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".

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

Paris Bordone's depiction of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine featured a young and virile St. Joseph  in the center. Bordone's depiction confirmed my argument that the young man in Giorgione's Tempest was also St. Joseph. In looking at Bordone's painting at the remarkable Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition at Washington's National Gallery in 2006, and again in Vienna in 2007, I also discovered the reasons for the prominence of Joseph's muscular bared leg, as well as a stunning visual trick used by Bordone to expose Catherine's thigh. Below I reproduce an essay on the painting that first appeared on this site ten years ago.




Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, c. 1524


The highlight of the 2006 art world must surely have been the magnificent exhibition of Venetian Renaissance painting jointly sponsored by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna. The exhibition, "Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and The Renaissance of Venetian Painting," also produced a beautiful catalog. Although the works of the three great masters named in the title were the focus of the exhibition, paintings by a few lesser known artists like Lorenzo Lotto and Paris Bordone were also included.

Indeed, one of Bordone's paintings, "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine," was a real eye stopping crowd pleaser in both locations. Painted around 1524, this extremely colorful and dramatic painting which measures about 58 by 102 inches tells the story of the legendary marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria to the Christ child.

According to the medieval legend which Crusaders brought back from the East, Catherine was a Queen of Alexandria around the middle of the fourth century. In the story Catherine, even as a young girl, was enamored of philosophy. By her teens she was a student of Plato and Socrates and surpassed all the philosophers of Egypt in knowledge and wisdom. At the death of her father she became Queen of Alexandria but resisted all efforts by her nobles to impel her to marry. Eventually she converted to Christianity in order to marry Christ for she regarded Him as the only one greater than her in status, knowledge and wealth. Subsequently, when Catherine rebuffed the overtures of the Roman emperor in Egypt to have her for his own, he had her put to death. Initial attempts to break her on a wheel failed and she was finally beheaded. The wheel would become the symbol by which she can easily be identified in Medieval and Renaissance art.

Next to Mary Magdalen, Catherine became the most popular female saint in the Middle Ages. She was "venerated by men as the divine patroness of learning," and by women as "the type of female intellect and eloquence, as well as of courageous piety and chastity." Her "mystic marriage" became a favorite subject for painters especially in convents where the nuns could look to her "mystic marriage" to Christ as a prototype of their own. This was especially true among the Dominicans whose favorite daughter, Catherine of Siena, was often paired in paintings with her namesake from Alexandria.

The most common way to depict the "mystic marriage" was to tie it in with the biblical account of the Flight into Egypt. Even though Catherine was supposed to have lived about 350 years after the birth of Christ, artists were not so much interested in historical accuracy as they were in an allegorical rendition of a soul's spiritual union with Christ. So Catherine is usually depicted meeting the Holy Family as they are about to return to Judea from Egypt. We know that it is the return from Egypt because we see the young John the Baptist in the painting. According to another legend the Holy Family met the future Baptist, who had fortunately escaped the massacre of the Innocents, on their return from Egypt.

Paris Bordone's depiction of "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine" is one of the most dramatic and unusual representations of this episode. Like other Venetian painters of the early sixteenth century, Bordone has chosen to move the Madonna and Child out of the center of the painting. They are at the left side with the cloth representing their throne hanging from a tree. The Madonna looks down and away from her Child at the Baptist who is depicted as a young boy clothed in his desert garb and leading a lamb. John looks at the infant Jesus as if to say "behold the Lamb of God."

More than anything else it is the portrayal of St. Joseph which is most dramatic and unusual in Bordone's painting. In a striking departure from traditional representations Joseph is portrayed as a virile young man. Moreover, he has been taken out of the background where we usually find him and placed right in the center of the painting. His powerful and uncovered foreleg is prominently displayed. As the beautiful Catherine approaches from the right, Joseph places his hand on her wrist and directs her outstretched finger to the wedding ring held out by the infant Christ.

As devotion to St. Joseph grew throughout the Quattrocento, he began to figure more prominently in representations of the Holy Family. His role as spouse, father, worker, and protector had a special appeal in the Renaissance. Nevertheless, in this painting there is something else going on that explains the central role of Joseph. In this painting Joseph is acting as a "proxy" for the marriage between Catherine and the infant Christ.

In marriages where the parties, usually royalty, were separated by distance, it was common to celebrate a marriage by proxy. Such a marriage was considered to be a real marriage, and not just a contract for some future event. In theory and practice both parties did not have to be present for a legal marriage to occur. It only required the consent of both even if one of the parties gave a written consent. It was not necessary for a clergyman to be present.

One particular way of "consummating" this marriage by proxy is alluded to in this painting. I don't know where or how it began, or how extensive it was, or when it ceased to be used but the practice was common in the sixteenth century. An ambassador or proxy would be sent to the court of the bride to perform the ritual. In the presence of notable witnesses, the young woman would be conducted to the nuptial bed wearing a loose fitting gown. The "proxy" would then remove his shoe and stocking from one leg before entering the bed. Apparently, he would then expose a part of her leg and touch it with his own to consummate the marriage.

Here is Hester Chapman's description of the "proxy" marriage of Mary Tudor, the beautiful 18 year old younger sister of Henry VIII to the elderly Louis XII of France in August 1514 at Greenwich. The Duc de Longueville acted as proxy.
After High Mass and a Latin sermon preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the marriage vows were exchanged and the ring was placed on the Princess's finger. The ceremonies did not end there. To make assurance doubly sure, Henry had arranged that symbolic intimacy should take place. Surrounded by his court and the foreign ambassadors...he talked informally with de Longueville, while Mary left to change her dress for a robe giving the effect of a nightgown. When she reappeared, Katherine and her ladies led her to a state bed, on which she lay down. De Longueville then advanced, pausing at the foot of the dais to take off one of his scarlet boots, thus revealing a bare leg. Lying beside the Princess, he touched one of her legs with his naked foot. His gentlemen then replaced his boot, and he came down into the hall, while Mary retired again to change into a ball-dress.

De Longueville acted as Louis XII. It was as if the King of France had really been there. From that moment Mary Tudor could call herself Queen of France.

Why did Paris Bordone choose to depict the "mystic marriage" of St. Catherine as a marriage by proxy? Countless paintings of the same subject during this era take a much more traditional approach. Catherine is usually shown in her regal robes kneeling before the Holy Family. Usually she is gazing lovingly at the infant Christ. Sometimes she will touch Him, and sometimes she will even cradle Him in her arms. Often, He is about to place a ring on her finger.

In fact, in another version of the "mystic marriage" Bordone also used the "proxy" theme. This painting hangs in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and appears to have been painted about the same time. In this version we again see the young, virile Joseph with his powerful foreleg exposed. However, now Joseph is placed on the right side and remarkably holds the infant Christ in his hands! Madonna, who has released her Child from her grasp, leans backward to hear Catherine's proposal. In this picture there is no John the Baptist.


Scholars date both paintings between 1520 and 1524. We are still in the High Renaissance but we are also in the beginnings of the Reformation. Perhaps after a century of growing devotion, Joseph had come to be seen as not only the protector of Madonna and Child but also as the protector of the Church. In these paintings does he represent the Church, the intermediary between God and man? In a "proxy marriage" the proxy was the representative of the King, and union with the proxy was union with the King. After Martin Luther's assault on the role of the Church as mediator, was Bordone or his theological advisor reaffirming the role of the Church?

In both paintings the Infant Jesus is moving away from the Madonna. Perhaps Bordone is recalling Christ's words about marriage. "For this reason a man will leave father and mother and cleave to his wife." But the painting could also refer to another biblical passage. "Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" In Franciscan spirituality the nude infant Jesus is equated with the naked Christ on the Cross and with the Eucharist on the Altar. Marriage is the sacrament of love, the complete giving of one's life for another. On the return to Judea, Christ would begin his journey to Calvary. The legendary Catherine would stay in Egypt and give her life for Him.

Finally, a word about Catherine. Her gown is pink, almost matching the color of her skin. Has Bordone exposed a part of her right thigh? It is almost impossible to notice in a reproduction. Even standing in front of the painting it is not immediately obvious. But looking closely her gown appears to have parted to reveal a dark band across her exposed thigh. Bordone has played a masterful eye-catching trick here leaving it to the beholder to make up his or her own mind. This painting certainly deserves modern scientific treatment to discover if there is anything in the underpainting that would indicate that Catherine bared her leg in the same manner as Mary Tudor.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Giorgione: Man of Sorrows

 


In his monumental 2009 study of Giorgione, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo began his discussion of the individual paintings with a work that is not usually given to the master from Castelfranco.*


In a clearing, a figure with a melancholy air, who is dressed in dark cloth save his showy yellow cloak, sits on a throne covered with an oriental rug, surrounded by books varying in size and sealed with metal clasps. Standing before him is a young boy wearing a heavy grey garment with a fur collar; he is staring straight ahead as if he were waiting for something. Behind him a servant kneels as he holds out a bowl full of flowers and leaves; he has taken off his hat as a sign of respect…On the first step of the throne a lute player, wearing tights and a pleated shirt, hints at a chord while staring in the direction of the viewer. (120) **
Pozzolo believed that this medium-sized panel (59x 48 cm), now at the National Gallery in London, “might be the first of Zorzi’s works to have been handed down to us." He called it a “bizarre” painting and pointed out the difficulties surrounding it.
The use of the conditional concerns every single aspect of it—the attribution, the date, the subject—because it is a work unlike any other from that time…” 
It was purchased by the National Gallery in London in 1885: from that moment on its attribution has bounced back and forth between the master… and his workshop or circle… Similarly, much uncertainty has always surrounded its dating (ranging from the early 1490s to around 1550) , and the subject it is supposed to represent. (120)
He noted that some have believed the main figure is David or Solomon, while others have argued for Jason or Zeus, or even an indistinct “Poet.” Then, Pozzolo himself went out on a limb and made an astounding assertion.
But the main figure is none other than Saturn, the god who devoured his own children, was castrated and denounced by Zeus, represented here in decline and exile in a hortus conclusus inside which human beings and animals live together in peace, all within the bounds of a “virtuous “laurel shrub….
Enrico dal Pozzolo is one of the world’s foremost Giorgione authorities and I have no problem agreeing with him that this work could be an early Giorgione. His interpretation, however, leaves much to be desired. He himself admits that even on those rare occasions when painters depicted Saturn, he was never shown as in this painting.

It seems much more likely to me that this painting is a version of the “Man of Sorrows” in a landscape filled with iconographical elements that Venetian artists like Giorgione loved to employ.
He has the same sorrowful visage of the “Man of Sorrows,” and looks out at the viewer in the same way that so many others do. He wears a royal golden robe and sits on a throne placed upon what could easily be the steps of an altar.

Instead of waiting to be devoured, the young men are in postures of humility and adoration. I cannot identify all the iconographical elements in the painting but the peacock is usually a sign of incorruptibility or immortality, and the leopard a sign of sin. In the Giorgionesque rocky outcrop someone appears to be kneeling in contemplation.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited MOBIA, the now defunct Museum of Biblical Art in New York City, to view an exhibition entitled, “Passion in Venice, Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese."  The title of the exhibition was a little misleading since it was given over almost entirely to images of the suffering Christ or "Man of Sorrows." a popular subject in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. #
Its origins rooted in Byzantium, the figure entered Venetian art in the late Middle Ages after which it flourished locally for centuries, eventually acquiring its own name in dialect, Cristo Passo...

The first thing to note about the subject was its ubiquity. “Cristo Passo” was obviously popular in Venice but the exhibition had works from all over Europe. Moreover, the image appeared in all different types of media, “Illuminated manuscripts, paintings, prints, sculpture, and liturgical objects." There was even a striking polychrome paper mache relief based on a Donatello pictured here.





The next thing that struck me was that all the images, despite their obvious differences, were basically the same. It was as if all these artists, the great and the not so great, all used the same model, especially when it came to the head of Christ. Even without his cruciform halo, he is easily recognized. He is a man who has suffered, who has been beaten and humiliated, and whose head slumps to one side, usually his right. His beard is short and pointed albeit ragged. Artists could not depart far from this model.




In addition to the "Saturn Exiled" that Dr. Dal Pozzolo placed at the very beginning of Giorgione's career, the famous “Christ Carrying the Cross”  could also be a depiction of the "Man of Sorrows." Vasari claimed that this painting had miraculous healing powers from the time it was first unveiled in the Scuola di San Rocco. Vasari originally claimed that Giorgione did the painting, but in his second edition he gave it to Titian. Since that time scholars have not been able to resolve the question of attribution.

Whether by Giorgione or Titian, the face of Christ that looks out at the viewer, certainly seems derived from the standard image of the “Man of Sorrows.”

What was the reason for the popularity of the image of the “Man of Sorrows?” It was obviously based on the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter 8 after recording a number of the miracles of Jesus, Matthew echoed the words of Isaiah:“He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Matthew drew from the famous account in Isaiah 53 of the suffering servant:
A thing despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering… And yet ours were the sufferings he bore, Ours the sufferings he carried… Yet he was pierced through for our faults, Crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, And through his wounds we were healed.
The MOBIA exhibition demonstrated that every Venetian would have immediately recognized the figure in the painting in the National Gallery.

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*Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo, Giorgione, Milan, 2009. Giorgione catalogs by Anderson (1997), and Eller (2007) do not agree with dal Pozzolo's attribution. They accept the title "Homage to a Poet", but without much discussion.

# Passion in Venice: Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese, exhibition catalog, ed. Catherine Puglisi, 2010.

**Edit. 11/2/2013. Please notice the baldachino above the head of the Man in Giorgione's painting. It looks somewhat like an ornate lampshade. In an exchange with David Orme, an English friend and lover of Venice, he told me that he had seen similar fixtures still existing in Venice. Below is an image supplied by his friend, Albert Hickson.


It covers a Madonna and Child on the Rio Ognisanti near San Trovaso. Many thanks, David and Albert.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Giorgione: Judith

 



Although originally given to Raphael, scholars for over a century have agreed that Judith with the Head of Holofernes is an early work by Giorgione. According to recent catalogs, it was a ground-breaking work.
Giorgione Judith
Hermitage, St. Petersburg

In her 1996 catalog Jaynie Anderson credited Giorgione with the introduction of “the Jewish heroine of the Apocrypha to Venetian painting….” * Three years later Terisio Pignatti wrote that Giorgione’s Judith introduced “numerous innovations that make the painting fascinating, particularly in the field of iconography..." **  In a 2007 catalog Wolfgang Eller claimed that Giorgione’s figure of Judith “is the first really feminine and the first graceful figure in Venetian art.” ***
Characteristically, Giorgione avoided the use of stock or standard iconographical elements. Eller noted that Giorgione’s Judith contains “no optical indication of the events. There is no female servant, no tent, no besieged city, and no waiting figures in the background that illustrate the story.” 
All commentators seem to agree that the most striking element in the painting is the bare leg of Judith. According to Pignatti, "Giorgione inserts a completely new motif in the garments which reveal the left leg of the woman." For explanation, scholars fall back on "eroticism" and "sensuality." Eller regards the bare leg as highly erotic.
the raised leg makes an extensive laying bare of the female thigh possible for the painter. In Giorgione’s time, this was considered highly erotic, for a woman to show only her calves was even more daring than a bare bosom. Thus from the aspect of the observer of those times, the depicted figure is identifiable as being erotic. (48)
It would appear, however, that in depicting the “bare thigh” Giorgione was just paying close attention to the biblical account in the Latin Vulgate, the only Bible in use at the time. Chapter 9 of the Book of Judith gives the famous prayer of the Jewish heroine as she prepares for her encounter with the enemy tyrant. Here is verse 2 taken from the Jerusalem Bible.

     Lord, God of my father Simeon,
     You armed him with a sword to take vengeance on the foreigners
     who had undone a virgin's girdle to her shame,
     laid bare her thigh to her confusion,
     violated her womb to her dishonor...
Judith is referring to the story of the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and the sister of Simeon, from the Book of Genesis, 34: 1-3.
Dinah, who was Jacob’s daughter by Leah, went out to visit the women of that region. Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, who was ruler of that region, saw her, carried her off and raped her, and so dishonoured her.
This incident led to the slaughter of the Hivite men after they had been tricked into undergoing circumcision. 
Apparently, Giorgione used an exposed thigh to indicate a woman in danger of sexual assault. In an early work that we only have in a seventeenth century copy by David Teniers, Giorgione used the same motif. He exposed the thigh of another woman in danger of sexual assault.
 
David Teniers: copy of a lost Giorgione

Although the painting is usually called the “Discovery of Paris,” it is actually a depiction of the apocryphal legend of the encounter of the Holy Family with robbers on the flight into Egypt. The young Giorgione had the audacity to depict the bare leg of the Madonna who, according to the legend, escaped dishonor when one of the robbers persuaded the other to let the Holy Family proceed on their journey in peace. #  
Giorgione also paid close attention to another element in the biblical account. Chapter 10 of the Book of Judith gives a detailed account of Judith putting on her finery.
There she removed the sackcloth she was wearing and, taking off her widow’s dress, she washed all over, anointed herself with costly perfumes, dressed her hair, wrapped a turban around it and put on the dress she used to wear on joyful occasions when her husband Manasseh was alive. She put sandals on her feet, put on her necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, and all her jewelry, and made herself beautiful enough to catch the eye of every man who saw her.
Judith’s deed is usually seen as an heroic attempt to deliver not just herself but her people from danger. Yet during the Renaissance she was often seen as a prototype of Mary. Perhaps it was this aspect that influenced Giorgione or his patron. Judith’s prayer (9:11) sounds very similar to Mary’s famous Magnificat. 
Your strength does not lie in numbers,
Nor your might in violent men;
Since you are the God of the humble, 
The help of the oppressed, 
The support of the weak,
The refuge of the forsaken,
The savior of the despairing.
The Book of Judith is still included in Catholic bibles today, but it was rejected by Protestants. Nevertheless, the story remained popular after the Reformation and paintings of the subject by Artemesia Gentileschi and Caravaggio are famous although far more graphic than Giorgione’s version.
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Note 1: This post originally appeared on Giorgione et al... on 4/17/2011. Later, on 11/16/2014, I discussed a depiction of Judith on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a Giorgione/Titian collaboration. In that fresco the identity of the helmeted soldier can also be found in the Book of Judith. 




Note 2: J.C. comments. Thank you for sharing your latest Giorgione post. It might be useful to include a reference to Donatello's bronze David. The exposed thigh and how Judith holds the sword and stands on the head of Holofernes is similar to Donatello' s David's pose.  A new female hero with the attendant weaker physical force overcoming a greater physical force.







* Anderson, Jaynie: Giorgione, 1997.p. 292. According to Anderson the “Judith” was originally a door panel since there is evidence of a painted over keyhole. 
** Pignatti, Terisio and Pedrocco, Filippo: Giorgione, Rizzoli, NY, p. 52.
*** Eller, Wolfgang: Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007, p. 47.
# My analysis of this painting that is usually called "The Discovery of Paris" can be found at my website, MyGiorgione.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow


As far as I know the most important iconographical detail in Giorgione’s Boy with an Arrow has largely been ignored. I must confess that in an earlier post on the painting, I also failed to see it. It is the color of the young man’s tunic. Why did Giorgione deliberately choose to clothe him in red? In that earlier post I agreed with those who identified the subject of Giorgione’s painting as the Christian martyr St. Sebastian. I was struck especially by the resemblance of Giorgione’s painting to an earlier St. Sebastian by Raphael. 
Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow
Poplar, 48x42 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Boy with and Arrow is another of Giorgione’s mysterious paintings and a number of different interpretations have been put forward. The exhibition catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition jointly held in Venice and Vienna provided a full discussion of the interpretive history of the painting. Marianne Koos, the author of the catalog entry, noted that the painting was not always attributed to Giorgione and that his authorship was only generally accepted after 1955. She also noted that “it is usually dated to his mature period, between 1506 and 1508.” *
Koos, whose essay derived from her own doctoral dissertation, did a very nice job of summarizing and analyzing the different views. She indicated that Bernard Berenson accepted the St. Sebastian identification in 1957, but noted that most scholars since have supported a mythological reading such as Apollo or Eros. However, after pointing out the shortcomings of each interpretation, she offered one of her own to which she devoted most of her catalog entry.
Giorgione’s youth remains primarily a subject in the discourse of love, an ideal male figure, with whom the male observer may also form an alliance in thought. The ideal-boy picture is not only a painting of…desire, but also of narcissistic identification and a homosocial avowal of brotherhood. [186]
Her interpretation is what one might expect from a modern art historian but I do not believe that her argument against the St. Sebastian interpretation is very strong. It is certainly true that most depictions of the martyr show a full-length nude figure riddled with arrows. Yet it is also true that a fully clothed, half-length figure of a doleful young man holding an arrow was popular at the time. 
As mentioned above, there is a great similarity between Giorgione’s painting and an earlier depiction of St. Sebastian by Raphael. Both depicted a soulful looking young man with head tilted to one side and holding one arrow in his hand. Raphael also departed from the traditional version of a partially nude man tied to a tree or column and riddled with arrows symbolic of the plague. **


Raphael: St. Sebastian
Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, also produced a number of half-length versions of St. Sebastian in which he depicted a soulful fully clothed young man holding an arrow in his hand. Like Raphael, Boltraffio included the traditional halo.


Boltraffio: St. Sebastian


The similarities between Raphael’s and Boltraffio’s versions of St. Sebastian and Giorgione’s Boy with an Arrow greatly outweigh the dissimilarities. Typically, Giorgione removes an obvious iconographical sign like the halo and replaces it with something that I have come to believe characterizes much of his work. He uses color to identify the subject.

Red is the symbol of martyrdom. It is the color of the vestment of the priest at every Mass that commemorates a martyr. In an essay on Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man I have argued that the color of the garments of the three figures in that mysterious painting identifies them as Jesus, Peter, and the rich young man of the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s robe is bold red, a symbol of his eventual martyrdom. Christ is shown in green, in what looks like the vestment that a priest commonly wears on most Sundays of the liturgical year. The gold lapels of the young man indicate his wealth.
I have also argued that the colors of the garments worn by the three men in Giorgione’s Three Philosophers support those who interpret that mysterious painting as the Three Magi. The color of their garments refers to their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 
Anyone looking at Giorgione’s painting side-by side with Raphael’s and Boltraffio’s would be hard pressed not to see the saint in the young man. The small size of the three paintings would indicate that they were all made for private devotion. There was a real market for St. Sebastian in the days of recurring plague.
Scholars do not like to recognize Giorgione’s boy with an arrow as the martyr, St. Sebastian. I have come to believe that in addition to the color of his garment, the face of the young man has an angelic quality that can also be observed in the paintings by Raphael and Boltraffio. This face would be appropriate for a martyr. In the account of the persecution and death of St. Stephen, the first martyr, we are told that his face appeared to his accusers as the face of an angel.
And all that sat in the council, looking at him, saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel.
Giorgione dressed the young man in the Boy with an Arrow in the color of a martyr. There is perhaps an insight contained in the metaphorical interpretation of Marianne Koos. Neoplatonic discussions of love and desire were not regarded as antithetical to Christian belief. On the contrary, in many respects they brought, if only for a brief moment, Christian beliefs to a new level on the eve of the Reformation. 
Where it had been common to invoke St. Sebastian as a protector against the plague, now it would appear that Giorgione and others were seeing him again in his original guise; as one who gave his life for his fellow man. In this respect, he was truly a symbol of Christ-like love. No wonder his story inspired Christians throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and even beyond.
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Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004.

** The following description of Raphael's St. Sebastian could easily fit Giorgione's Boy with an Arrow.
“the St. Sebastian in the Accademia Carrara at Bergamo, so Peruginesque at first glance, reveals on further analysis the distance that exists between Raphael and his master from his very earliest paintings. Perugino painted many such studies of young men and women, their heads tilted, viewed full-face. However several subtle differences—a firmer chin, a more finely modeled mouth, the very well structured nose whose bridge appears to join the arch of the eyebrow, a greater sense of volume—show this painting to be far removed from him….
The highly embroidered robe, the pattern on the shirt like notes of music, the slashed velvet of the jerkin…point to a love of ornamentation which comes from Pinturicchio but the saint’s neck-chain, clearly copied from a real example…is close to northern painting and has no equivalent in the work of Perugino or Pinturicchio. The saint grasps the fragile arrow of his martyrdom like a scepter; it is a marvelous image, a tour de force. The subtle treatment of the head, slightly tilted away from the spectator, is close in style to the Madonna with St. Jerome and St. Francis in spite of the difference in scale and like that painting, striking in its icon-like character and lack of three-dimensionality, it can be dated a little later in the same year, 1501."*

* Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Raphael, His Life and Works, 1985, p.20.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Giorgione, Titian, and Mary Magdalen

On October 4, 2010 I put up a post on this site that suggested that Mary Magdalen is the subject of Giorgione's Laura. Since that time I have put up a number of posts that have argued that other mysterious paintings of beautiful women of the Venetian Renaissance could also be Mary Magdalen. Below find a summary article. 



Giorgione’s Laura has defied interpreters for over 500 years. It is a relatively small half-length painting (41 x 33.6 cm) of a pensive young woman who looks off to the right at the source of light that illuminates her face and partially bare chest. She seems to wear only an oversized fur-lined garment that is opened to reveal one bare breast. The painting now hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The catalog of the 2004 Giorgione exhibition, jointly sponsored by the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Accademia in Venice, called it a “Portrait of a Young Woman,” and only placed the popular title Laura in parenthesis. Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi-Scire, two of the world’s leading Giorgione scholars, and curators of their respective museums, edited the entire catalog and also combined on the Laura catalog entry. They did an excellent job of tracing the provenance of the painting and firmly supporting the attribution to Giorgione. 

They also did a thorough evaluation of the unique inscription on the back of the painting: “on June 1 1506 this was made by the hand of master Giorgio from Castelfranco, the colleague of master Vincenzo Catena, at the instigation [instanzia] of misser Giacomo.” [i] The inscription was only deciphered in the nineteenth century but the two scholars believed that there was good evidence to support its authenticity.

Today most scholars agree that the seventeenth century identification of the young woman as Petrarch’s lover, Laura, is not tenable. Moreover, the painting cannot even be considered a portrait since no respectable woman of the time would have sat for such a depiction. 

Some have argued that it could be a depiction of a Venetian courtesan. The catalog pointed to the finding of one scholar that the sumptuous fur-lined robe was “the winter dress of a Venetian woman of pleasure.” On the other hand, there are signs such as the thin white veil and the laurel that traditionally refer to conjugal virtue. Here is the catalog’s summation.

 as noted by Goffen (1997), the thin white veil that partly covers her hair and falls over her breast is a typical accessory of married women…. The paradox that accompanies the interpretation of this painting lies in the fact that laurel is also a symbol of conjugal virtue…Giorgione’s Laura—regardless of whether she is a learned courtesan or a virtuous wife—is characterized by the extraordinary charge of sensuality and eroticism that makes this image unique in the painting of the early 16th century.

The Laura might not be as unique as the authors of the catalog entry suggest.  Other contemporary paintings also exhibit a mixture of eroticism and conjugal virtue and they have also defied interpreters. However, I believe that the Laura and these other paintings might all have a “sacred” subject, and that subject is Mary Magdalen. 

I don’t think I am the first to suggest Mary Magdalen as the subject of the Laura but recent catalogs do not even consider the possibility. All do point out the paradoxical iconographic symbols: the appearance of a Venetian courtesan combined with symbols of chastity and conjugal love such as the laurel leaves and headscarf.

Mary Magdalen is the only person who fits such a description. After the Madonna she was the most famous female saint of the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance she was regarded as a prostitute who after her encounter with Jesus became a true and virtuous bride of Christ. 

However, she is often portrayed after her conversion with breasts bared as a sign that she has thrown away her worldly finery and chosen the life of a desert contemplative. Correggio's later version of the saint bears a striking similarity to Giorgione's Laura. Her breasts are bared but the rest of her is covered with a sumptuous blue robe. She is easily recognized by her jar of precious oil, a stock symbol that Giorgione characteristically omitted.


Correggio: Mary Magdalen


In 2001 Paul Joannides discussed another painting of a young woman that he claimed bore a similarity to the Laura. He noted that it had often been attributed to Giorgione but insisted that "the closest comparisons are with Titian's work and there can be no serious doubt that it is his…."[ii]  He continued:

The Bust of a Young Woman is often thought to be a portrait of a courtesan, …There is an obvious link of mood and gesture with Giorgione’s Laura,… it is probably a fragment of a narrative composition…. But the action is ambiguous: is she opening her dress to reveal her breast, like Laura, or closing it in modesty? Given the high finish and luxurious color, this fragment is more likely to have formed part of a painting for a private house than a public place… Perhaps more likely is that she is a Magdalene in a Mary and Martha, the subject represented in Milan in the work of Bernardino Luini and his circle and one that would certainly have appealed to Titian, allowing him to contrast female types. But without further evidence no suggestion can be more than speculative.

Titian: Bust of a Young Woman
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

Joannides failed to mention that the multi-colored striped shawl that covers the shoulder of the woman in the “Bust of a Young Woman” is similar to the one that Titian used years later in one of his many obvious depictions of Mary Magdalen.




Titian became the most prolific and famous painter of Mary Magdalens, and his many versions of a beautiful, semi-nude, weeping penitent Magdalen spread all over Europe. He did not depict the gaunt Magdalen of Donatello, emaciated after years of fasting in the desert, but a still beautiful woman who has only recently thrown off her courtesan's finery, and appears covered only by her gorgeous red hair. 

It is also possible that before he settled on these full figured, bare breasted Magdalens, the young Titian also painted a more discrete but equally beautiful Mary Magdalen in the mysterious painting that is now called Flora. This famous painting that hangs in the Uffizi gallery is dated to around 1517, about a decade after the Laura. It also features a beautiful young woman in an obvious state of undress who looks pensively off to the right toward the source of the light that illuminates her face and torso.





No one has ever been able to make more than a guess about the subject of the Flora. It was only in the mid-seventeenth century that a commentator attached the name of the Roman goddess of flowers to the beautiful woman in the painting. Although the name has stuck, modern scholars have brought forth objections and offered their own hesitant interpretations.

 In 1980 Charles Hope introduced the painting in his catalog by noting that Titian “painted virtually no mythological pictures based in this way on ekphrastic texts, and none at all of comparable scale or importance.” He added that while Venetian patrons might have been interested in erotic subjects, “they were relatively indifferent to classical precedent.” [iii]

Hope looked in another direction for the meaning of the Flora.

But there was also a distinctive and more pervasive local tradition of pictures in portrait format of anonymous pretty girls, either clothed or partially nude, which were no more than elaborate pin-ups…. The identity of the girl as Flora is established both by the flowers in her hand and by her costume, which is of the type worn by nymphs in contemporary stage productions…

Although he remarked that the subject was treated with “extreme sensitivity and discretion,” the painting was still a pin-up whose erotic implications are “central to its meaning.”

In a 2003 catalog of an exhibition at London’s National Gallery, David Jaffe saw the connection between Flora and Laura.

Flora is perhaps the supreme example of a genre developed in early sixteenth-century Venice showing ‘belle donne’, beautiful women, for the sake simply of their beauty. They were neither portraits—as such they would have seemed improper—nor did they usually have allegorical significance or mythological references…. Titian did not invent the type, but developed the tradition represented by works such as Giorgione’s ‘Laura’….The painting is a magnificent evocation of sensuality. ... The image may be read as a generalized ‘Venus’ type. The flowers, perhaps roses, suggest identification with Flora. [iv]

In the catalog of the 2006 Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition jointly sponsored by Washington’s National Gallery and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, Sylvia Ferino Pagden considered the Flora “the finest and most successful of all sensuous half-length female figures in sixteenth-century Venetian painting….” She noted its “Venus-like sensuousness” but pointed out the ambiguity of the subject.

If it was Titian’s intention here to depict Flora, was he thinking of Ovid’s goddesses or Boccaccio’s courtesan? Or is his portrait an artistic blending of the two?... yet his Flora has more the demeanor of a goddess….her lack of attention to the viewer makes him aware of his own insignificance….Titian’s re-creation of the classical goddess, however, lacks any reference to antiquity, even in the drapery….Flora’s chemise—usually seen merely peeking out from under a gown at the neck and sleeves but here serving as her main article of clothing overlaid by a cloth of brocade or damask—does not correspond to that of any classical figure and certainly not a Venetian bride... [v]

It should be noted that Titian’s Flora bears little resemblance to the goddess of flowers. There are no flowers tumbling from her hair and her dress was depicted by Ovid as adorned with many colors. Ferino-Pagden did identify the flowers in the hands of Flora as rose, jasmine, and violet and claimed that they provide “a key to interpreting her.” However, she provided no further explanation.

In her study, “Nature and Its Symbols,” Lucia Impelluso noted that “the jasmine has often been considered a flower of Heaven or a symbol of divine love.” While usually associated with the innocence and purity of the Virgin Mary, it can often be seen “woven into garlands adorning the heads of angels and saints.” Moreover, “if associated with roses, it can connote faith.” [vi] The wild rose is traditionally associated with Mary Magdalen. As far as the violet is concerned, Impelluso noted:
In the popular imagination, the little, strong-scented violet is a symbol of modesty and humility, and it was interpreted likewise by the Fathers of the Church as well.
I realize that the jasmine, rose, and violet that “Flora” holds in her hand could refer to someone else, but one should certainly at least suspect Mary Magdalen.

Giorgione’s Laura, Titian’s early “courtesan,” and the Flora could all be considered versions of Mary Magdalen. One significant objection, however, is the absence in each instance of the jar of ointment that is always associated with the Magdalen. Later, Titian displayed it prominently in his more obvious Magdalens.
  
Perhaps in this brief moment in time Venetian artists had come to believe that they could depict the essence of the Magdalen without resort to obvious iconographical symbols. Earlier, Giovanni Bellini had painted a Madonna and Child surrounded by two female saints. One is obviously Mary Magdalen but she is only recognized by her flowing red hair.




Appropriately, Flora was the poster girl for the magnificent 2013 Tiziano exhibition at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale. Her image was on the cover of the little pamphlet given to all visitors and posters of her were plastered all over Rome. Perhaps she and Laura and the other “belle donne” of the Venetian renaissance can be called pin ups but it is certainly conceivable that they are also Mary Magdalen.

###


[i] Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, ed. Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi-Scire, Vienna, 2004, pp. 197-8. Only the first catalog quote is cited. 

[ii] Joannides, Paul: Titian to 1518, Yale, 2001, pp. 94-96.

[iii] Hope, Charles: Titian, NY, 1980, pp. 61-2.

[iv] Titiancatalogue edited by David Jaffe, London, 2003, catalog entry 11.

[v] Brown, David Alan, and Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006, p. 226.

[vi] Impelluso, Lucia: Nature and Its Symbols, translated by Stephen Sartarelli, Los Angeles, 2003, p. 101.