My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Giovanni Bellini: Pieta revisited


A few years ago a correspondent accused me of injecting my Christian beliefs and sensibilities into my interpretation of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love”. Any interpretation of the two women in the famous painting that sees them as Mary Magdalen must be rejected out of hand since the Renaissance is all about the revival of pagan antiquity.

I admit that I am a Roman Catholic but I have argued elsewhere in this blog that it is my argument that counts, not my religion. I did not paint the “Sacred and Profane Love”, nor for that matter did I paint Giorgione’s “Tempest”. I have only interpreted both paintings as having sacred or religious subjects. It is the religion of late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Venetians that matters. 


One example of contemporary Venetian belief can be seen in Giovanni Bellini’s famous depiction of a “Pieta” or “Our Lady of Pity.” 

In “The Stripping of the Altars”, a groundbreaking and exhaustive study of religious practice and belief in pre-Reformation England, Eamon Duffy noted the widespread devotion to the “Pieta.” *

But the most distinctive manifestation of Marian piety in late medieval England was not devotion to the Joys, but rather to the Sorrows of Mary. This was of course a European rather than a merely English phenomenon, and was yet another aspect of the devotion to the Passion…
As it developed in the later Middle Ages the cult of the Sorrows of the Virgin, or the Mater Dolorosa, had a variety of functions, high among them that of serving as an objective correlative for the discharge of grief and suffering in the face of successive waves of plague sweeping through Christendom….
 But the essence of the devotion was that evident in what is arguably its noblest expression, the ‘Stabat Mater’. Here the Virgin’s grief is presented, not as an end in itself, but as a means of arousing and focusing sympathetic suffering in the heart of the onlooker. In this literal compassion, this identification with the sufferings of Christ by sharing the grief of his Mother, lay salvation. (258-9)

Here is Duffy’s English translation of the Stabat Mater.

Come then Mother, the fount of love, make me feel the force of your grief, make me mourn with you.
Make me weep lovingly with you, make me feel the pains of the crucified, as long as I shall live.
I long to stand with you by the Cross, and to be your companion in your lamentation.
Grant that I may carry within me the death of Christ, make me a partner in his Passion, let me relive his wounds.

For Duffy the “quest for a share in the sufferings of Christ, through identification with Mary, dominated the piety of Christian Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries... Mary was a natural focus for the attempt to realize for oneself the sufferings of Jesus, for she had stood by the cross, supported by John the beloved disciple when the rest of the Apostles had fled….” (260)

Every parish church contained an image of this Mater Dolorosa, for all were dominated by the Rood across the chancel arch, invariable flanked by the mourning figures of Mary and the Beloved disciple. Other images, however, proliferated to sharpen the point. Of these the most widespread was the Pieta, or image of Our Lady of Pity.
Images of Our Lady of Pity exercised a growing attraction throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Lay people in increasing numbers left money in their wills to maintain lights before them, and sought burial near them. (261)

Most of these images have been lost. Many were destroyed during the Reformation. Many could be ugly, even gruesome. But the greatest artists could turn this scene of sorrow into an image of great beauty and meaning. Here is Giles Robertson’s description of Bellini’s “Pieta”. **
                        
To praise or even to attempt to describe the beauty of this picture seems an impertinence.… There is no overemphasis on the drama of grief here, but a deeply restrained rendering of the beauty of sorrow that makes this one of the great classic achievements of European art. The colour is muted: a blue so dark as to be nearly black for the mantle of the Virgin and the robe of St. John, a pale purplish pink for the Virgin’s robe, and a light blue for St. John’s mantle, while a touch of warmer colour is given by his auburn hair. The main emphasis of the lines of the figure group is starkly vertical and contrasts with the simple horizontal lines of the sarcophagus, the ends of which are not seen, and with the striations of cloud in the sky. (54)
There is a perfect balance here between means and intention. Giovanni has developed the traditional tempera technique, which he inherited from his predecessors in Venice, to the fullest possible extent. We may suppose that Giovanni himself recognized this work as a special achievement, for instead of the usual signature just giving his name he added in beautiful classical lettering on a cartellino on the front of the sarcophagus a Latin couplet:
HAEC FERE QVVM GEMITVS TVRGENTIA LVUMINA FROMANT
BELLINI POTERAT FLERE IOANNIS OPVS
“When these swelling eyes evoke groans this (very) work of Giovanni Bellini could shed tears.”

Of course, the most famous Pieta is Michelangelo’s work now in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. It is very likely that it was originally intended to be placed on a slab atop the grave of the French Cardinal who commissioned it. The genius of Bellini and Michelangelo was so great that you don’t have to be a Christian to be moved by their work. But it is impossible to say that  Christianity did not inspire the work of these and other great Renaissance masters.

 ###

Note: The above article was originally posted on Giorgione et al... on March 31, 2012. For some reason, not fully understood by me, it has become by far the site's most popular post.

*Eamon Duffy: The Stripping of the Altars, Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400--c. 1580. Yale, 1992.

**Robertson, Giles: Giovanni Bellini, Oxford, 1968.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Lorenzo Lotto: Crucifixion




Italian Renaissance master Lorenzo Lotto was born in Venice around 1480 but spent most of his long career working in provincial towns. Perhaps this is why he is not as well known as Giorgione and Titian, both of whom were born outside of Venice but did most of their work in the great city.

Lorenzo Lotto: Crucifixion
Santa Maria in Telusiano
Monte San Giusto, Marche
oil on wood, 450x250cm

Lotto’s most powerful and dramatic work was a Crucifixion that still stands in its original site in the little church of Santa Maria in Telusiano in the small, out of the way, hill town of Monte San Giusto, located in that part of Italy known as the Marche. The town is not too far from Loreto, the religious center where Lotto eventually spent the last years of his life.

Lotto’s Crucifixion shows that he could hold his own with the greatest of Renaissance masters. My wife and I saw the painting a few years ago as we traveled down the Adriatic coast. Our old guidebook called Lotto’s painting in Monte San Giusto “ the most dramatic and powerful of all his large-scale works,” and so we decided to take a side trip out of our way in hope of finding it.  Although we are very thankful for the wonderful works of art preserved in Italian museums, it is always special to see a work “in situ”, where it was originally meant to be seen.

It was not easy to find the church and we finally had to go into a local bank where a patron kindly offered to lead us there through the curvy narrow streets of the town. We parked outside a long stone staircase that went up and up between stone buildings packed closely together on each side. 

It was hard to immediately recognize the church but we finally found a door that led into what was no more than a large chapel. It was dark inside and the church was empty except for a couple of ladies who seemed to be cleaning. We could hardly see the painting behind the only altar but one of the ladies pointed to a little box. We put a coin in and immediately the huge magnificent painting (450x250cm) that took up almost the whole back wall was revealed.

Revealed is an understatement. The light, color, movement, physicality, and dramatic intensity virtually jumped out at us. In the foreground, the disciple John, robed in green, seems to lead the grieving Mother right out of the picture. Behind them red-haired Mary Magdalene dressed in blue stretches out her arms in grief. A crowd of guards and onlookers stand beneath and around the three crosses that reach high into a dark sky. Jesus is in the middle flanked by the two thieves.

Standing in Santa Maria it is hard to examine the huge painting closely because the impression is so overwhelming. But on reflection we can see that Lotto has depicted the moment right after the death of Jesus. We can see the Roman centurion Longinus on his white horse immediately after he has placed the point of his lance in the side of Jesus to verify his death. He has released the lance and it is about to fall. He reaches both hands toward Jesus in the act of shouting, “truly, this man was the Son of God.”

The death of Jesus is also marked by a great wind that causes the loin cloths of Jesus and the thieves to billow as well as the Roman banner on the right where one can just make our the first letters of the name of Caesar Augustus. In the foreground the Apostle John is taking the Mother of Jesus away from the scene of horror.



Today, it is hard to imagine what churchgoers back in an obscure provincial town must have thought when they beheld this magnificent painting. They could never have seen anything like it before and must have known that a great master had done it. Going to Mass in Santa Maria in Telusiano would never be the same. At the Consecration of the Mass, as the priest at the altar raised high the host, their eyes would behold the sacrificial victim raised high on Calvary in the dramatic and breathtaking altarpiece behind. 

### 
Note: This article was first posted on Giorgione et al... on 7/25/2014.


Friday, January 11, 2019

David Rosand on Veronese's Mary Magdalen



The late Venetian art historian David Rosand contributed an essay on a Veronese painting in the same June 2011 edition of the Burlington Magazine that featured Renata Segre’s discovery of the inventory of Giorgione’s estate. Segre’s archival find attracted much attention but Rosand’s essay provided much more insight into the work of Giorgione and other Venetian Renaissance artists.*

Paolo Veronese: The Conversion of Mary Magdalen, c. 1548
National Gallery, London, oil on canvas, 117.5 x `63.5 



Rosand discussed a work by the twenty-year-old Paolo Veronese that London’s National Gallery had labelled “Christ addressing a kneeling woman.” Rosand noted that the painting has variously been thought to depict Christ with the woman taken in adultery; Mary Magdalen laying aside her jewels; or Christ and the woman with the issue of blood. A few years ago, a National Gallery catalog leant toward the “Woman with the issue of blood” but now its website has accepted Rosand's identification of the painting as the Conversion of Mary Magdalen.

Not only did Rosand agree with those who saw Mary Magdalen in the painting but he also found a source text for Veronese’s depiction. The National Gallery catalog had rejected the Magdalen interpretation because there is no mention of a scene like this one in either the gospels or the apocrypha. However, Rosand discovered that Pietro Aretino, the notorious scoundrel and self-promoter who was also a close friend of Titian’s, had written a popularization of the gospels that provided a fourteen page description of the events surrounding the conversion of Mary Magdalen.

Written in 1535 the name of the work was "Humanita di Christo" and it was extremely popular until it and other works like it were banned by the Church after the Council of Trent. Today it is almost impossible to find. A search of the New York Public Library’s vast online catalog found nothing. Rosand’s extensive quotes were from a 1539 Italian edition. **

In Rosand’s words Aretino’s text provided an “imaginative expansion of the generally laconic text of the Gospels ” that his artist friends were quick to exploit. Aretino gave artists “a new novelistic gospel replete with pictorial possibilities.”

Aretino’s description of the conversion of the Magdalen begins the evening before her meeting with Christ. Her sister Martha had persuaded her to go to the Temple but the courtesan decides to throw a party and have one last fling. She puts on a sumptuous banquet “to celebrate her hedonistic life.” Aretino dwells on her worldly beauty and her “fine linen gown trimmed in gold and studded with pearls.”

The next morning Mary Magdalen sets out for the Temple looking like a “rising sun” and followed by a great multitude “drawn to this vision of splendid beauty.” Nevertheless, the meeting with Jesus is life changing.
Jesus addresses her in an intimate tone…and then proceeds to inflect her worldly beauty to a spiritual one, her eroticism to divine love: her splendour can only have a higher source, a gift from heaven.

Afterwards, Martha leads her contrite sister home where she locks herself in her room and “throws her jewels to the ground.”

Bernardino Luini: Martha and Mary Magdalen


In the Burlington essay Rosand did not spend much time discussing the other figures in the painting. He did not even call the modestly dressed woman supporting the Magdalen by name even though it must be Martha. He did not mention the man in the foreground with the red cap who appears to be dropping a small notebook. Could this be the Magdalen’s procurer discarding her client list? What about the man clutching the column on the left? Is he suffering from the previous evening’s celebration? There is also a nude youth and a dog. Were they normal parts of a courtesan’s retinue?

There can be no doubt that Rosand has found the source of Veronese’s painting in Aretino’s gospel popularization. However, one question remains. What was the source of Aretino’s account? Did he just make up his embellishment of the conversion of the Magdalen or did he draw from an already existing tradition?

Pietro Aretino was born in 1492 into a poor family in Arezzo. At about the age of fourteen he left his hometown to make his own way in the world. He didn’t journey to nearby Florence but for reasons unknown walked the 50 miles to Perugia. According to James Cleugh’s biography, “The Divine Aretino,” Pietro probably arrived in Perugia around 1506 and stayed for about six years.

In those years he tried his hand at a number of things and even studied painting. He achieved some competence but realized early that he would go nowhere as a painter. Nevertheless, there is one incident concerning Aretino that throws light on Veronese’s painting. Cleugh relates a prank attributed to the young Aretino.***

According to the Perugian poet Caporali he had been offended by the sight of a mediocre fresco in the Piazza Grande depicting Mary Magdalene at the feet of Christ. Her arms outspread in an absurdly awkward attitude of adoration and the two conspicuous tears rolling down her cheeks lent in Pietro's view an utterly incongruous aspect to the buxom citizeness who had been used as a model. He decided to correct this artistic impropriety and call the perpetrator to order in the only way he could be expected to understand--pictorially.

One morning, early risers were horrified to find that the pious Magdalene had been transformed overnight into the courtesan she was said to have been before her conversion. A lute had appeared in her hands and she was gazing at Jesus with a far from sorrowing expression. Pietro had spent a couple of hours the night before with his brushes and palette, and a discrete torch, on a ladder propped against the wall….

The joke, however, did not amuse the clergy or the ruling Baglioni family or the municipality of Perugia. Pietro could usually talk himself out of trouble, but this time his laughing apology did not help him. While the picture was being restored he was sternly given to understand that if he did not remove himself forthwith from the precincts of the city he could expect an examination by the Holy Inquisition.

Cleugh warns that practically anything by or about Pietro can be taken with a grain of salt but it would be impossible to doubt that there was a painting on a wall in Perugia that depicted a kneeling, penitent Magdalen at the feet of Christ, a scene only implied in the gospels. Moreover, it is not hard to imagine that this “Conversion of Mary Magdalen” by an unknown artist was not the only one in Perugia. Indeed, it is more than likely that such depictions could have been found all over Italy.

Faded image over door in Piazza S. Stefano, Venice
This incident should make us realize that what we have left of Renaissance art is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Time, weather, vandalism, and the efforts of Church reformers have left us only a very small percentage of the art that graced both the interior and exterior of churches, palaces, and homes over the entire peninsula. Of course, exceptional painters took these common devotional subjects to unprecedented heights but most must have been of the mediocre variety that Aretino playfully sought to improve.

Aretino’s scandalous writings have survived but Rosand noted in the Burlington Magazine that the Church banned works like his gospel popularization after the Council of Trent. Professor Rosand was correct to remind the National Gallery that there was more to the religious art of the Renaissance than could be found in the gospels or the apocrypha.

###

*David Rosand: “Veronese’s Magdalen and Pietro Aretino,” Burlington Magazine, 153, June 2011, pp. 392-395.

**All quotations from Aretino are taken from Rosand's article.

***James Cleugh, "The Divine Aretino", NY, 1966. p. 28.

Note. This post is a slightly revised version of one that appeared on Giorgione et al... in 2011. I plan to devote 2019 to reprising other early posts on artists other than Giorgione and Titian. 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Giorgione: Year End Review 2018


Back in 2005 I discovered that Giorgione’s Tempest had a “sacred subject”: The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. In May, 2006 a short interpretive essay appeared in the Masterpiece section of the Wall Street Journal. In 2010 I presented a full paper on the subject at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America held in Venice that year on the five hundredth anniversary of Giorgione’s death.


Incredibly, the Tempest discovery led to a number of other discoveries that indicated that many of the most mysterious paintings of the Renaissance also had “sacred subjects”. In 2010 after failing to get any interest from academic publishers, I decided to publish my work on a website, MyGiorgione. I also began to use   Giorgione et al… for more informal articles on Giorgione and others. 
This year I have reprised about 20 of these articles. In the first half of the year I concentrated on different aspects of the Tempest itself like the Man and the Woman whom I had identified as the St. Joseph and the nursing Madonna. I also included essays on the broken columns, the solitary bird on the roof, and the storm in the background. I even reprised my essay on the pentimenti.
I used the summer for some posts on background issues like Venetian humanism but in the fall I reworked a series of earlier posts on other Giorgione paintings. Here is a brief listing.


                                         
Judith:This painting of the Jewish heroine Judith with her bare leg atop the head of the defeated enemy general Holofernes is regarded as a ground breaking work. In a September 9 blog post I discussed the reason why Giorgione might have bared the leg of the victorious Jewish heroine.



Homage to a Poet:In a September 28 post I revisited my interpretation of this mysterious painting that has been called any number of things. I still believe that it should be regarded as Giorgione’s version of the Man of Sorrows, an extremely popular sacred subject of the time.



Three Ages of Man:  On October 14 I once again offered my interpretation of this painting as The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man. Most scholars can’t see it but ordinary Catholics easily identify the man on the right in green as Jesus and the young man in the middle as the wealthy young man of the gospel account. The man in red must then be St. Peter the only other individual mentioned in St. Matthew's account.



Boy with an Arrow: In an October 28 post, I offered my reasons for identifying this painting as Giorgione’s version of St. Sebastian.The painting is remarkably similar to a depiction of the saint by Raphael but Giorgione characteristically removed obvious iconographical details like the halo. Instead, he used one simple arrow, the color of the young man’s tunic, and the angelic face to recall the martyr.



The Three Philosophers: On November 16 I again agreed with those who see the Magi in this famous painting. It now hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum alongside the Boy with an Arrow, and the Laura. My own contribution to the debate over this painting was to suggest that Giorgione used the colors of the garments of the three men to symbolize the gifts they presented.



Laura: On November 24 I once again argued that this painting represents Mary Magdalen. Scholars have been puzzled by this painting because of details indicating a chaste wife on one hand, and a courtesan on the other. Only Mary Magdalen fits that description in the Venetian Renaissance.



Adoration of the Shepherds:  Finally, on December 13 I reproduced my post on Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds. This painting is obviously a sacred subject but I believe that most scholars have failed to see the deep Eucharistic symbolism in this painting with the infant Jesus lying on the ground as Venetians believed he lay on the altar during the Sacrifice of the Mass.


Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
photo courtesy of David Orme

Is it a coincidence that these four last paintings hang next to each other in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum? What if they all are sacred subjects? What does that tell us about Giorgione? What does that tell us about the Venetian renaissance? What does that tell us about the direction of future scholarship? ###

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.)