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".

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Leo Steinberg: Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper

May 2, 2019 marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci.  I thought it might be appropriate to reprise a review article on Leo Steinberg's interpretation of the Last Supper that originally appeared on this site on 9/18/2014.

The damage to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper is well known. Even after the most recent restoration the huge fresco that measures over 29 by 15 feet is in such perilous condition that viewing access is strictly controlled and limited. 

We know from early copies that much of Leonardo’s work has been irretrievably lost or covered. Early on, the feet of Christ and the Apostles had so disappeared that the monks had no reluctance to put a door in the wall under the figure of Christ. We know of this from copies but even the earliest copies are often unreliable.  They either omit or alter certain important details. Finally, although the painting is still in its original venue, it is impossible to replicate the monk’s dining room or cenacolo and see the painting as its original viewers would have seen it.

Compared to the physical damage that Leonardo’s work has suffered, the interpretive damage has been even greater. It was this damage that Leo Steinberg set out to repair in an extended essay, “Leonardo’s Last Supper,” that appeared in the Art Quarterly in 1973. Almost thirty years later in 2001 he published his definitive revised update, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.

I am not familiar with the critical reaction to either study except to the extent that Steinberg referred to it in the 2001 book. Nevertheless, anyone reading Steinberg's book today would have to acknowledge that it a revolutionary masterpiece by one of the greatest art historians of the twentieth century.

In the introduction to his book Steinberg recalled two questions that he had raised in the 1973 study. “Is there anything left to see? And, Is there anything left to say?” 

Of course his answer was positive. 
What remains to be told about Leonardo’s Last Supper is not some residual matter previously overlooked; the novelty of the subject is the whole of the work responding to different questions. In the present study, the picture emerges as both less secular and less simple; contrary to inherited notions, it is nowhere “unambiguous and clear,” but consistently layered, double functioning, polysemantic.[i]
Steinberg took on an academic tradition that had been entrenched ever since the time of the Enlightenment, especially after Goethe’s famous essay claimed that Leonardo had depicted the psychological shock on the faces of the Apostles at the moment immediately following the announcement of the betrayal. Goethe’s interpretation had seemingly settled the matter for all future observers. Steinberg, however, blamed nineteenth secularism for a profound mis-reading.
In the art of the Renaissance, the obscurantism imputed to religious preoccupations seemed happily superseded. Ideal art was believed to reveal humane truths which the service of religion could only divert and distort. And it was again in Leonardo in whom these highest artistic goals, originally embodied in ancient Greece, seemed reaffirmed. In this projection of nineteenth-century values upon Renaissance art, the masterworks of the Renaissance were reduced to intelligible simplicity, and Leonardo’s Last Supper became (nothing but) a behavioral study of twelve individuals responding to psychic shock. [ii]
By 2001, almost 30 years after his original study had been published, he could remark that his interpretation was “no longer news,” and that the “common view” was “no longer pandemic.” But I wonder if he was too sanguine. A quick web search found that the lead Wikipedia article began with the following pronouncement.
The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him. 
 I suspect that his thesis is still only known by a small coterie of Art historians. I even think that most Art history graduate students are not required to read it.

Reading Steinberg’s Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper not only brings one deeper and deeper into a great masterpiece, but also deeper and deeper into the mind and culture of the genius who was Leonardo. However, since the common view holds that the painting depicts the psychological reaction to the announcement of the betrayal, I would like to concentrate on Steinberg’s analysis of Leonardo’s portrayal of the Apostles.

Beginning with the general principle “that nothing in Leonardo’s Last Supper is trivial,” Steinberg asserted that the subject of the picture was not merely the betrayal announcement but the whole story of the Last Supper; the Institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, and the significance of it all to the viewer. 

Leonardo’s task,
never before attempted, was to collect in “conjoint presence” a super dozen male sitters strung across nearly 29 feet of wall, to convert the drag of enumeration into what he called a “harmonic total effect.”[iii]
Leonardo’s solution of the problem is “an untiring marvel” but first we must identify the Apostles. In their places from left to right there are Bartholomew, James (the eventual head of the Church in Jerusalem), Andrew, Peter, Judas, and John. On the other side there are James (the son of Zebedee), Thomas (who has thrust himself ahead of James), Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus (sometimes called Jude), and Simon.

anonymous copy, c. 1550

Much of the detail of the original has been lost but an anonymous copy c. 1550, gives a very good look at the hands and feet of the 13 men in the picture. Steinberg stressed the significance not only of the feet of Christ but of the Apostles. Christ’s feet are central and larger and they announce his impending crucifixion. The feet of the Apostles are there to be washed but also represent their role and future destiny.
this very night, each of these feet is washed and wiped dry by the Master. In view of the gospel…how negligible can these feet be; surely, this is their hour! [iv]
While he stressed the importance of viewing Christ and the Apostles as a whole, Steinberg also broke them down into groups of six, three and two, and discussed the various relationships in these groups. Here are some examples.

 Let’s start with the triad of Simon, Thaddeus, and Matthew on our right at the end of the table.  
A flotilla of six open hands in formation strains toward Christ, as if in immediate response to the word “take!” ….the Communion of the Apostles is imminent.[v]
Hands take on special significance. The “affinity” of the left hand of Thaddeus to the left hand of Christ “leaps to the eye.”
Thaddeus’ hand toward Christ; Christ’s toward us. It is missing a lot to dismiss the correspondence as accidental.
Feet, hands, even fingers are important. In the triad at Christ’s left hand (Philip, Thomas, James) the finger of Thomas, who has thrust himself forward toward Jesus, is a veritable sign marker, “the finger destined to verify the Resurrection, the Christian hope…"
this upright finger occurs in Leonardo’s rare paintings no less than four times, invariably pointing to heaven…The steeple finger is Leonardo’s trusted sign of transcendence…[vi]

The triad closest to Christ’s right hand includes Peter who denies, Judas who betrays, and John who remains to the end at the foot of the Cross.
The inner triad refers to imminent Crucifixion. It contains the dark force that sets the Passion in motion, then, behind Judas, St. Peter. Peter’s right hand points the knife he will ply a few hours hence at the arrest. And the interlocking hands of the beloved disciple are pre-positioned for their grieving on Calvary.
The figure of Judas who recoils from the plate is given special attention. Steinberg’s interpretation is buttressed by an analysis of a Leonardo drawing that depicts “the wretchedness of a man who had once been chosen by Jesus.”

Leonardo: study of Judas

Leonardo brought a tragic vision far in advance of what his contemporaries could fathom. The subjective experience of abjection never received more humane understanding.
The triad on the left furthest from Jesus includes Andrew, the brother of Peter, James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and Bartholomew. They are all interconnected. Andrew sits next to his brother and James places the hand of ordination on each of them. Peter’s knife points to Bartholomew and prefigures the form of his martyrdom. The pose of Andrew is particularly interesting.
For those who have seen a priest at the altar, who recall the corresponding pose of St. Francis stigmatized and, finally, Andrew’s own story, he is the Apostle whose lodestar is crucifixion….
At the end of the table Bartholomew has risen with his feet awkwardly crossed, an inexplicable oddity that has even led some copiers to correct Leonardo’s “mistake.” However, Steinberg noted one tradition that had Bartholomew crucified, a martyrdom he yearned for in order to emulate the Master. 
Speaking of Jesus, no review can do justice to Steinberg’s discussion of the figure of Christ, no longer seen as a passive figure sitting back while the Apostles react to the betrayal announcement. 
as the person of Christ unites man and God, so his right hand summons the agent of his human death even as it offers the means of salvation….the Christ figure as agent—both hands actively molding his speech, and both directed at bread and wine…[vii]
Unfortunately, Goethe only saw the painting briefly in Milan. In his analysis he relied on a copy that left out the bread and wine of the Eucharist. For Steinberg, the institution of the Eucharist is central to the painting.
Christ becomes the capstone of a great central pyramid…And midway between the…slopes of Christ arms and the floor lines that transmit their momentum, exactly halfway, there lies the bread, and there lies the wine.[viii]

I have only dealt with chapters 3 and 4 of “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.” Steinberg went on to show how the painting must be understood in terms of the whole room in which it was viewed, and even in terms of the whole complex of which S. Maria della Grazie was a part. The painting was a “willed visual metaphor.”
Within the geometry of the picture, the elements of the eucharist, placed in extension of Christ’s earthly presence, serve as conveyors: from the centrality of the Incarnate toward the faithful this side of the picture.
Steinberg backed up his interpretation with a virtuoso display of all the tools available to a modern art historian. He displayed a magisterial familiarity with the interpretive history; the texts; the traditional legends; the related paintings; and with the whole oeuvre of Leonardo. More than anything else, however, was his ability to immerse himself in the whole culture and devotion of Medieval and Renaissance Christianity.  He was born a Russian Jew and emigrated to America right after World War II. He somehow managed to graduate from Harvard and land a position at New York University where his original field was “Modern Art.” But he eventually gravitated to the Renaissance, and his integrity and great learning allowed him to see the “Last Supper” through the believing eyes of Leonardo’s contemporaries.


[i] Leo Steinberg, “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper,” 2001, pp. 12-13.
[ii] Ibid. p. 13.
[iii] Ibid. p. 77.
[iv] Ibid. p. 61.
[v] Except where otherwise noted this quotation and all the following can be found in the relevant sections of chapter IV, “the Twelve.”
[vi] Ibid. p. 70.
[vii] Ibid. p. 57.
[viii] Ibid,. p. 58.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Albrecht Durer in Venice

Albrecht Durer traveled to Venice in the latter half of 1505 and stayed until early in 1507. It seems that he had planned this journey for a while but apparently an outbreak of plague in Nuremburg hastened his departure. Erwin Panofsky devoted a whole chapter to the Venetian sojourn in his magisterial study, The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer. Panofsky entitled the chapter, ‘The Second Trip to Italy and the Culmination of Painting, 1505-1510/11.’

Panofsky points out that Durer had achieved a high degree of fame even before this visit to Venice. In Panofsky’s words,
The young beginner who had visited Venice eleven years before was now a world-renowned master whose inventions were copied and imitated everywhere. Also, he was no longer poor….Thus he did not walk about the city as an unknown and insignificant tourist but plunged into its colorful and stimulating life as a distinguished guest. He became acquainted with ‘intelligent scholars, good lute-players, flutists, connoisseurs of painting and many noble minds’ who honored and befriended him. [107-8]
Despite his mastery in wood-cut and engraving, Durer turned exclusively to oil painting while in Venice. Panofsky indicates that Venice and its painters had a great impact on the German master. From his correspondence we know that Durer regarded the aged Giovanni Bellini as still the greatest of painters, but in a letter dated February 7, 1506, Durer mentioned that he had also found “many painters much superior to Jacopo de’ Barbari,” an artist already well-known to Durer before the Italian trip.

Panofsky indicates that Durer turned to painting to show that he could work with color as well as any Venetian, but also because of the desires of his patrons in Venice. Almost immediately on his arrival Durer was welcomed by the prosperous German merchant community. It would appear that connections in Nuremberg and Augsburg had paved the way for him and even arranged a lucrative commission to paint an altarpiece for S. Bartolommeo, the German church in Venice. In a letter to a friend about the altarpiece, usually called the “Feast of the Rose Garlands,” Durer claimed that the commission was an effective way to “silence those who said I was good as an engraver but did not know how to handle the colors in painting.” [109-110]

On the completion of the Feast of the Rose Gardens Durer bragged, “I herewith announce that there is no better image of the Virgin in the country.” This claim might be exaggerated but the painting did gain much acclaim.
Old Giovanni Bellini…visited his studio and expressed the wish to acquire one of his paintings…When the “Feast of the Rose Garlands” was completed it was admired by the whole Venetian aristocracy, including the Doge and the Patriarch, and finally even by Durer’s colleagues….” [109]
Panofsky agrees with this contemporary evaluation despite the very poor condition of the painting today. “In one propitious moment he succeeded in synthesizing the force and accuracy of his design with the rich glow of Venetian color.” Panofsky acknowledges Durer’s debt to Bellini
The balanced grandeur of this composition would not have been attainable to Durer without the study and complete understanding of the style of Giovanni Bellini whom he so frankly admired… (112)
The painting was inspired by the increasingly popular devotion to the rosary, especially among the Dominican friars, whose founder was considered to have been the creator of the devotion. The rose garlands in the painting actually represent the decades of the rosary, and in Panofsky’s opinion the painting should actually be titled, “the Brotherhood of the Rosary.” 

While working on the altarpiece for S. Bartolommeo, Durer also completed two smaller paintings of sacred subjects. The first was the so-called Madonna of the Siskin, now in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. The second was a version of Christ Among the Doctors that is now in the  Thyssen Bornemisza collection in Madrid.

The “Madonna of the Siskin” derives its popular name from the bird on the arm of the infant Jesus. However, it is actually a representation of the meeting of the young John the Baptist with the Holy Family on their return from the sojourn in Egypt. Panofsky notes that the young Baptist is the most significant iconographical feature in the painting.
The inclusion of this figure…was an utter novelty in Northern art which…knew only the triad of the Holy Family and the complete circle of the Holy Kinship, but not the “Virgin with the Infant Jesus and the Little St. John.” This theme was Central Italian rather than Venetian, but that compositions not unlike Durer’s…existed in Venice and the “Terra Firma” is demonstrated… [113]
In Panofsky’s opinion, Durer took this traditional subject to a new level. He “surpassed this and similar prototypes by enlivening the entire composition and by endowing the little St. John with a Leonardesque or even Raphaelesque vitality which had been foreign to the earlier Venetian and Venetianizing schools.”... [114]

While the Madonna of the Rose Garlands took months to complete, it would appear that Christ among the Doctors, the final painting in the Venetian triad, was done in a matter of days. Yet, Durer considered this painting as “something new and extraordinary” and Panofsky concurs.
The emphasis on manual gesticulation, and even the specific gesture of arguing by counting fingers is unquestionably Italian, as is also the compositional form as a whole. The idea of presenting a dramatic incident by half-length figures so that the whole effect is concentrated on the expressive quality of hands and faces had been sanctioned by Mantegna…and had gained favor in all the North Italian schools, particularly in Venice and Milan. [114]
Panofsky’s description of this painting reminds me of the so-called Three Ages of Man usually attributed to Giorgione. I have interpreted that painting as a dramatic incident also from the life of Christ: the Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man. Giorgione, who was working in Venice at the same time as Durer, also used the expressive hands and faces of half-length figures to create an effect. In both paintings the half-length treatment provides a kind of close-up or zoom effect. 

Giorgione: "Three Ages of Man"
Pitti Palace

In the year after Durer left Venice, Giorgione was given the commission to fresco the exterior walls of the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the center of German community in Venice. Over the years scholars have tried to find some northern influence on Giorgione’s work, but Panofsky never mentions Giorgione. Instead, he argues that Durer was greatly influenced by what he saw in Venice. After his return to Germany, Durer eventually gave up painting and went back to his wood cuts and engravings. But they would never be the same. His stay in Venice had brought his work to an even greater level.

I like to think of him and Giorgione both trying to satisfy the demands of their patrons for sacred subjects while at the same time working to a make their work exceptional and innovative. 


Note: This essay originally appeared as a post on Giorgione et al... five years ago, on April 28, 2014.

*Erwin Panofsky: The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer, Princeton, 1955. Page citations are in brackets.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Raphael: Czartoryski Portrait

Below I reprise my essay on Raphael's Czartoryski Portrait, a post that first appeared on this site on October 28, 2014. The essay had originally appeared on the late Hasan Niyazi' s very popular art history blog, Three Pipe Problem. Hasan died in October 2013 in his mid-thirties at about the same age as his beloved Raphael. He had done a fine survey of the attribution issues and provenance of this painting, and it led me to consider the sex of the sitter.

Raphael: Portrait of a Young Man
Lost during Nazi occupation of Poland

In a recent post at "Three Pipe Problem" Hasan Niyazi presented a very comprehensive study of the attribution and provenance history of a famed “Portrait of a Young Man”, usually attributed to Raphael. The painting was one of those looted from the Czartoryski collection in Poland by the Nazis during WWII and has still not been recovered.

Three Pipe Problem did mention that scholars have disagreed on the identity of the subject of the painting, and that even one, Oskar Fischel, had claimed that it was a young woman, and not a man. This struck a chord with me for on first glance the sitter appeared to me to be a woman of a particular kind.

Giorgione: Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)

The painting reminded me of Giorgione’s Laura where a young woman in a state of undress is partially covered with a man’s robe. Scholars of Venetian art have noted that both the disheveled look and the man’s robe indicate a courtesan. In “Giorgione, Myth and Enigma”, the catalog of the 2004 Giorgione exhibition, the entry for Giorgione’s Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura) noted the following.

According to Junkermann (1993) she is wearing a male garment, which far from being a reference to marriage, instead indicates that the model has adopted a typical male role, perhaps that of a poet; but that does not exclude that she may also be a courtesan. Her sumptuous fur-lined red garment is, more than an item of male attire, the winter dress of Venetian women of pleasure (Pedrocco 1990; Junkermann 1993; Anderson 1996), according to Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti (1590);… (catalog entry #8) 

My first impression led me to take a look through other Raphael portraits of men and women. Even a cursory look at a Raphael catalog indicated that the hair of a Raphael man is rarely in such a long and stringy, even unkempt, fashion. Moreover, with one exception he never parts their hair in the middle or even exposes their foreheads. Men’s foreheads are usually covered with a cap that sits firmly on top of the head and not worn at the same rakish angle as in the lost painting. Raphael’s women, even Madonnas, inevitably have their foreheads exposed with hair neatly parted in the middle.

Raphael's portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni provide a striking example of hair fashion around 1505-6. The man’s forehead is covered with his cap firmly on top of his head. The woman’s long hair is parted neatly in the middle and her hair is covered with a diaphanous veil. Things are much the same ten years later if we compare the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione with La Donna Velata. Castiglione’s cap is firmly atop his head and completely covers his forehead. The donna’s forehead is uncovered with long hair parted neatly in the middle. The back of her head is covered with a long white veil. Even the famous La Fornarina has hair neatly parted in the middle but with her hair tied back with a scarf. Only in the “Double Portrait with a Fencing Master” is a man’s forehead exposed but in that case the hair is neatly trimmed and the man has considerable facial hair.

Raphael: La Fornarina

It is true that most of Raphael’s woman have hair well done up and combed but I think Raphael could have been depicting a courtesan posing in her lover’s clothing. It looks like she’s sitting in her shift with a man’s robe casually thrown over her shoulder, and a man’s cap pinned to the back of her head as if to say “she’s mine” in a somewhat less obvious way than Raphael did in  La Fornarina

My first impression led me to get a copy of Oskar Fischel’s two-volume study of Raphael, a work that represented the culmination of a lifetime devoted to the rehabilitation of Raphael. Like the Czartoryski painting Fischel was also a casualty of the Nazis. He was born in 1870 and the book jacket describes him in this fashion. * 

Oscar Fischel was a well-known art historian and scholar. Among the important appointments he held was that of Professor of Art in Berlin University. He was author of numerous works on Italian Art, Modern Art, the History of Costume and the History of the Theatre. But the theme that lay nearest his heart was the art of Raphael. He made this his life’s work.

Unfortunately, Fischel’s career was interrupted in 1933 when he was dismissed from his post at the University of Berlin by the new Hitler regime. Student protests forced his reinstatement but he was finally dismissed in 1935. Apparently, museum officials in London were successful in bringing him to London where he died in 1939. His study of Raphael was translated and published in London in 1948 with the first volume containing text, and the second prints. The publisher summarized Fischel’s approach in this way.

Oscar Fischel contends that Raphael has been misrepresented in the same manner as Mozart. His natural grace and the apparent ease and fluency with which his work was accomplished have led to the charge that he was lacking in deeper understanding. The author is at pains to refute these criticisms. He reveals to us not the superficial, sentimental, pious and graceful artist, but a true poet and creator, interpreting the fundamental and essential meaning of life.
Fischel devoted only half a page to the Czartoryski painting discussing it right after the more famous La Donna Velata. To put it in context here are a few of his words on that woman that lead him into a discussion of the Czartoryski.
The Donna Velata of the Pitti Palace is the result of a commission of his very own, in the midst of the great frescoes and orders for altarpieces; it is a love-prompted improvisation on the most charming of themes—the innocence and womanly dignity of a young Roman woman of the people. The colour echoes this harmony of character…. (123)
Raphael: La Donna Velata

We know that the master found the purity of her young features, with the dark, beaming charm of her look, worthy of the otherworldly revelation of the Sistine Madonna. Years ago it was supposed that her still dazzling features, although quickly coarsened, might be recognized in the picture in the Czartoryski Gallery at Cracow. Once there was a much-disputed idea that it might be a self-portrait of Raphael, also that it perhaps represented the Duke of Urbino, or, finally, the Fornarina. Sebastiano del Piombo was mentioned as its painter, as so were as many other artists as there were experts who stood in front of the picture when it was at Dresden during the last war. 
Fischel must have been among those experts who saw the painting in person while it was in Dresden. He saw a young woman.
the hair with its locks reluctantly breaking loose on the temples, and the deep-cut thumbs, warrant the conclusion that it is a woman who is here represented; also the secret of the bosom is rather betrayed than guarded by the fur cloak, not put on, but thrown as if on the spur of the moment over the shirt. This negligee has a poetic significance only if it is a woman who is in question. The right forearm seems to rest on the bottom of a lute. The white of the chemise, the gold and brown of the gown with its fur collar, the greenish-golden cover on the table, form with the gleaming flesh-tones, a boldly conceived harmony, gorgeous to a degree, which is gathered together within the grand, free form of the silhouette. The painting can be compared for triumphant power with the group of the Pope in the Attila; like this fresco, it is of inestimable value as the last evidence quite incontestably from Raphael’s own hand of his most personal chromatic expression. (125)
Raphael: Portrait of a Young Woman

Hasan Niyazi’s post on “Three Pipe Problem” also provided some inadvertent information that supports a “young woman” reading.  Two early engravings taken from the painting or copies emphasized female characteristics especially the exaggerated curl of the lips. Also, Hasan presented a striking detail from the School of Athens that would seem to indicate a juxtaposition of Raphael and his lover, the only two figures in the famous fresco looking out at the viewer.

Although Hasan lived in Australia and was more than 40 years younger than me, we had become friends and frequent correspondents after our initial contact in the blogosphere. We proof-read, edited, and corrected each other. Despite differing opinions, we both reveled in the give and take. I even thought that Hasan might be the one to preserve my work on Giorgione and Titian but it was not to be.


*Oskar Fischel, Raphael, translated from the German by Bernard Rackham, Volume I, Text, London, 1948, V. I.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Raphael: St. Cecilia

Today, I reprise a slightly revised version of a post on Raphael's St. Cecilia Altarpiece that originally appeared on this site almost six years ago. The article is primarily a review of Oskar's Fischel's explanation of the reasons for the inclusion of the four saints who surround St. Cecilia. 
Raphael: St. Cecilia
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna
1516-7, 220 x 136 cm

 Raphael’s St. Cecilia was commissioned in 1514 by a patrician lady and mystic from Bologna, Elena Duglioli dall’Oglio, for her family chapel in the church of San Giovanni in Monte. The story of this painting is well known but there is still mystery about the reasons for the selection of the four saints who surround St. Cecilia.
St. Cecilia was one of the four great Virgin saints of the Western church. Mrs. Anna Jameson devoted a chapter to her and her legend in “Sacred and Legendary Art”. *
The veneration paid to her can be traced back to the third century, in which she is supposed to have lived; and there can be little doubt that the main incidents of her life are founded in fact, though mixed up with the usual amount of marvels, parables and precepts, poetry and allegory… [571]
She was a chaste virgin who even after her marriage was reputed to have converted her new husband to a life of virginity. They both eventually suffered martyrdom. Somehow she also became the patron saint of music and the creator of the organ.
As she excelled in music, she turned her good gift to the glory of God, and composed hymns, which she sang herself with such ravishing sweetness that even the angels descended from heaven to listen to her, or to join their voices to hers. She played on all instruments, but none sufficed to breathe forth that flood of harmony with which her whole soul was filled: therefore, she invented the organ, consecrating it to the service of God. [572]
Nevertheless, Mrs. Jameson believed that only in the fifteenth century did artists begin to depict Cecilia with musical instruments. She rightly pointed out that the most famous version was Raphael’s now in Bologna’s Pinacoteca Nazionale. In Raphael’s painting St. Cecilia stands in ecstasy among her cast-down instruments whose music bears no comparison with that of heaven. Despite her uplifted eyes, her sandals indicate that she is still of this world. Her heavenly onlookers are barefoot, a sign of their superior status.

It is easy to understand why the visionary Elena Duglioli dall’Oglio would want to feature St. Cecilia in the altarpiece of her chapel. Although a married woman, she too lived a life of celibacy. But the presence of the other saints has been difficult to explain. In his magisterial 1948 study of Raphael, Oskar Fischel wrote: 
The reasons that may have existed for the choice of the saints surrounding Cecilia have remained hitherto completely in the dark; and yet their relationships to the person of the lady who gave the commission and to the place of its destination were not unfamiliar to Raphael. At that time nothing of the content of a devotional picture can have been left to the artist; only in Raphael did every commission work itself out as a self-chosen theme, thanks to his free and dominating imagination and to the profound culture by virtue of which he adopted everything and caused it to become part of his own vital experience. [246] **

The four figures surrounding St. Cecilia are easily recognized by traditional iconographical symbols. St. John the Evangelist with the eagle and St. Augustine with his bishop’s crozier are in the background. In the foreground St. Paul leans on his sword of truth, and Mary Magdalen holds her familiar jar of ointment. For Fischel, they all are representations of love.
the significance of these saints precisely to the donors of the picture can scarcely be surmised. Only St John is adequately explained as patron of the church of San Giovanni in Monte—the “disciple whom Jesus loved” … He exchanges a glance of tearful radiance with the Doctor of the Church, St Augustine, …” How often have I wept at thy hymns of praise and chants, filling thy Church with soft strains, and have been stirred by its voices to the very depths.” …He too is a confessor of love: …” our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” … [247]
In addition to the sword St. Paul holds a letter in his hand, an allusion to the famous passage from I Corinthians, xiii.
The Apostle mighty in speech acknowledges of himself: “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” There at his feet lies the allegory… 
However, Fischel argued that the figure of St. Paul could not just be explained allegorically. Raphael had a special devotion to St. Paul.
It is to him precisely that Raphael acknowledged himself to be indebted, by him attracted...the painter of the figure was no stranger to the character of the great preacher of Conversion. Raphael at that time lived with the words of St. Paul. When, in the course of his work on the Disputa, the pages of his sketchbook were being filled with ideas for the figures, a hasty sketch was made for St Paul with his sword… And then, on a drawing at Oxford, for the Disputa, line after line is set down for a sonnet out of an overflowing sense of bliss, occasioned by an incident by night which must remain for the world in obscurity, Raphael discovers that his tongue is bound in a sudden kinship with the Apostle … [247-8]

Next Fischel turned to Mary Magdalen who looks out and invites the worshipper to enter the scene.  
Thus by the moving power of the back view of this figure, who has with sweeping cloak just entered the circle of the elect, the worshipper is, as it were, carried along with it into the region of other-worldly happenings—seized, with St Paul, by a sense of the vanity of all action “that has not charity”; and a bridge is thrown across to link him with her who “loved much” and therefore, her sins forgiven, may enter in before many. [248]
There was a text that also linked St. Paul and Mary Magdalen in the popular imagination of the time. In the third volume of his classic work on Medieval iconography, Emile Male discussed a small book whose fame spread all over Europe during the fifteenth century. The book was the Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying).
The text was often striking, but it was the astonishing woodcuts above all that spread its fame throughout Europe…. death appears not as a farcical dance, but as a serious drama played around the bed of the dying man; angel and devil stand at his side, contending for the soul that will soon depart. [348] ***
Male based his discussion on a 1492 French commentary, the L’Art de bien vivre et de bien mourir (The Art of Good Living and Good Dying), a “book that edified all Europe.” [349-350]. After a series of temptations where the devil is unable to shake the dying man’s faith, the devil tries another approach.
Hideous monsters again rove around the sick man’s bed. One presents him with a large parchment document: this is the list “of all the evils that the poor creature has committed during his sojourn on earth.”…
But the angel intervenes and brings four helpers.
They are St. Peter, who thrice denied his Master; Mary Magdalene, the sinner; St. Paul, the persecutor whom God struck down to convert him; and the good thief, who repented on the cross. These are the great witnesses of divine mercy….”do not despair. Even though you had committed as many crimes as there are drops of water in the sea, one contrite impulse of the heart is enough. God is greater than the greatest crimes.” [351]
Raphael received the commission for the St. Cecilia in 1514. It is hard to imagine today but the ideas of conversion and repentance must have been like a tsunami in Renaissance Europe. We like to think of the Renaissance as the revival of the gods and goddesses of antiquity but figures like St. Paul and Mary Magdalen were of far greater importance in the minds of contemporary believers especially those swayed by reformers like Savonarola. At the same time as Raphael and others were bringing Christian art to a new level, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk in Germany, who had struggled for years with his own sinfulness, finally found conversion and salvation in the epistles of St. Paul. 
*Anna Jameson: Sacred and Legendary Art, Vol. II, Boston, 1885.
**Oskar Fischel, Raphael, London, 1948.
***Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Late Middle Ages, Princeton,1986, pp. 348-351.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Titian: Woman in White

Titian: The Woman in White

In February on our annual winter visit to California, we visited the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena to view its current exhibition of Titian’s magnificent portrait, The Woman in White, on loan from its home in Dresden. The painting was given pride of place in a large room filled with other Old Masters from the Norton Simon’s permanent collection

The Museum’s notes indicated that in a 1561 letter Titian claimed that the young woman depicted was “the mistress of his soul.” Later, commentators took these words to mean that the young woman was Titian’s mistress even though the artist would have been in his seventies at the time. Others speculate that the woman could be one of Titian’s daughters, Emilia or Lavinia.

Whoever is depicted, the painting remains a striking portrait of a young woman in a beautiful white gown with elegant jewelry that includes a ring that could be a wedding band. She also holds a fan that is attached to a kind of chain around her waist. More than the clothing and accessories, it was the eyes and face of the woman that held my attention as I stood in front of the painting.

The young woman was looking directly at me. When I moved to the left, her eyes continued to look at me. The look on her face even seemed to change. The same thing happened when I moved to the right. She continued to look at me. If you’re reading this on a desktop, just move your chair and look at the image from left and right. If you’re using a handheld device, just hold it away from you first with your left hand, and then with your right to observe the effect.

Actually, I even walked a semi-circle from one side of the large room to the other, and the woman’s eyes followed me all the way. In traditional paintings, the viewer observes the subject but in this painting the woman observes the viewer. The tables have been turned.

I am not a student of female portraiture and I can’t imagine that I am the only one to observe this phenomenon. I do recall that while on a tour of the Renaissance collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum a few years ago, a docent pointed out that it was considered indecent in the early days of the Renaissance to portray a living woman in a painting. The earliest portraits only dared to portray them in profile. Eventually, the face might be turned in a 45- degree angle with the woman still looking off to the side. Even when the full face would be exposed the eyes would still be averted from the viewer. She would not make eye contact with the viewer. 

Lorenzo Lotto: Portrait of a Woman

The aversion of the eyes might just represent female modesty but I suspect that male sensitivity might have been at work. Could it be that back then men did not want other men looking at their women? Could that be the reason why a woman’s eyes are averted? I am sure that scholars have studied female portraits of the era extensively, and I could be wrong. But by the middle of the sixteenth century Titian’s woman in white certainly seems to reflect a departure from the typical female portrait. *

Titian employed this technique many years earlier in his famous Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari. In that painting the young boy in the painting looks directly out at the viewer, and while you walk around that painting, the eyes of the boy follow wherever you go. The boy acts as an “interlocutor” inviting the viewer to not only pay attention to what is going on in the painting, but also to participate. 

The Woman in white could also be an interlocutor but she only draws the viewer’s attention to herself, not as a shy object of desire but as a female in charge of all she surveys. The Norton Simon Museum suggests that rather than any individual woman, Titian's painting could represent the "beauty and spirit" of Venetian women." Modern feminists should love this painting.


* I am a big fan of the American film genre knows as film noir, those black and white films of the forties and fifties that are enjoying a revival right now. Titian’s painting brought to mind one of the earliest, I Wake Up Screaming, a film starring pin-up queen Betty Grable in a rare dramatic role. Grable played the sister of a famous model who had been murdered. The sister’s press agent, who had made her famous, was the prime suspect. Inevitably, Grable and the press agent, played by Victor Mature, begin to fall in love. At one point Grable asks Mature if he had been in love with her sister. He replies that he had been her press agent and that it was his business to place her image all over town in magazines and posters. “If I had loved her, I would never have done that, I would have wanted her only for myself.”