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".

Monday, October 11, 2010

Manchester Madonna

In my interpretation of Giorgione's La Tempesta as the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," I admitted that the great difficulty was the nude woman. A "nude" Madonna is, as one scholar said, "unimaginable." Even though I argued that Giorgione stretched the envelope further than anyone else, there is evidence that the imagination of another great artist might have been moving in the same direction.

The contract for Michelangelo’s famous Pieta has strange wording which is usually overlooked.

“che ci faccia una pietra di marmo, cioe una Vergine Maria vestita con Christo morto, nudo in braccio, per ponere in una certa Capella.”

The strange wording is “Vergine Maria vestita.” Why would the contract call for a “dressed” or “clothed” Virgin Mary? Wouldn’t that go without saying? In 1497 was the young Michelangelo considering a “nude” Madonna for the Pieta?

It seems unimaginable but then there is the unfinished "Manchester Madonna" in the National Gallery in London. The Painting is a depiction of the return from the flight into Egypt since Mary and her Child have met up with the young John the Baptist who announces the mission of Christ.

Some have doubted the attribution to Michelangelo but it would appear that most scholars today accept it, Nevertheless, Augusto Gentili argued that the Michelangelo attribution is difficult precisely because of the Madonna’s exposed breast. Here is his description of the "Manchester Madonna".

“The general theme is the announcement of the Passion…In this context, it is entirely implausible that Mary should expose her breast, and even more implausible that she should expose it in such a way, having apparently snatched it abruptly from within her robe. Those wishing to support the controversial attribution to Michelangelo must take these disturbing anomalies into account.” P. 154.

"Painting in the National Gallery London," Augusto Gentili, William Barcham, Linda Whitely, Boston, New York, London, 2000.

What could have prompted Michelangelo to consider this dissheveled Madonna?


  1. Great work Frank.

    I don't see why a nude Madonna is 'unimaginable' - which scholar said that? In fact Botticelli's famous Venus is commonly attributed the dual meaning of Sacred Virgin according to both Pagan and Christian traditions.

    Whomever found it 'unimaginable' is merely describing their own very restricted view of iconography, one which is not supported by historical evidence. I believe as long as the nude is showing a gesture of humility, such as the Venus Pudica, or in a pose of motherhood, then it is far from unimaginable, and indeed quite commonplace.

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

  2. H:

    I've sent my paper to many scholars and the fhandful who have responded could not get beyond the nude" Madonna. They are trained to look for precedents and even when I discovered the partially nude Madonna in the copy of the lost Giorgione (see above), mistakenly called the "discovery of Paris," that is not enough.

    It seems that despite the greatness of a young genius like Giorgione, they insist that he follow precedents.

    Thanks for your comments. I am glad to see that you are coming to appreciate the spiritual background of the Renaissance.


  3. Interesting to hear about those scholars Frank. In my view, a scholar with a closed mind is not a scholar at all!

    With regards to the spirituality of the Renaissance - I think my advancement in this area was likely due to my exposure to the Fayum portraits, which I imagine you read my post on.

    That crossover period where pagan Roman and Hellenistic styles were interplaying with devotional art is quite fascinating.

    I also saw a wonderful series by Andrew Graham-Dixon called 'The Art of Eternity' which also switched something on in my brain in this direction.

    I think what it boils down to for me is my acceptance that I do not need to be a practising member of a particualar faith to delight in the iconographical mysteries of devotional art!

    For example, the Lippi tondo is a tantalising challenge. The questions you posed at 3PP have me immensely curious about what the background scenes mean :)

    Kind Regards

  4. Bravo! H:

    Actually, when you think about it, the Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves pagan. Most of their art reflected their own religious beliefs. Venus is the Goddess of Love.

    I'll try to do a little work on the Lippi for you and Geanna.


  5. Cheers Frank! That Tondo does indeed have me quite curious. I'm sure Gianna would be pleased to read your analysis as well.

    With regards to the word Pagan, they do indeed reflect religious beliefs - I imagine historians use this term to denote the period of pantheistic worship as the prevailing religious practise of the state.

    Kind regards

  6. H:

    Pagan comes from the Latin "pagani" or country folk. It was in the countryside that the ancient religion of the Greeks and Romans lived on after it was replaced in the cities by Christianity. It was ancestor worship and not the religion of the gods of nature.

    The classic work on this subject is "The Ancient City," by Fustel de Coulanges, a great French 19th century scholar.


  7. Very interesting Frank :)

    I'm always interested in the origins of such concepts - they are often quiet different from the commonplace meaning and usage!

    For those interested, Coulanges Wiki entry is a good starting point, and provides links to a PDF of 'The Ancient City'

    Kind Regards

  8. H:

    Thanks for the link. I believe the little paperback is still available. The first two chapters of the "Ancient City" are a sufficient eye opener. Most of the rest deals with the intricacies of Roman political revolutions. The last chapter on the impact of Christianity is superb.

    It's amazing how far we can roam in these comments. We're a long way from the Manchester Madonna.