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, December 8, 2014

The Immaculate Conception in the Art of the Renaissance


In my interpretation of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt", I argued that Giorgione had the audacity to portray a nude Madonna in an attempt to depict Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Although the era of the Renaissance witnessed a tremendous increase in interest in the Immaculate Conception, artists were struggling to find a way to depict the mysterious doctrine that had no settled artistic tradition to use. Below is a section from my paper that sought to explain Giorgione's idiosyncratic use of a nude nursing Madonna as the Immaculate Conception.


The explanation lies in the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine of which every Venetian would have been aware. Simply put, the doctrine affirms that Mary had been created free from the stain of original sin inherited by every other descendant of Adam and Eve. Indeed, Mary was regarded as the "new" or "second" Eve.

Significant developments in the 15th century had brought the idea of the Immaculate Conception to prominence by the end of the century. In the first place, the century witnessed a continued increase in devotion to the Madonna, which naturally led to an increased interest in the "Conception." This interest was fostered by religious orders, most notably the Franciscans. Secondly, controversy about the doctrine between the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the two great teaching orders, contributed to its development.[i]

In 1438 the Council of Basel, no doubt responding to the upsurge of devotion to Mary, affirmed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but only after Papal legates and others had left the Council. Without Papal support the Council and its decrees could not become binding on the Church. Nevertheless, the concept of the Immaculate Conception had been given tremendous impetus. Nowhere did it receive greater support than in Venice.

In her study of Venetian patrons and their piety, Rona Goffen  argued that Venice itself became identified with the Immaculate Conception by the end of the Quattrocento.[ii] Besides the many churches and innumerable altars dedicated to the Madonna, churches like S. Maria dei Miracoli and S. Maria della Carita were dedicated specifically to the "Immaculata." In 1498, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was founded in Venice, and it worshipped at the Frari's famous Pesaro altar, itself dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.

 Two great figures played a key role in the spiritual life of Venice in the 15th century. Goffen noted the importance of the sermons of St. Bernardino of Siena, who was made a patron saint of Venice in 1470; and of Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first patriarch of the Republic.

In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nonetheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination.[iii]

After his death in 1453, Giustiniani’s sermons circulated widely and were finally published in Venice in 1506.

The Papacy also played a role. Francesco della Rovere, the scholarly Vicar-General of the Franciscan order, was elected Pope Sixtus IV in 1471. In the previous year he had written a treatise on the Immaculate Conception in which he had tried to reconcile the differing opinions of supporters and opponents. Subsequently, he added its Feast to the liturgy for the entire Western Church, and ordered new offices to be composed. One was even composed especially for Franciscan use.

Art followed doctrine although the doctrine was a difficult subject to render. After all, it dealt not with Mary's birth but with her conception. Early attempts in the 15th century had crudely attempted to portray an infant Mary in the womb of her own mother, Anne. By the end of the century this image, which bordered on heresy, was being replaced by a combination of three symbolic images taken from different scriptural sources.

First, there was the image of the woman crushing the serpent beneath her heel from Genesis 3:15. The Latin Vulgate gave this passage as, "inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem et semen tuum et semen illius ipsa conteret caput tuum et tu insidiaberis calcaneo eius." "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed; she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel." This image first began to appear in the early 15th century.[iv]

Secondly, there was the image of the spouse from the Song of Songs 4:7, "Thou art all fair my love, and there is no stain in thee." In this image, the "tota pulchra es," Mary is not a Madonna holding her infant Son, but a beautiful woman standing alone and surrounded by images from the Old Testament that symbolize her purity and role. Rona Goffen noted the prevalence of this image in the devotional literature of the time especially in the “offices for the feast of the Immaculate Conception by Nogarolis and by Bernardino de Bustis.”[v]

Grimani Breviary

Finally, the image of the woman from the Book of Revelation "clothed with the sun" with "stars in her crown" and standing on the crescent moon (which would become the standard after the Reformation) began to appear. These images were rarely used alone but most often in combination. In the Grimani Breviary, named for the Venetian cardinal and art collector who was a contemporary of Giorgione's, there is a miniature of the Woman of the Apocalypse and the "tota pulchra es."[vi] Interestingly, on the facing page in the Breviary there is an image of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”


Grimani Breviary


Advocates of the Immaculate Conception regarded Mary as a new Eve, whose status was the same as Eve's before the Fall. Giorgione had the audacity to portray a "nude Madonna" as Eve would have appeared before the Fall.

Addendum:  In the "Tempest" the Madonna's heel is shown over a dead section of a plant that looks like belladonna, a plant associated with witchcraft and the devil. Despite the storm in the background of the painting, the woman is clothed only in bright sunlight. Finally, no one has ever doubted her beauty. She is "all fair." ###









[i] For a comprehensive discussion of the doctrine and the controversy surrounding it see The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, History and Significance, ed. Edward Dennis O’Connor, University of Notre Dame Press, 1958, c. VI. See also the article on the Immaculate Conception in The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910.

[ii]Rona Goffen,  Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice,  Yale, 1986, p. 154.

[iii]Goffen, op. cit.  p. 79.

[iv]For a discussion of these images see Maurice Vloberg, "The Immaculate Conception in Art," in  The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception,  University of Notre Dame Press, 1958, pp.463-507.

[v] Goffen, op. cit. p.149.

[vi]The Grimani Breviary, Levenger Press, DelRay Beach, Florida, 2007, plate 109. See also, Vloberg, op. cit.  plate XIV.

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