In my previous three posts on Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” I have discussed the figures in the antique relief that is placed so prominently in the center of the famous painting. I have argued that the three scenes represent great sinners: Adam and Eve around the Tree of Knowledge on the right; Cain and Abel toward the center; and on the left side St. Paul being thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus. The relief then has a direct relationship to the real subject of the painting that I have identified as, “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen.” See link.
Today I would like to deal with some possible objections to my interpretation and also present a summary account of the relief. At the outset I would like to point out that my interpretation of the relief does not fly in the face of any settled opinion on the subject. For the most part scholars have either thrown in the towel, or just offered the scantiest of guesses.
However, in 2001 Paul Joannides, in his study of the young Titian, provided a somewhat thorough examination. He noted the similarity of the relief to an equally mysterious one in an earlier work by Titian, "Jacopo Pesaro presented to St. Peter."
The grey marble trough of the sarcophagus contains a relief. Like that below Peter in Jacopo Pesaro presented to St. Peter, it is not based on any identified classical source but seems to be the invention of the artist.*
In the case of the "Sacred and Profane Love" h e admitted that it would be “reasonable to suppose that the relief had some significance” but noted that so far there has been no plausible elucidation. He did agree that it “would seem odd if so prominent a scene had no relevance to the main one,” and so decided to take a close look. Here is his description of the relief in the “Sacred and Profane Love”.
Starting from the left an engagement of some type, perhaps but not necessarily, a struggle, is proceeding between two figures, one, at the far left clearly male, the other, partly obscured behind the hind quarters of a horse, perhaps, but not certainly, female. The horse, which bears neither saddle nor bridle, is being led calmly left to right by a nude male figure, although since he is partly obscured by the shrub, it is difficult to ascertain exactly the nature of his action. This scene is separated by the bronze nozzle from that to the right which shows a violent episode; a nude woman lying on the ground, is being beaten—probably but not certainly on the buttocks—by a nude man. Taken literally, the scene appears to be one of punishment rather than murder or sexual assault. This group is represented in notional high relief; behind it, in lower relief, is a nude woman, standing to the left of a tree, across which a nude man is advancing towards her from the right, but without any clear intent.
He then paused for a moment to consider the possibility that the nude woman lying on the ground could be a man and the possible implication.
If, on the right-hand side, the sprawled figure could reasonably be identified as male, then the scene might represent Cain killing Abel, in which case the couple behind could be their parents, Adam and Eve either side of the tree of knowledge. But aside from the relative unlikelihood of representing an Old Testament scene on a classical sarcophagus, such a reading of the figures is not convincing, nor would it appear to relate in any way to the scene at the left. The most one can say about it is that a punishment and a conflict do seem to be represented and that it is treated in a specific—and surely meaningful way.
In other words, Joannides saw Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel but couldn’t believe his own eyes. Two objections deterred him from seeing the relief as a “sacred” subject. In the first place, “there was the relative unlikelihood of representing an Old Testament scene on a classical sarcophagus.” Secondly, he could not see how the biblical scenes from Genesis could relate to the left hand side of the relief. A third objection was left unsaid. Since there is a great likelihood that the centrally located relief is related to the painting as a whole, to see a scriptural subject in the relief would point to a “sacred” subject for the “Sacred and Profane Love.”
Here is another line of reasoning. The figure on the left hand side of the painting is St. Paul who not only called himself the greatest of sinners but who was also one of the great propounders of the doctrine of original sin. He referred to it continually in his letters and felt its effect in his own life. He argued that because of the Fall, sin and death entered the world, and that it was only through the grace of God that he was freed from their clutches.
The conversion of St. Paul fits very well in a relief that also depicts Adam and Eve, as well as the story of Cain and Abel, the first instance of the presence of sin and death in the world. If this relief is a sacred subject, scholars might also want to take another look at Titian’s earlier attempt at an antique relief in Jacopo Pesaro being Presented to St. Peter. The subject of that relief has also eluded identification but I think I see Adam and Eve on the left. Why is it unthinkable that Titian would use an antique relief to depict a scriptural scene? Art historians have to fit their theories to the actual work of the artist and not vice versa.
Finally, I have wondered, along with some correspondents, why the action in the relief seems to move from right to left. You will notice that Joannides in his above description of the relief read it in the traditional way from left to right. Normally, in a narrative painting the action does begin in the left background and progresses through the mid-ground until it culminates with the foreground figures who are either in the center or off to the right. Giovanni Bellini did so in the Frick “St. Francis in the Desert”, and so did Giorgione in the “Tempest.”
In my interpretation of the “Sacred and Profane Love”, I have argued that Titian employed the same left to right narrative scheme. As is often the case the city in the left background is a place of spiritual and even physical danger. The sinful Magdalen has left the city behind and now sits on the sarcophagus in the foreground contemplating her own conversion. We move across the water filled sarcophagus to see her own resurrection to a new life. She appears on the right side of the sarcophagus bereft of her worldly finery. Behind her in the right background the scene, where she will spend the rest of her life, is bucolic and peaceful.
I can only guess as to why Titian might have chosen to have the action on the relief move from right to left. First, it could have been just a painterly decision to have the action on the relief counterbalance the action in the main scene. It is after all a very large painting. I also wonder if he might have just used a copy of an engraving as a cartoon for the relief and just flipped the scene.
On a more profound level, perhaps Titian or his patron wanted the action on the relief to move backwards in time. So we can begin on the left and trace the action back from a story of a conversion from a life of sin to the origins of sin itself. Here is my view of the relief reading from right to left.
Adam stands on the extreme right on one side of the tree. Eve is on the other side and her outstretched arm actually touches her son Cain in the act of murdering his brother. Abel lies on the ground but he faces left away from his parents. In the medieval period Abel, whose sacrifice was acceptable to the Lord, was always viewed as a precursor of Christ. Dividing the relief in half is the spigot with flowing water, and right next to it is the emblem of the donor. On the left side, Paul’s attendant still leads the horse toward Damascus but Paul falls off in the other direction towards a new life.
*Paul Joannides, Titian to 1518, The Assumption of Genius, Yale, 2001, p. 192.