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".

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Giorgione's Tempest: Massacre of the Innocents


In my paper on Giorgione’s “Tempest” I looked at all the iconographical elements in the famous painting and tried to not only identify them correctly but also to put them together in a coherent whole. I understood that no piece could be left out of the puzzle or forced into place.


Years ago I was an avid fan of jigsaw puzzles, especially landscapes. My method was to put all the end pieces together first as a kind of frame. Then, I would proceed to do the prominent figures in the foreground and put them in their appropriate spaces. Finally, the background landscape would be filled in with the usually blue sky saved for last.

In the past few posts I have been going through the process of re-examining the pieces of the “Tempest” puzzle. First, I discussed the broken columns in the mid-ground and showed that they were commonplace in depictions of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. In subsequent posts I elaborated on my discussion of the prominent figures in the foreground. In my paper I had claimed that the young man on the left holding a pilgrim’s staff is St. Joseph watching over the Madonna and Child, and in two posts I presented other contemporary examples of young, virile Josephs. I then discussed the nursing Woman and showed that the white cloth draped over her shoulders and the mysterious plant in front of her helped to identify her as the Madonna.

Now, only the city and stormy sky in the background remain in order to complete the puzzle. In my paper I discussed both city and storm and I agreed with those who have seen that the city in the background could be Padua under siege in 1509 during the War of the League of Cambrai.

Yet, Renaissance paintings are notorious for having many levels of meaning. The subject of the painting is the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and so the city in the background must be Judea or, more particularly, Bethlehem from where the Holy Family had fled after Joseph had been warned to flee the murderous designs of King Herod. The storm would then represent the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

In his great work on Medieval iconography, Emile Male discussed the liturgical importance of the Massacre.

The Massacre of the Innocents, which might seem to be an episode of secondary importance, is closely linked with the Christmas feast. In fact, during the three days following Christmas, the Church celebrates the Massacre of the Innocents along with the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John the Apostle. The liturgists tell us that the Church desired to gather around Christ’s cradle the innocent children and the proto-martyr who were the first to shed their blood for the faith; *

Many artists depicted the actual slaughter. Giotto and Duccio provided prominent early examples, and the subject was not uncommon in the Renaissance. In her many travels nineteenth century art maven Anna Jameson noted many depictions of the distasteful subject, but also noted that the Massacre could even be hinted at in versions of the Flight into Egypt.

In pictures of the Flight into Egypt, I have seen it introduced allusively into the background; and in the architectural decoration of churches dedicated to the Virgin Mother, as Notre Dame de Chartres, it finds a place, but not often a conspicuous place; it is rather indicated than represented. **

In my paper I argued that the storm clouds and lightning in the background of the “Tempest” can indicate the massacre of the Holy Innocents, a martyrdom that the Church had always regarded as intimately connected with the passion and death of Christ. I tried to show that storm clouds and lightning were not mere emblems but actual symbols of death and destruction. For example, Joachim Patenir, a Giorgione contemporary, darkened the sky above the city in the background of his depiction of the Rest on the flight into Egypt.

Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Here is Carlo Ridolfi’s description of a storm in a lost painting describing a scene of death and destruction by the early Titian.

It was then decreed by the senate that he should paint for the Sala del Gran Consiglio the armed encounter at Cadore between the imperial troops and the Venetians. In this work, he imagined the natural site of his hometown with the castle situated above on a high mountain where the flash from a lightning bolt in the form of an arrow is suspended and misty globes in the manner of clouds are forming, mixed among the terrors of the unexpected tempest; meanwhile the battlefield is obstructed by the horrible conflict of knights and foot-soldiers, some of whom were defending with their rapiers the imperial flag, stirred by the wind and boldly moving in the air. ***

Although not in a painting, Pietro Aretino gave a very vivid image of the scene of the Crucifixion in his “Humanity of Christ.”

Meanwhile the darkness which had lasted from the sixth hour to the ninth, grew so black that it seemed day had hidden beneath the cloak of night. The clouds driving through the air and obscuring vision resembled a thousand banners of vast size arrayed against the eye of the sun. The sky itself groaned in unprecedented horror. The pallid lightning flashed. The very globe appeared about to dissolve in mist. #

Finally, in my work on the “Tempest” I came to realize that the solitary bird on the rooftop in the painting comes from the Psalms and refers to Rachel lamenting her lost children. In the passage of Matthew’s gospel where Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt, the evangelist records the plight of the ”Holy Innocents,” and recalls the prophecy of Jeremiah,

A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting: it was Rachel weeping for her children,…because they were no more.


The solitary bird on the rooftop in the background of the “Tempest” has hardly been noticed or discussed in all the scholarly literature but it recalls the lamentation of Rachel.The source for the bird can be found in Psalm 102, one of the seven Penitential psalms. (Jerusalem Bible 102, v.7-8).

I live in a desert like the pelican,
In a ruin like the screech owl
I stay awake, lamenting
Like a lone bird on the roof

Coincidentally, a few days ago I came across a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Nicholas Poussin that now can be found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is actually a depiction of the encounter with the young John the Baptist on the return of the Holy Family from Egypt. The Museum notes that they are surrounded by many cherubs. It is true that those in the trees have little wings but the ones on the ground do not. These I believe to be the Holy Innocents. They all look to be the same age as the infant Christ. ###

 Poussin: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY



Edit: English Poussin scholar David Packwood has kindly supplied this information about the Poussin Rest.
Storm clouds do appear in Poussin's paintings of the Flight into Egypt, usually clouds and cross in a symbolic cluster surrounded by cherubs, who represent the Holy Innocents. See NP's Dulwich Flight and Cleveland one. I covered the New York "Rest on the Flight" in my Phd. It's possible that ALL the children represent the Innocents. There's a putto high up on the tree who has his arms outstretched in an "orans" gesture- and I think Poussin might have been alluding to the cross here, The iconography is very complex in this picture. Did you see the butterflies? I think these are symbols of the infants' soul. Some scholars think that the lake behind the children could allude to baptism. Diana di Grazia wrote a long article about it for the Poussin Cleveland conference way back in the 90s.There's lots of stuff on the Innocents in that. It's also significant that the children are the same age of Christ in the New York picture. According to Counter-Reformation doctrine and debates on infant baptism, Christ was the saviour of infants. Finally, I think the NY picture has a Neapolitan provenance. Significant because one of Poussin's patrons- the poet Marino- came from Naples and wrote a poem about the Massacre of the Innocents, which heavily influenced Poussin. 
Thank you, David.

*Emile Male: Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1858, p. 186.
**Anna Jameson: Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885, p. 353.
*** Carlo Ridolfi: the Life of Titian, Penn State, 1996, p. 75.
# James Cleugh:The Divine Aretino. NY, 1966, 99. 196-7











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