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".

Monday, May 13, 2013

Giorgione: "Tempest", First Edition


Today, on the anniversary of its first appearance in the Wall St. Journal on May 13, 2006, I would like to reprint my original essay on Giorgione's "Tempest", one of the most famous and mysterious paintings in the history of Western art. It originally appeared in the Journal's "Masterpiece" column under the title, “A Renaissance Mystery Solved?” A longer and more comprehensive version can now be found at my website

Giorgione: The Tempest (1509-10)


"Giorgione "La Tempesta": A Renaissance Mystery Solved?"


No great work of art has mystified art historians and critics more than Giorgione’s “Tempesta,” one of a handful of paintings definitively attributed to the Venetian Renaissance master. After his untimely death in 1510 of the plague at about the age of 30, most of his paintings were either lost or completed by others, especially his colleague, Titian.

Although little is known of his life, Giorgione was apparently apprenticed to the great Giovanni Bellini at the outset of his career, and certainly was a major influence on Titian. In June the National Gallery in Washington will be hosting a Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition.

While the “Tempesta” is universally admired as a pioneering work of landscape art because of its dramatic use of color and shadow, art historians have not been able to agree on the subject matter of this masterpiece of the High Renaissance. More than the painting itself, it was the mystery about its subject matter that first attracted me to it, and which prompted a trip to Venice last year.

This relatively small painting (82x73cm.) currently hangs in the Accademia in Venice. Over a hundred years ago my favorite travel author, Edward Hutton, described it as “a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towering country town.” The town is visible in the background and above it, clouds and a flash of lightning indicate that a storm is raging. In the middle distance, separated from the town by a bridge, are overgrown ruins and two broken columns. In a glade in the foreground, a nude woman nursing an infant sits on the right, while on the left, a young man dressed in contemporary Venetian clothing holds a long staff.

Although never named by Giorgione himself, the painting is usually called “La Tempesta” because of the storm. Sometimes it is called “The Soldier and the Gypsy,” even though critics have pointed out that the man is not a soldier and the nude woman is not a gypsy.

One tends to accept works of art at face value, particularly when they are as famous as this one. But one question struck me: Why is the woman nude? Other than a white cloth draped around her shoulder, there is no sign of any clothing. After all, it isn’t necessary for a woman to completely undress to nurse a baby. I believe that if the nursing woman were clothed, the subject would be immediately recognizable for what it is: a “Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.”

The “Flight” is a common subject in the history of art. It illustrates a passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew in which Jesus, Mary and Joseph, escaping from the deadly designs of King Herod, find an idyllic rest stop upon arrival in Egypt. Giorgione’s painting has all the elements common to a “Flight” image: Mary holding or nursing the baby Jesus; Joseph standing off to the side or in the background; a town in the distance; and ruins.


Why ruins? Emile Male, the great French art historian, pointed out that it was common for medieval artists to draw on the legend of the “Fall of Idols” when painting the “Flight.” According to it, when the infant Jesus entered Egypt, all the idols crumbled. Artists commonly used broken columns to represent this episode.

Giorgione was a master of artistic narrative. In this painting the Holy Family has left Judea and its dangers, symbolized by the storm, behind. They have crossed the bridge and stream representing the border between Judea and Egypt. They have entered Egypt and the idols, symbolized by the broken columns, lie broken behind them. We notice that the tempest is raging in the distance. The glade in which they rest is serene. Now they rest in safety.

It is only the depiction of the man and the woman that has deterred experts from recognizing this painting as the ”Flight into Egypt.” Joseph is usually portrayed as an old man by Medieval artists. Nevertheless, in the 15th century he began to be depicted as a young, virile carpenter. In Raphael’s depiction of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, the ”Sposalizio,” Joseph appears to be about the same age as Giorgione’s man. Italians especially found it unseemly to show Mary being married to an old man.

But why the nude Madonna? The explanation lies in the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine of which every Venetian would have been aware. Simply put it was the belief that Mary from the first moment of her existence had been created free from the stain of original sin which every other descendant of Adam and Eve had inherited.

The concept of Mary’s Immaculate Conception had been vigorously debated by theologians during the previous 250 years. The great advocates of the doctrine were the Franciscans; whose center in Venice, the “Frari” became a virtual shrine to the Immaculate Conception. Special impetus to the belief had been given by Pope Sixtus IV, himself a Franciscan, in 1476 when he added the feast of the Conception to the liturgy of the entire Western Church.

Theologians called Mary the new or second Eve. Artists had difficulty in expressing this increasingly popular doctrine. By Giorgione’s time they had not yet come up with the now familiar image of the “Woman Clothed with the Sun” from the Book of Revelation. Giorgione had the unprecedented audacity to portray a nude Madonna as Eve would have appeared in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

Nothing is in Giorgione’s painting by accident. The white cloth on which the Madonna sits is a symbol of the winding sheet or burial cloth of Christ. Franciscans regarded Mary as the altar on which the Eucharist rested. The altar was always covered with a white cloth.

Finally, in front of the Madonna a scraggly bush rises out of bare rock. Artists frequently used plants or flowers symbolically to identify characters. From the way it is growing, the plant could be a member of the nightshade family, a common plant found in Italy at the time. The most well known form of nightshade is the aptly named “belladonna.” This plant is associated with witchcraft and the Devil. Is that why the plant below the heel of the Woman has withered and died?

The discovery that this most mysterious and enigmatic painting has a "sacred" subject has led to a number of other significant findings. Giorgione's "Three Ages of Man" in the Pitti Palace has been identified as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man", and Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love" has been identified as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen." These two papers as well as a number of others can be found on my site, My Giorgione. Of course, I have also been discussing them and others on this blog for the past three years. 

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