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".

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds


Giorgione's "Adoration of the Shepherds", often called the "Allendale Adoration", is one of the most popular paintings in Washington's National Gallery. At this time of year it is a Christmas card perennial. It was also used in one of the most popular US stamp issues.



"In 1971, an incredible 1.2 billion copies of a single postage stamp were printed by the U.S. Postal Service. It was the largest stamp printing order in the world since postage stamps were first introduced in 1840. It was almost ten times larger that the usual printing of an American commemorative stamp. The stamp was one of two Christmas stamps issued that year. It depicted a Nativity scene by the Italian painter Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, and portrayed Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and two shepherds." (M.W. Martin: “Christmas in Stamps,” in Catholic Digest Christmas Book, ed. Father Kenneth Ryan, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1977.)

The scene is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its layers of meaning. Even a modern observer can see that this newborn King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion.

For those interested in a discussion of the painting, I reproduce an earlier post below. I include some introductory material on Giorgione.   Merry Christmas.

Giorgione is the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance artists. Mysterious not only because so little is known about his short life, but also because no other great painter’s work has led to so many questions of attribution and interpretation.


Giorgione was a “nickname” and contemporary documents refer to the painter as Zorzo da Castelfranco. Castelfranco is a walled town west of Treviso. about an hour away from Venice via modern commuter rail. We do not know how or when the young Giorgione arrived in Venice. In those days it is likely that he traveled down the Brenta to Padua and then on to Venice by canal. We do know that by the time of his death in 1510 at about the age of 33, he had become the favorite painter of the Venetian aristocracy.

The subject of the "Allendale adoration" is a depiction of the adoration of the shepherds who have left their flocks to seek out the newborn Savior after hearing the angel’s announcement.
Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made know to us..” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
Luke’s account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds is the traditional gospel at the midnight Mass on Christmas . The actual arrival of the shepherds at the stable in Bethlehem is the passage used for the gospel reading for the Christmas Mass at dawn.

The relatively small size of the painting indicates that it was done not as an altarpiece but for private devotion. Although the subject is clear, there is a deeper meaning.* Why is the infant Jesus lying on the rocky ground and not in a manger or feeding trough? Why is he naked? Where are the swaddling clothes?

Actually the newborn infant is lying on a white cloth that just happens to be on the ends of Mary’s elaborate blue robe that the artist has taken great pains to spread over the rocky ground. Giorgione is here using a theme employed earlier by Giovanni Bellini and later by Titian in their famous Frari altarpieces. The naked Christ is the Eucharist that lies on the stone altar at every Mass. The altar is covered with a white cloth that in Rona Goffen’s words “recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.” In Franciscan spirituality Mary is regarded as the altar.
Clearly, the viewer-worshipper is meant to identify the Madonna with the altar and the Child with the Eucharist. Bellini's visual assertion of this symbolic equivalence is explained by a common Marian epithet. The Madonna is the "Altar of Heaven." the Ara Coeli, that contains the eucharistic body of Christ” Ave verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine.**
The “Adoration of the Shepherds” represents the first Mass. This is not such an unusual concept. Many years ago I attended a talk on the famous Portinari altarpiece that now hangs in the Uffizi. The speaker was Fr. Maurice McNamee, a Jesuit scholar, who argued that Hugo van der Goes had also illustrated a Mass in that Netherlandish altarpiece around the year 1475. His argument centered on the spectacular garments of the kneeling angels that he identified as altar servers wearing vestments of the time. He called them “vested angels,” and they are the subject of his 1998 study, “Vested Angels, Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish Painting.”

His Eucharistic interpretation explained the naked infant on the hard, rocky ground. The infant Christ is the same as the sacrificial Christ on the Cross. In a study of Mary in Botticelli’s art Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel referred to this connection.
it needs to be pointed out first of all that the Renaissance era saw the spread of practices of individual devotion to be carried out primarily in the home…From the theological perspective attention should then be drawn to the emergence of a new trend that…tended to identify the mystery of the Incarnation with the Redemption itself, focusing on the Passion with much less fervour than in the past: whence the growing popularity of  ‘incarnational’ iconographies celebrating the word made flesh, such as pictures of the Infant Jesus in his mother’s arms…while the demand for images with Christ on the Cross, very common in the fourteenth century was drastically reduced.***
It would appear that Giorgione has used the same motif although his angels have become little putti who hover around the scene. The shepherds represent participants in the Mass who kneel in adoration. 

There are many other iconographical details in this painting that could be discussed. Joseph’s gold robe indicates royal descent from the House of David. The ox and ass in the cave are symbols of the old order that has been renewed with the coming of Christ. So too would be the tree trunk next to the flourishing laurel bush in the left foreground. The laurel is a traditional symbol of joy, triumph, and resurrection.

Finally, it has been noticed that Giorgione has moved the main characters off to the right away from their traditional place in the center. Rather than diminishing their importance this narrative device serves to make all the action flow from left to right and culminate in the Holy Family.  Giovanni Bellini had done the same thing in his “St. Francis in the Desert,” and later Titian would use this device in his Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari.

 ###



*Two recent catalogs have offered interpretations. See Mario Lucco’s entry in Brown, David Alan, and Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006. Also see the very strange interpretation of Wolfgang Eller in Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.

**Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986. P. 53.

***Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel, “The Figure of Mary in Botticelli’s Art.” Botticelli: from Lorenzo the Magnificent to Savonarola, 2003. (ex. cat), p. 56.










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.