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".

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds



During this year I have been reprising posts that argue that some of Giorgione's mysterious paintings like the Tempest, the Laura, the Boy with an Arrow, and the Three Philosophers are actually "sacred subjects." Moreover, even when the painting has an obvious "sacred subject" I have argued that Giorgione's development of the subject was unique and exceptional. Here is a reprise of earlier posts on one of his most famous sacred subjects. 

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds, Washington
   

Scholars have expended more time dealing with the controversy that has surrounded the attribution to Giorgione of the so-called “Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds” than they have in trying to understand what is actually going on in the painting. Here I would like to deal with the subject and meaning of this famous Nativity scene that is now in Washington’s National Gallery.

The subject of the painting seems so obvious. It is a depiction of the adoration of the shepherds who have left their flocks to seek out the newborn Savior after hearing the angels’ announcement. Here is the biblical text from Luke's gospel. 

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. # 


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 was not 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.”


Hugo van der Goes: Portinari Altarpiece

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 and on the altar at every Mass. 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. (See below for a comment on the cave.)##

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.


Titian: Pesaro Altarpiece, Frari

Finally, art historian Mario Lucco has suggested that the long hair of the one indicates a Venetian patrician in shepherd’s clothing.* That may be so but I like to think Giorgione indicated that the Savior, whether present on the ground before the shepherds as a newborn King, or on the altar at Mass, is accessible to all. This 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. 

###

#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.

*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.

##  Our recent Bethlehem trip gave an unexpected context to the story.Your remarks on the adoration of the Christ Child as a representation of the first Eucharist and the hard ground/stone as altar are explained very clearly. What is perhaps unusual for a painting of this period is the depiction of a cave rather than a stable, as in Botticelli and others. This seems to hark back to much earlier art.
Our first port of call on our Bethlehem trip was to the Shepherds’ field. There is a roomy cave there, now a chapel. Our guide told us that caves were the usual shelter for shepherds and their sheep – as I read it (via Wikipedia!) stables as such were a much later idea.
So why did Giorgione go for a cave? A few random thoughts. The Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem was a cave. Venice was an important stopping place for Holy Land pilgrims at the time, which Florence wasn’t. The church of the nativity, the Shepherds’ fields and – I think significantly – the Holy Sepulchre were largely in the care of Franciscans, who had an important presence in Venice at this time. Could this be the basis of the tradition?
So what about the Holy Sepulchre? The tomb of Christ was a cave too, and I wonder if this is implied in the painting. I wrote about this on my pages on the entombment – A cave behind, and often an altar-like sarcophagus in front with the dead Christ on it. Another Eucharistic image.
A couple of interesting paintings. One you’ll probably know well as it is in the Met is the Adoration of the shepherds by Mantegna – I think the death and Resurrection of Christ are hinted at here too. I may be wrong, but I think the background shows a depiction of Calvary – that dying tree in front is emblematic too.
Perhaps an even more interesting painting is another adoration of the Shepherds, this time by Cima da Conegliano, painted for the Chiesa dei Carmini in Venice, where it still is. The web Gallery of Art gives dates of 1509 – 10 for this – pretty well the same date as for the Giorgione.
The similarities are striking, though Cima’s painting isn’t as good, and he includes some odd characters – what are Tobit and his fish and that archangel doing there? Both paintings have a couple of odd characters in the background, though one in the Cima is somewhat out of scale. Are they the shepherds at an earlier moment?
What stands out for me in the Cima is the octagonal building in the background – I’m fairly certain this is the Holy Sepulchre, often depicted like this.
So which picture came first, and did they know the other’s work? The Cima was on view in a church, so Giorgione almost certainly would have known it, though whether he had already painted his own is, of course, a moot point.  (David Orme.)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Giorgione: 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, beautiful women of the Venetian Renaissance could also be Mary Magdalen. Below find an update of a summary essay posted on 8/19/2013. 



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 now 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.

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[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.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Giorgione: The Three Magi behold the Star

                      

The Giorgione painting known as The Three Philosophers is one of a handful now definitively attributed to the great Venetian Renaissance master. It depicts three men on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful valley with the sun setting in the West behind a range of mountains. They are dressed in colorful robes and face a dark rock formation or cave. They and the cave are illuminated by another source of light. Who are they and what are they doing there?


 

In 1525 Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician and connoisseur, listed the paintings in the collection of Taddeo Contarini, another Venetian aristocrat, and described this one as "three philosophers in a Landscape." Two hundred and fifty years later the painting had found its way to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, its current home. In a 1783 catalog it was called, "Three Magi." Since then, scholars have debated whether the men are philosophers, astronomers, surveyors, representatives of the three ages of man, representatives of three religions, or the Wise Men or Magi of the Biblical account.

Today, most scholars accept the "philosopher" interpretation even though they find it difficult to identify which ones. However, recent findings suggest that the Magi are making a comeback.

In the catalog of the unprecedented Giorgione exhibition in 2004, Mino Gabriele argued that in this painting Giorgione depicted the Magi not at the end of their journey but at the beginning, when they first saw the Star of Bethlehem. His most compelling point had to do with the lighting of the painting. If we look carefully, we can see the sun setting in the West behind the mountains, but the three men and the rock formation in the foreground are being illuminated by another source. According to the medieval legend the light of the Star, which rose in the East, was even brighter than the sun at midday. *

Moreover, at the conclusion of a symposium, that ended the “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian” exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington in 2006, Salvatore Settis offered a striking piece of evidence in support of the Magi. 

The exhibition itself had done an excellent job of educating the public on the value of using scientific techniques to evaluate the "underpainting" of some of these Renaissance masterpieces. X-rays and other techniques show many "pentimenti" or changes of mind on the part of the artists. When working with oils, the artists would frequently alter their paintings by painting over the original. 

In the original version the old man on the right dressed in gold is wearing an elaborate headpiece crowned with a kind of solar disk. For some reason Giorgione decided to discard it in favor of a simple hood. Nevertheless, when Settis projected an image on a huge screen of a painting by Vittore Carpaccio of the Magi on horseback approaching the Holy Family, the old man in that painting was wearing the kind of headpiece discarded by Giorgione. 


Carpaccio: Holy Family with Magi in Background
detail provided by Dr. Settis

In a 2010 post at Giorgione et al… I added my two cents to the question and argued that the colors of the garments of the three men are symbolic of the gifts of the Magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The most obvious, but usually overlooked, feature in the painting is the brilliant color of the costumes. In the medieval legend, the oldest of the Magi was the bearer of the gold; the middle-aged man carried the myrrh; and the youngest brought the frankincense. The golden garment of the oldest man needs no explanation. In my encyclopedia the color of myrrh is a dark red, while the color of frankincense can be white or green, the colors of the clothing of the sitting young man. 

In other versions of the Adoration of the Magi, gold is almost invariably the color of the oldest man’s garb, but there is no one color scheme for the other two. However, there is a version of the Adoration of the Magi done around 1499 by Francesco Raibolini, known all over Italy as Francia, where he used a similar color scheme for the three Magi. In Francia’s painting, that I believe is now in the Dresden Gemaldegalerie, the eldest man is clothed in gold, the middle-aged one in red, and the youngest in green.


Francia: Adoration of the Magi


I also believe that The Three Philosophers was not the only instance in which Giorgione used colors symbolically to identify his religious figures rather than resorting to stock symbols. In the so-called Three Ages of Man, that now hangs in the Pitti Palace, the colors of the garments of the three men are more than enough to identify them. St. Peter, in particular, is identified by his bright red robe; red being the color of martyrdom. The green of Christ’s garment is the color of the vestment used by a priest during most of the liturgical year, and the purple and gold of the young man are a sign of his wealth.




Giorgione also used red for the tunic of the young man in the so-called Boy with an Arrow. Red should help to identify this mysterious figure holding an arrow as the martyr, St. Sebastian. 




Perhaps Giorgione, Carpaccio and Francia took their inspiration from the elaborate public processions honoring the Magi, which were common in the later Medieval world. Nowhere were they more elaborate than in Venice. More than any other city, Venice was aware of the styles and costumes of the Orient. 


Could it be that Giorgione hid his subject by making it obvious? I think it more likely that most contemporary Venetians would have seen the Magi in this great masterpiece. 

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*Mino Gabriele, “The Three Philosophers”, the Magi and the Nocturnal.” Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, ed. Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi Scire, 2004. Pp.79-85.


Addendum:

Credit must be given here to Anna Jameson, the popular British art maven of the nineteenth century. Neglected today by most art historians, I believe that she was one of the few who worked to restore the original meaning and significance of Medieval and Renaissance art from the ignorance of the Enlightenment.  In her discussion of the Adoration of the Magi she paused to discuss Giorgione’s painting. 

I must mention a picture by Giorgione in the Belvedere Gallery, well known as one of the few undoubted productions of that rare and fascinating painter, and often referred to because of its beauty. Its significance has hitherto escaped all writers on art, as far as I am acquainted with them, and has been dismissed as one of his enigmatical allegories. It is called in German, Die Feldmasser (the Land Surveyors), and sometimes styled in English the Geometricians, or the Philosophers, or the Astrologers. …I have myself no doubt that this beautiful picture represents the “three wise men of the East,” watching on the Chaldean hills the appearance of the miraculous star, and that the light breaking in the far horizon, called in the German description, the rising sun, is intended to express the rising of the star of Jacob.” #

In a footnote, Jameson mentioned a print by Giulio Bonasoni, “which appears to represent the wise men watching for the star.” 

#Anna Brownell Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, as Represented in the Fine ArtsBoston and New York, 1885, pp. 347-8.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Giorgione: St. Sebastian


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 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.

Hasan Niyazi


Note: I reprise this post on the fifth anniversary of the death of my blogging friend Hasan Niyazi who passed away suddenly and tragically alone in his apartment late in October, 2013. Hasan was the son of a Moslem family that had migrated from Cyprus to Australia when he was a child. Like the children of many traditional immigrants he broke away from the traditional religion of his family and became an avowed secularist. Somehow, he developed a passion for the art of the Italian Renaissance, especially for Raphael. 

He was obviously an outsider in every respect and so turned to blogging. His blog, Three Pipe Problem, quickly became a web sensation. To his passion for art, he added his scientific background, as well as technical proficiency in mastering blogging technology. Through social media he developed so many friends and contacts that he became a kind of sun around which they orbited. 

I first met him on the web in 2010 when Three Pipe Problem was just beginning to make traction. In the next three years he went from an obscure blogger to a presence in the art history world. Six months before his death he wrote me about his plans.

I am increasingly busy. I have a few interviews coming up, including one with a prominent Florentine restorer, Dr Goldberg and some other scholars. Work on Raphael continues and many other things in the offing. My blog received its millionth viewing the other week, which was pleasant - and I hope to commemorate it with a prize in the near future. I have started learning Italian, and am also still working as a clinician. Blogging has become more than a curious pastime, yet there is still no easy way to make it viable financially, so I must continue in my dual mode! (4/18/2013)

Then, like his beloved Raphael and my beloved Giorgione he was gone in his mid-thirties. He may not have had the face of a Renaissance angel and I don’t know what arrow took his life, but I will always think of him when looking at The Boy with an Arrow.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Giorgione: The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man*

                                         
                                    
Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man is another one of his paintings that has so far eluded identification. The name of the painting that now hangs in the Pitti Palace is pure guesswork stemming only from the obvious disparity in ages of the three men. One appears to be about 60, another in his early thirties, and the last a young man in his teens.

In a 1995 survey Peter Humfrey said that the “picture actually represents a music lesson, and given the secular dress of the figures, it may be assumed that the boy at the centre is learning to sing a madrigal.”[i]
In his 2007 Giorgione catalog, Wolfgang Eller definitely attributed the painting to Giorgione but called it “The Three Ages of Man (Three Men with a Sheet of Music).” While leaning toward a “music lesson” Eller argued that the “picture contains, as almost throughout Giorgione’s works, several meanings at different levels.” 
The youth in the center of the picture, accentuated by his cap, at first glance depicts a young ruler like Alexander or Marcus Aurelius, being instructed in music in contemporary Venice by learned teachers, but also in art and philosophy.[ii]
He even guessed that the boy carried a flute in his hidden right hand.
It is difficult to see how the sheet of paper can be identified as a sheet of music. Even under magnification there are no discernible musical notations nor recognizable words. Neither Humfrey nor Eller offered an explanation. Eller referred to a description of a painting in a 1569 inventory of the collection of Gabriele Vendramin. “Un quadro de man de Zorzon de Castelfranco con tre testoni che canta.” Yet, none of the figures in the Pitti painting are singing!
However, the most spectacular element in this mysterious painting has so far received little notice. Venetian painters were known for their coloration. Just look at the garments of the three men. Nothing in a Renaissance painting is there by accident or whim. The colors in this painting provide a major clue to its real subject.
As far as I know no one has suggested that the painting has a “sacred” subject, but yet, it appears that Giorgione has depicted a scene from the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is the story of the encounter of Jesus with the young man of great wealth.
In Matthew’s account the young man asked Jesus what he could do to attain eternal life.  Jesus told him to keep the Commandments, and specifically named the most important. The man replied that he had done so but still felt that something was wanting. Jesus then uttered the famous words,If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The gospel relates that the young man went away sad for he had many possessions.
How has Giorgione depicted this story and who is the third man?The man in the middle is obviously young and the golden lapels of his garment as well as his fashionable hat indicate that he is well to do. He is holding a piece of paper or parchment that contains some indecipherable writing that under magnification hardly looks like Renaissance musical notation.
On the right any Christian, Venetian or otherwise, would immediately recognize the visage of Jesus. There is no halo or nimbus but Giorgione never employed that device. The pointed finger is certainly characteristic of Jesus. Here he points not at a sheet of music but at the Commandments, which the gospel account has just enumerated.
Jesus wears a green garment or vestment, certainly an unusual color for him. In fact, it looks like the robe or chasuble worn by a priest during Mass. At the hand of Jesus we can also see the white sleeve of the “alb,” a long white robe always worn under the chasuble. Green is the color used by the Catholic Church during Ordinary time, that part of the Church year not identified with any of the great feasts. 
The third man is St. Peter. He is the only other person identified in Matthew’s account of this incident.  He stands on the left, head turned toward the viewer. Giorgione uses Peter as an interlocutor, a well-known Renaissance artistic device designed to draw the viewer into the painting and encourage emotional participation.  The old man’s face is the traditional iconographical rendering of Peter with his baldhead and short stubby beard. As Anna Jameson noted many years ago, Peter is often portrayed as”a robust old man, with a broad forehead, and rather coarse features.” 

Durer: Four Apostles detail
Giovanni Bellini and Albrecht Durer, both Giorgione contemporaries, depicted Peter’s head in this fashion. About a hundred years later Caravaggio still used it in striking fashion in the Martyrdom of St. Peter in S. Maria del Popolo in Rome, and in the Denial of Peter now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

Caravaggio: Denial of Peter
The color of Peter’s robe is also liturgically significant. Peter is rarely shown wearing red, but Giorgione has chosen to show him wearing the color reserved for the feast days of the martyrs. In the gospel account immediately after the young man went away sad, Peter, speaking for the other disciples as well as for the viewer of Giorgione’s painting, had asked, “Behold we have left all and followed thee: what then shall we have?”
In the first decade of the sixteenth century Venice was at the apex of its glory. It would suffer a great defeat at the end of the decade during the War of the League of Cambrai but until that time it was arguably the wealthiest and most powerful of all the European nations. It was certainly the only one that dared confront the mighty Ottoman Empire.  
Nevertheless, some young Venetian patricians were wondering whether the whole life of politics, commercial rivalry, and warfare was worthwhile. One of them, Tommaso Giustiniani, a scion of one of the greatest families, did actually sell all his possessions, including his art collection, in order to live as a hermit in a Camaldolensian monastery. In 1509, only one year before Giorgione died, Tommaso wrote to two friends, who were also considering a similar move and urged them on. He complained about the futility of their daily lives, and  argued that life in Venice was agitated, completely outward, and continually dominated by ambition. It was the reason for all their worry. He wrote: 
If, then, a Stoic philosopher appeared to free their minds from all these disturbances, his efforts would be in vain, so completely does agitation dominate and enfetter their whole lives. How can anyone not feel disgust for such an empty existence?[iii]
Peter and the other disciples were shocked when Jesus said that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. “Who then can be saved,” they asked. The response of Jesus was full of hope: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Green, the liturgical color used throughout the Church year, is also the color of hope.
The Rich Young Man, the name we can now give to the painting in the Pitti Palace, would certainly appear to have an historical context in Giorgione’s time. Five hundred years after the death of this short-lived genius perhaps we can begin to understand that Giorgione was a unique and original painter of sacred subjects. ###
* This interpretation of Giorgione's "Three Ages of Man'' first appeared on Giorgione et al... on Oct. 8, 2011. My wife and I saw the painting when we visited the Pitti Palace in 2017. In the past few years I have seen nothing that would make me change my opinion of its true subject.

[i]Peter Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1995, p. 124.
[ii]Wolfgang Eller, Giorgione, Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007, p. 45.
[iii]Dom Jean LeClercq, Camaldolese Extraordinary, The Life, Doctrine, and Rule of Blessed Paul Giustiniani, Bloomingdale, Ohio, 2003, p. 61-62. Although few followed the extreme example of Tommaso Giustiniani, his attitude was not unusual. See Margaret L. King, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance, Princeton, 1986, pp. 240-241.