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, January 14, 2021

Interpreting the Tempest: Salvatore Settis, Adam and Eve.

Last year the posts on Giorgione et al... were all devoted to the various interpretive discoveries that followed upon my initial intuition that Giorgione's Tempest had a sacred subject, "The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt." This year I intend to reprise some of the review articles that have appeared on this site since its inception in 2010. I begin with a review of Giorgione's Tempest by Salvatore Settis, the essential starting point for any student of Giorgione.

In researching my interpretation of the Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” no book has been of greater assistance than Giorgione’s Tempest, written by Salvatore Settis in 1990. In addition to providing an in depth analysis of practically every previous interpretation, Professor Settis also laid down a series of iconographical ground rules that should be used in any interpretation. 

For example, in his introduction he noted:

“Interpreting the Tempest means providing “a well documented explanation for each feature, and fitting all together into one persuasive framework.” (2)

Indeed, he came very close to identifying the subject of Giorgione’s most famous painting. At least he did see that the painting had a “sacred subject” but instead of seeing the Woman as Mary, the new or second Eve, he identified her as the original Eve nursing her first-born son, Cain. The Man in the painting is Adam in the guise of a Venetian aristocrat accompanying his wife after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Even though his book is a must for anyone interested in Giorgione, his ingenious and painstaking interpretation came under serious criticism and was accepted by virtually no one. He argued that the famous painting must be treated like a puzzle and that in any interpretation all the pieces must fit, and fit easily without being squeezed into position. 

Unfortunately, he often violated his own maxim. The major pieces of the puzzle are the Man, the Woman and Child, the broken columns, the plant in the foreground, and the storm and city in the background. 

For Settis, the Man is Adam after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The nude Woman is Eve nursing her newborn son, Cain. The broken columns are a symbol of death which has entered the world as a result of sin. The plant is there to cover Eve’s nakedness, although obviously doing a very poor job. The city in the background is the lost Paradise forever barred to the Man and Woman who are doomed to a life of toil and hardship. The storm and lightning represent the wrath of God not only on the erring couple but also on what he called a serpent slithering into the rock beneath the heel of the woman. 

Here are his words concerning the Man and the Woman:

 “Adam leans, not on the short-handled spade of his Bergamo counterpart, but on a singularly long staff: various interpreters have agreed that this could be a soldier’s lance, a traveler’s wand or simply a generic tool. The allusion to the manual labor prescribed in the biblical text is underplayed, almost fleeting, for this Adam is an elegant Venetian…The medieval tradition portraying Adam at work…has evolved to show Adam at rest, with Eve as mother at his side….” (113)

 “The handsome clothes belong to a Venetian gentleman, not to a peasant or a fisherman, and are appropriate with the attenuated image of the tool:  in the hands of this meditative, or resting, figure the staff must allude to manual labour. Neither spade nor hoe, it has a point at one end but so hidden in the grass that it is only visible on a close and careful examination.” (114)

 “Eve is seated opposite him a white wrap that barely covers her. (sic) The baby in her lap and her own nakedness indicate recent childbirth, a familiar schema in earlier art. The slender bush that grows out in front of her cannot be a simple decoration in this painting of such deliberate construction: its compositional importance has already been noted by other interpreters…who have tried in vain to establish its meaning.” (115)

In chapter 4 Settis provided a number of images of Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It was an impressive feat but in every image the Man and the Woman do not exhibit the disparity of clothed and unclothed figures found in the Tempest

For example, in Amadeo’s, Bergamo bas-relief, both Adam and Eve are nude, just as they are in Jacopo della Quercia’s relief in St Petronio in Bologna. In all the other images it is the same. Either Adam and Eve are both nude, or both clothed. 

The Adam in these images is always a rustic laborer, and not the poised Venetian aristocrat of Giorgione’s painting. This development is one of the main props for the “hidden subject” thesis proposed by Settis. Moreover, the Adam in these images is usually the central or focal point, but in the Tempest the Man directs the viewer’s attention to the Woman and Child.

The Woman’s nudity is only explained as a sign of “recent childbirth,” but the child in the Tempest is obviously almost a year old. He holds himself up nicely while nursing. Settis did not identify the plant in the Tempest, but he did argue that it is there to cover the Woman’s nakedness. He also argued that the dead root beneath the woman’s heel was not part of the plant but the “serpent” slithering into the rock fleeing God’s wrath.

Settis, like some others, argued that the lightning bolt in the background was a symbolic representation of God, and that it and the storm were hovering over the couple forever banished from Paradise. The gates of Paradise have forever been closed to them and the broken columns are symbolic of death. Yet according to the rules of perspective the storm and lightning bolt are miles in the distance. Moreover, in the foreground the couple is bathed in sunlight. They show no trace of fear, anxiety, or loss.

Speaking of Paradise, why would one of the buildings show an emblematic representation of Padua’s Carrara family? 

Salvatore Settis, Giorgione’s Tempest, Interpreting the Hidden Subject, Chicago, 1990.

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano


Note: Below are some relevant notes from Settis' text.

Chapter 1. Subject and Non-Subject.

p.2. “If we can perceive the beauty of an object within its meaning and not outside it, within its history and not outside it, and if we can comprehend and not simply admire, attribute and acquire, perhaps then we can really slaughter the ‘art’ which we have invented and free it from a contrived immortality.”

p.2. “In the study of art…the history of form has gradually parted company from the history of content: ‘art criticism’ elaborates lists of attributions and comments on aesthetic value and is thus de facto opposed to iconology, which attempts to decipher the meaning of inherited images.”

p.3. “The great, regal, public museum,…the bourgeois drawing-room…In both of them statues and pictures are snatched from their original context, in which co-ordinates of meaning were mapped our around them, and are offered to the visitor for their aesthetic value only.”

p.4. “Art criticism has thus produced pages of exquisitely artistic prose which deliberately competes in stylistic effect with the picture it describes, as well as pages of awkwardly-phrased enthusiasm. But in both cases the cost has been a high one: by favoring form, the function of a statue or painting as bearer of a message…has been completely overshadowed.”

p.10. “A complete understanding of a statue or a painting should place the question of style within the framework of careful research on its meaning as a vehicle of communication, and on its ways of expressing that meaning. For form and content…are born at the same time…”

p.13. “Vasari’s words bear witness to the difficulties of understanding Giorgione’s subjects, even a few decades after his death….Bur Vasari must have momentarily lost his concentration when he looked at the four facades of the Fondaco….The few things we do know about the decoration of the Fondaco indicate a precise iconographical Programme, however disjointed its features may seem to be.”

C. 4.  Interpreting the Tempest,

p.82. “it is usually the case that we instantly recognize a picture  of a woman and child as Mary and Jesus….We recognize Virgin and Child above all by means of the many different images in our memory and form, as it were, a single type. It is visual experience itself, repeated over and over again, but always receptive, that tells us the title of the picture.” …

p.82. “But that memory can be lost; and when this happens an image that was created for a public that could understand it becomes incomprehensible to observers who are alien to that particular figurative culture. This can give rise to absurd and fantastic interpretations.”

c. 5. The Hidden Subject

p. 129. “In choosing a painting as a vehicle for expressing personal feelings, ‘inventiveness’ must have been severely hampered by the inescapable weight of authority represented by previous iconographic tradition. The transformation of an ‘interior subject’ into something less comprehensible entailed searching out an unusual iconography, and also perhaps attenuating its meaning by eliminating or toning down its essential features.”

p. 129/130. “Even more complex and difficult was the task of fitting a religious theme into this ‘closed’ and private use of art….But to a painter in the time of Palma il Vecchio and Giorgione, a Christian subject would have had a different weight….The codification of iconography for religious subjects must have been that much more forceful for being accepted as serving the true Christian faith. Equally, it was that more difficult to dare to choose a Christian theme as a way of expressing personal thoughts.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds

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 reproduce my essay on 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 angel’s announcement.

Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made know to us..” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 

Luke’s account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds is the traditional gospel at the midnight Mass on Christmas . The actual arrival of the shepherds at the stable in Bethlehem is the passage used for the gospel reading for the Christmas Mass at dawn.

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

Actually the newborn infant is lying on a white cloth that just happens to be on the ends of Mary’s elaborate blue robe that the artist has taken pains to spread over the rocky ground. Giorgione is here using a theme employed earlier by Giovanni Bellini and later by Titian in their famous Frari altarpieces. The naked Christ is the Eucharist that lies on the stone altar at every Mass. The altar is covered with a white cloth that in Rona Goffen’s words “recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.” In Franciscan spirituality Mary is regarded as the altar. 

Clearly, the viewer-worshipper is meant to identify the Madonna with the altar and the Child with the Eucharist. Bellini's visual assertion of this symbolic equivalence is explained by a common Marian epithet. The Madonna is the "Altar of Heaven." the Ara Coeli, that contains the eucharistic body of Christ” Ave verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine.**

The Adoration of the Shepherds represents the first Mass. This is not such an unusual concept. Many years ago I attended a talk on the famous Portinari altarpiece that now hangs in the Uffizi. The speaker was Fr. Maurice McNamee, a Jesuit scholar, who argued that Hugo van der Goes had also illustrated a Mass in that Netherlandish altarpiece around the year 1475. His argument centered on the spectacular garments of the kneeling angels that he identified as altar servers wearing vestments of the time. He called them “vested angels,” and they are the subject of his 1998 study, “Vested Angels, Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish Painting.”

His Eucharistic interpretation explained the naked infant on the hard, rocky ground. The infant Christ is the same as the sacrificial Christ on the Cross. In a study of Mary in Botticelli’s art Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel referred to this connection.

it needs to be pointed out first of all that the Renaissance era saw the spread of practices of individual devotion to be carried out primarily in the home…From the theological perspective attention should then be drawn to the emergence of a new trend that…tended to identify the mystery of the Incarnation with the Redemption itself, focusing on the Passion with much less fervour than in the past: whence the growing popularity of  ‘incarnational’ iconographies celebrating the word made flesh, such as pictures of the Infant Jesus in his mother’s arms…while the demand for images with Christ on the Cross, very common in the fourteenth century was drastically reduced.***

It would appear that Giorgione has used the same motif although his angels have become little putti who hover around the scene. The shepherds represent participants in the Mass who kneel in adoration. Mario Lucco has suggested that the long hair of the one indicates a patrician in shepherd’s clothing.

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The Madonna in Art


In my interpretation of the Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” I argued that the nudity of the Woman was Giorgione’s attempt to portray Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Although theologians had debated the dogma for centuries, it was only its resurgence in the fifteenth century that led artists to finally attempt to treat the subject.

Emile Male’s classic three volume study of Medieval iconography included a brilliant discussion of the evolution of the Madonna’s depiction in Medieval art. Princeton University published the three volume set in 1986. Below are excerpts from the second and third volumes that trace the evolution from Virgin Queen in the thirteenth century to Virgin Mother and Mater Dolorosa in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and to Immaculate Conception in the sixteenth century.

Emile Male: Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1986. Pp. 234-240. This volume has been printed in paperback as “The Gothic Image.”

The cult of the Virgin that grew up in the twelfth century spread during the thirteenth. The bells of Christendom began to ring the Angelus. The Office of the Virgin was recited daily. Our most beautiful cathedrals were dedicated to her. The idea of the Immaculate Conception began to take form in the minds of Christians who for centuries had meditated on the mystery of a Virgin chosen by God. …New religious orders—the Franciscans and the Dominicans—were true knights of the Virgin and spread her cult among the people…. (234-5)

In all the books written to glorify the Virgin, perhaps the idea that recurs most often is that Mary is Queen…. (235)

Among the many ideas and feelings that clustered around the Virgin in this period, the idea of royalty was the one best understood and most strongly expressed by artists. The Virgin of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries is a queen…. Mary is a queen who holds the King of the world. At no other period were artists able to confer such majesty upon the image of the mother of God. (235-6)

Toward the end of the thirteenth century, the Virgin of the theologians, as majestic as pure idea, seemed too remote from man. All the miracles attributed to her in the thirteenth century, all the times she appeared to sinners, merciful and smiling, had brought her closer to mankind. It was then that the artists, faithfully interpreting the feelings of the people, conceived the Virgin of the north portal of Notre-dame of Paris as a mother radiating maternal pride…the virgin had grown to womanhood; she is a mother.

In the fourteenth century, the Virgin and Child group, represented with such solemnity a century before, has only intimacy left. The theological ideas represented by the Virgin, became less and less accessible to artists. They did not comprehend…’that it was the desire of the Infinite god to unite with a Virgin’… they could no longer recreate the superhuman Virgins of the past. They were satisfied to represent a mother smiling at her child.

Soon they would bring the Virgin even closer to humanity through her grief. But the Mater Dolorosa that inspired so many masterpieces in fifteenth-century art, the Virgin old before her time who wept over the bleeding forehead of her son, does not belong to the century under study. [13th]…artists did not yet dare to express her grief….

If the artists liberated themselves fairly early from the ideas of theologians, they remained on the contrary faithful to the legends. They borrowed almost all the episodes in the life of Mary from the apocryphal Gospels….

It did not occur to thirteenth-century artists, as it would to those of the late Middle Ages, to represent the Virgin before her birth. The thirteenth century left this to the sixteenth. It was shortly after 1500 that the young girl with long hair, surrounded by the rose, the star, the mirror, the fountain, and the closed garden appeared in stained glass windows, tapestries, and Books of Hours. This Virgin—a pure concept, anterior to time, an eternal thought of god—did not yet exist. Such a lofty idea, and one imminently suited to serve as inspiration to artists contemporary with St. Bonaventura and Dante, was however unknown to them…. (239-240)

Neither did thirteenth-century artists go back to the father and mother of St. Anne in the genealogy of the virgin….the artists dealt only with the story of St. Anne and St. Joachim, her first husband…. 

The meeting at the golden Gate is the subject most frequently depicted. The artists of the late Middle Ages had a marked predilection for it. In fact, it was the only way that had been devised to represent the Immaculate Conception. Although the error had been condemned by the Church Doctors, it was repeated that Mary had been conceived at the moment when Anna and Joachim kissed.

The following excerpts are from the third volume in the series, Religious Art in France, the later Middle Ages, Princeton, 1986.

toward the end of the fifteenth century, a mysterious idea that had been secretly germinating in man’s soul for more than five hundred years, suddenly blossomed. It now seemed clear to theologians that the Virgin could not have partaken of original sin, being especially exempted from the law by divine decree. Mary, the perfect model of newly created humanity, like Eve at the time she was created by the hands of God, had come into the world free of the burden of sin. (197)

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was an ancient idea that already had its followers in England and Normandy as early as the eleventh century.

This doctrine, supported by the Synod of Basel in 1439, approved by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476, and accepted as dogma by the Sorbonne in 1496, would inevitably have found its expression in art…. (198)

The task was difficult. How was one to represent the Virgin as a pure concept? How convey her creation without sin, by God’s decree, her existence in his thought before the creation of time? (199)

From the fifteenth century on, artists tried to resolve the problem. They first thought of the woman spoken of so mysteriously in the Apocalypse. She has the moon beneath her feet, stars on her head, and the sun envelops her; she seems older than time, no doubt conceived before the universe….

In the fifteenth century, in fact, we find manuscripts containing a half-length figure of the Virgin, who seems to rise out of a crescent moon and to shine like the sun….there can be no doubt that the Virgin of the crescent moon was the first symbolic representation of the Immaculate Conception.

In the early years of the sixteenth century, a most poetic figure of the Virgin appeared in France. She is a young girl, almost a child; her long hair covers her shoulders…The young virgin seems to be suspended between heaven and earth. She floats like an unexpressed thought, for she is only an idea in the divine mind. God appears above her, and seeing her so pure, pronounces the words of the song of songs: Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te (Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in the). And to express the beauty and purity of the betrothed chosen by God, the artist chose the most pleasing metaphors of the Bible: around her he placed the closed garden, the tower of David, the fountain, the lily of the valleys, the star, the rose, the spotless mirror. (200)

Such an image no doubt answered the innermost feelings of Christians, for it was soon repeated ad infinitum…. (202)

Images of the Immaculate Conception usually appeared alone. Their numbers increased due to the confraternities of the Virgin which celebrated her Conception,… (204)

Thus, the Tree of Jesse was considered a sort of symbol of the Immaculate Conception….the true reason for the presence of the Tree of Jesse in so many churches lies, I believe, in the cult of the Virgin, and, especially, in the cult of her Conception. (205)

Thus the era of the Middle Ages ended. For more than a thousand years it had worked to fashion the image of the Virgin; this was its ever-abiding thought, its secret and profound poetry. And it might be said that the Middle Ages came to an end at the exact moment when it had made this cherished image as perfect as its dream. (209) *

Of course, Male’s work centered around France and its cathedrals but the cult of the Immaculate Conception was certainly not limited to France. In Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Rona Goffen argued that Venice itself became identified with the Immaculate Conception by the end of the Quattrocento. 

Below is an image of the Immaculate Conception from my own parish church in Fairfield, CT built in 1939. It is done in the art deco style of the time but still represents the Woman clothed with the sun, with the stars in her crown, and with the moon at her feet. 


*Emile Male believed that the Middle Ages  came to an end only in 1517, the date of the posting of Martin Luther's 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg. 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Titian: Presentation of the Virgin

Today I republish my review article on David Rosand's magisterial interpretation of Titian's  Presentation of the Virgin. This article originally appeared here in September 2017 but I inadvertently deleted it. Despite the depth and comprehensiveness of Rosand's interpretation, I did disagree with him on one point. Back in 2012, I argued that the old woman featured prominently in the foreground was  Anna, the prophetess, who appeared in the biblical account of the Presentation of Mary's infant son. I include my opinion at the end of this review.  

David Rosand’s essay, “Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Scuola della Carita” appeared in the Art Bulletin in March, 1976. * It would be hard to imagine a more thorough and better researched paper than this one by the late Columbia professor who during his long career became one of the leaders in the field of the Venetian Renaissance.

In his essay Rosand proposed to “take a new look at Titian’s painting, to consider it on its own terms, the details of the composition as well as its broader contexts….” He examined the patronage, the social function of the picture, the position of the image within the history of its type, the relationship of the picture to its physical site, as well as the conditions under which it was to be seen. 

He stressed that he was departing from the traditional nineteenth and early twentieth century view of the painting as an example of Renaissance naturalism with little attention to its iconography. Rosand’s study is primarily iconographical. He demonstrated that practically every detail in the painting is important, and that all the details fit together to form a unified whole. 

In this brief review I would like to highlight some of the most significant iconographic details that Rosand explored as a guide to viewing the painting. I would also like to disagree with his analysis on one significant point.  

Titian’s painting is still in the place in which it was originally meant to be seen although the nature of the site has changed around it. Venice’s Accademia, its famous art museum, was originally the church of S. Maria della Carita, the home of the Confraternity della Carita, one of the leading social and charitable organizations in sixteenth century Venice. 

Around 1534 the confraternity commissioned Titian to do a painting of the Presentation of the Virgin for a particular wall in one of its rooms. The Presentation was a very popular subject in Renaissance Venice both before and after the Reformation. The subject was based on the legendary story of Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary. Giotto had immortalized the story back in the thirteenth century on the walls of the Scrovegni or Arena chapel in nearby Padua.

According to the legend Joachim was a prosperous sheep raiser whose offering was rejected by the priests of the Temple because he and his wife were childless, a sign of divine disfavor. Banned from the Temple, Joachim left his wife and went to live in the fields with his shepherds and flocks. However, he made an offering in the wilderness and not only was it accepted by God, but he was also told to return home to his wife, Anne, who had also been given a sign that they will be blessed with a child.  They met at the Golden Gate of the city, exchanged a kiss, and Anne conceived and bore a daughter Mary. In thanksgiving the joyous couple resolved to offer their child to service in the Temple.

The offering of the child is the focal point of Titian’s painting although Titian depicts her ascending the steps seemingly on her own volition in much the same way that she appears to rise on her own in his earlier Assunta. Rosand noted that Titian surrounded the young Mary with “a full mandorla of golden light”, something unprecedented and full of meaning.

the Virgin does indeed rival and outshine the natural light entering through the windows of the room; she is the light beyond the light of nature, a radiance more brilliant than the sun….The wisdom texts, the basis of the Marian celebration, afford then a means of reading Titian’s Presentation, allowing us to determine the significance of many of its supposedly merely picturesque details within the context of a controlling thematic structure. [68]

Instead of mere naturalistic, pictorial details, the sunlight, the clouds, and the mountains in the background all relate to the theme of the painting: “the diffusion of … divine light into the world. “

Rising behind the pyramid is a great cumulus cloud, its luminous shape dominating the left side of the canvas….one ought to expect this form, moving so majestically over the landscape, to assume a meaning beyond its obvious naturalistic function. And I would suggest that this meaning derives from the same wisdom texts with which Titian was so evidently familiar. {Ecclesiasticus 24: 5-7} “as a cloud I covered all the earth: I dwell in the highest places, and my throne is a pillar of cloud.” In this form the divinity presides over Titian’s landscape, becoming with the pyramid a monumental hieroglyph of the divine immanence, while on the opposite side of the picture the Virgin’s radiance speaks of its ultimate incarnation for the salvation of mankind. [70]

In a section entitled “Dramatis Personae”, Rosand identified the various onlookers to the Virgin’s ascent up the steps of the Temple. He rejected the opinion of Vasari and others that these were merely portraits of contemporaries including Titian himself. The main characters relate to the theme of the painting and derive from scriptural sources.

Oddly enough Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary, while centrally placed, are somewhat obscured. Joachim stands with his back to the viewer with his hand on his wife’s shoulder. Anne wears a little cap and certainly does not stand out as do other women in the painting.

Rosand followed the lead of Leo Steinberg in identifying the young woman dressed in gold and white at the foot of the steps as Mary’s elder cousin, Elizabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist.  


The beautiful young woman at the foot of the stairs, so often carelessly identified as Anna, acquires by her prominence within the composition a rather distinctive significance…. care has been taken to distinguish her from the rest of the procession. Dressed in gold and white, stately yet modest, seen in pure profile, she seems to reflect in her larger person the figure of the Virgin herself, and this connection is made explicit by the indication of her companion. [73-4]

Again following Steinberg’s suggestion, Rosand identified the younger priest at the top of the stairs as another major figure in the Infancy narrative, Zacharias, the future husband of Elizabeth. 

At the top of the stairs stands the second priest, receiving special focus by the upturned glance of the young acolyte; he too is in profile, but facing left. These two figures…are isolated as a couple within the composition, formally responding to one another across the distance of the staircase. 

Rosand departed from earlier guesses and argued that the figures at the left of the painting, dressed mainly in black, must be the patrons. “The eight obvious portraits in Titian’s picture must surely represent the chief officers of the Carita…” In particular, the one in red must be the Guardino Grande who for solemn feasts would be dressed in “crimson robes and ducal sleeves.” [74]

The woman at the left holding a baby and stretching out her hand is a mendicant, a personification of Charity, the primary work of the confraternity. “Titian elevates her, or rather the entire action to the status of a personification, or enactment, of Caritas…”

Finally, at the outset of his paper Rosand admitted that the old woman looking on besides the steps has perhaps been the greatest single mystery of the painting. 

The old egg-seller in front of the stairs has inspired more comment than any other single figure in the composition. [56]

 He noted that most interpreters see her as a mere “pictorial detail” but argued that she represented much more. Panofsky had seen her as a personification of Judaism but Rosand was more specific. 

Instead of a representatives of the Jews as such, we have here, then, a personification of Synagogue. And it is to this tradition that Titian’s old egg-seller, as the unreconstructed Synagogue, belongs. [72]

However, his description of the traditional appearance of Synagogue does not fit his explanation.

an old woman dressed in tattered black garments. In her right hand she holds, inverted, the Tablets of the Law; in her left is the broken Roman vexillum, a red banner emblazoned with the gold letters S.P.Q.R [73]

Actually, the figure in black behind the two priests at the top of the stairs fits the description better. 

The egg-seller is old but her clothing indicates an elevated, even exalted status. Her gown is the same blue as the young Virgin’s and her head is covered with a white shawl that Titian had sometimes used in depictions of the Madonna. Rosand had argued that the gold and white of Elizabeth’s garments indicated her status but why ignore the garments of the old woman. Cima da Conegliano in an earlier version of the Presentation, that is often compared with Titian’s, also clothed the egg seller in blue and white. 

I believe that the old woman could very well be Anna the Prophetess, who appeared in the gospel account of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Scripture records that she had been a Temple denizen for years and it is not hard to imagine that Venetian artists would have wanted to also depict her attendance at the Presentation of Mary. 

It is true that she does not look at the young Mary ascending the steps. But her back is turned to the Temple and she looks toward or perhaps past the assembled figures who are also illuminated by the divine light that comes from the left. 


*David Rosand: Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Scuola della Carita. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 58. No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 55-84.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Lorenzo Lotto: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

In my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" I explained the reasons why Giorgione chose to portray St. Joseph as a virile, young man. Shortly after Giorgione's death, contemporaries like Paris Bordone, and Lorenzo Lotto also painted virile, youthful St. Josephs in depictions of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. Here is a discussion of Lotto's version.

A painting by Lorenzo Lotto of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine provides another example of a young, virile St. Joseph by a contemporary of Giorgione. The painting is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna where the man is still identified as St. James. Here St. Joseph kneels next to St. Catherine who gazes at him and not at the infant Christ. They are obviously exchanging vows. Joseph acts a proxy for the marriage of the infant Child, and the legendary Queen of Alexandria. Joseph is shown with his staff but his virile good looks and the spear-point at the end of the staff have led scholars astray.

In his work on Lotto, Bernard Berenson identified the kneeling man as St. James the Greater but provided no explanation. In the catalog of the 1997/1998 Lotto exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Peter Humfrey identified the man as St. Thomas because of the spear.* A decade later in the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition in Vienna, however, the man was still identified as St. James. There is no good reason for either St. James or St. Thomas to be in the desert participating in the mystic marriage of St. Catherine.

On at least two occasions, and at about the same time as Lotto, Paris Bordone painted the mystic marriage of Catherine with a rustic-looking, vigorous Joseph playing a prominent role.

One of Bordone’s versions was featured in the same Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition. In that painting Joseph’s muscular, bare foreleg is evidence of his role as the proxy for the mystic union of Catherine with the Christ child. The other version is at the Hermitage and also features the muscular, bare leg. In that version the Madonna has already passed the infant Christ to Joseph.

In Lotto’s painting the Madonna holds the child out to observe the ceremony. In the Lotto catalog Peter Humfrey noted that the painting “is first recorded by Marco Boschini in his 1660 Venetian dialect poem La Carts del Navigar Pittoresco.” Boschini identified the man as St. Joseph. "The majesty to be found in the venerable and devout old St. Joseph is for me expressed by only one brush: a brush that is most singular and memorable!" 

Boschini’s description of Joseph as old, “vechiarelo,” is belied by the saint’s dark beard, full head of hair, and robust physique. In Humfrey’s opinion Boschini’s “accurate evocation of the pictorial qualities of the work is remarkable,” but he claimed that the identification of St. Joseph was “mistaken.” Humfrey believed that it was unlikely that Boschini had actually seen the painting in person, and that the spear-point told against St. Joseph. It is true that a point on the end of Joseph’s spear must be explained but on the whole it is much easier to explain that small item than it is to explain the presence of either St. James or St. Thomas at the marriage of Catherine, or the absence of St. Joseph from this familiar scene.

Years after writing this post in 2011, I can only guess that Joseph's protective role had assumed a martial aspect. The Man in the Tempest was called a "soldier" by a Venetian observer two decades after Giorgione's death mainly, I believe, because of his pose. But he carried a staff, a tradition associated with St. Joseph. For some reason, followers of Giorgione added a spear point to the staff, or even turned it into a halberd.**

Palma Vecchio or follower
Philadelphia Museum


 *Lorenzo Lotto, Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance, New Haven, 1997. Catalog #31. “Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Thomas,” c. 1528-1530, oil on canvas, 113.5 x 152, Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna.

** See the discussion of this painting in the previous post at Giorgione et al...