Diego, had a vision of a woman clothed with the Sun whose image was subsequently implanted on his tilna that today can still be seen at the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. ###

*Emile Male: Religious Art in France, the Later Middle Ages, Princeton, 1986. p. 197.

**Rona Goffen: Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, p. 154.

***Sheila Schwartz, “The Iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” New York University, Ph. D., 1975, pp. 142-143.


  1. Hello Frank, there is a large sun disk behind the Madonna in Raphael's Madonna di Foligno. completed c.1512 for Sigismondo dei Conti and housed in the Church of Santa Maria in Araceoli. Most catalogue authors relate the use of this iconographic attribute to a description in the Legenda Aurea


  2. H:

    Thanks for drawing my attention to the Madonna di Foligno. A quick check on the web brings up an article by Regina Stefanik that indicates that some believe that Raphael depicted the Immaculata in this painting as the Woman of the Apocalypse. That the Aracoeli was a Franciscan church is a tipoff. I looked into Fischel and while he is effusive in his description, he calls the sun disk the nimbus of the Madonna. I'll try to looks further.