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".

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Giorgione: Madonna and Child

For 500 years the universal admiration of Giorgione's Tempest has gone hand in hand with the universal disagreement about the "subject " and meaning of the painting. In my paper I identified the subject of the Tempest as "The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt." Even though no one has seen the Madonna and Child in this painting before, there is evidence that some gifted observers have caught a glimpse of the meaning of the Tempest without being aware of its real subject.

Timothy Verdon in a study of the spiritual world of Piero della Francesca offered a clue to the understanding of symbols and symbolism.

"For, as Marcia Eliade's studies of symbolism confirm, 'symbols address themselves not only to the awakened consciousness, but to the totality of the psychic life. Consequently, we do not have the right to conclude that the message of symbols is confined to the meanings of which a certain number of individuals are fully conscious....Depth psychology has taught us that the symbol delivers its message and fulfills its function even when its meaning escapes awareness.'" [Timothy Verdon, "The Spiritual world of Piero's Art," The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, edited by Jeryldene M. Wood, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 44-45]

It is certainly a mark of Giorgione's greatness as an artist that the three viewers quoted below came close to the true meaning of the Tempest without being aware of the actual "subject" of the painting.

First, George Gordon Lord Byron, the famous English Romantic poet, saw the Tempest while it was still in private hands, and described it as the family of Giorgione. The woman of the Tempest appears to have impressed him more profoundly than the others he met on his sojourn in Venice.

Beppo: A Venetian Story. (1818)

(a picture by Giorgione)


"Whose tints are truth and beauty at their best;
And when you to Manfrini's palace go,
That picture (howsoever fine the rest);
Is loveliest to my mind of all the show;
It may perhaps be also to your zest,
And that's the cause I rhyme upon it so:
'T is but a portrait of his son, and wife,
And self; but such a woman! love in life!


Love in full life and length, not love ideal,
No, nor ideal beauty, that fine name,
But something better still, so very real,
That the sweet model must have been the same;
A thing that you would purchase, beg, or steal,
Were 't not impossible, besides a shame:
The face recalls some face, as 't were with pain,
You once have seen, but ne'er will see again.


One of those forms which flit by us, when we
Are young, and fix our eyes on every face;
And, oh! the loveliness at times we see
In momentary gliding, the soft grace,
The youth, the bloom, the beauty which agree,
In many a nameless being we retrace,
Whose course and home we knew not, nor shall know
Like the lost Pleiad seen no more below.

Early in the next century Edward Hutton, another Englishman who fell in love with Italy and who spent practically the whole of his life there, came across the Tempest in the home of Prince Giovanelli. In "Venice and Venetia", one of his many books on Italian history, art, and culture, Hutton described the treasures of the Palazzo Giovanelli:

"the greatest of these is the picture by Giorgione, which has passed under various names—the family of Giorgione, or simply the Gipsy and the Soldier—which in itself sums up all that we mean by the Giorgionesque in painting. There we see, in a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towered country town, a woman nude but for a cape about her shoulders giving her breast to her child in the shadow of the trees by a quiet stream. On the other side of this jeweled brook a young man like a soldier—or is it a shepherd?—stands resting on a great lance or crook and seems to converse with her. Close by are ruins of some classical building overgrown by moss and lichen, and half hidden in the trees, and not far off up the stream in the sunset we see the towers and walls and roofs and domes of a little town with its bridge across the stream leading to the great old fortified gate of the place. But what chiefly attracts us in the work is something dreamlike too, though wholly of this our world, an air of music which seems to come to us from the noise of the brook or the summer wind in the trees, or the evening bells that from far off we seem to hear ring Ave Maria. One of the golden moments of life has been caught here for ever and perfectly expressed. Heaven, it seems, the kingdom of Heaven, is really to be found in our midst, and Giorgione has contrived a miracle the direct opposite of that of Angelico; for he found all the flowers of Tuscany and the byways of the world in far-off Paradise, but Giorgione has found Paradise itself here in our world. And we must remember that such a work as this was the true invention of Giorgione."

The Tempest is the centerpiece of Mark Helprin’s epic novel of WW I, "A Soldier of the Great War." Helprin is a modern day authority on global politics and warfare, who also happens to be a gifted novelist. In the following passage Alessandro, the protagonist, grieving over the loss of his lover returns to Venice to view the painting that somehow had expressed their love.

Alessandro turned away and walked through the wide portals from room to room, until he was in the presence of Giorgione's painting.

"That is La Tempesta," the guard said, having stuck right by him.

"I see," Alessandro said.

“It's very beautiful, and no one knows what it means."

"What do you think it means?" Alessandro asked.

"I think it's going to rain and that guy is wondering why she's going to take a bath."

"Probably that's it."

"They say no one will ever know."

"It was to have been the story of my life," Alessandro said with the kind of affection that one devotes to defeat that has come so close to victory as to be able to kiss it. "I was a soldier, the world was battered in a storm, and she was under a canopy of light, untouched, the baby in her arms." ...

.. Alessandro could feel the high wind coming and hear the tattle of the leaves in the trees as they shuddered and swayed. As the rain approached the light seemed both tranquil and doomed. The soldier was serene because he had been through many a storm, and the woman was serene because she had at her breast the reason for all history and the agent of its indefatigable energy. Between them floated a bolt of lightning that joined and consecrated them.

"Sometimes," the guard said, "people come in here and stare at this painting for a long time, and they cry."

Mark Helprin, "A Soldier of the Great War," New York, 1991. pp. 701-702.

Byron, Hutton, Helprin--three wise men.


  1. Seasons Greetings Frank! Interesting points.

    Jungian psychology is so nebulous, in its application to archetypal symbolism you can really find a phrase in it somewhere to fit anything!

    A subjective experience, as described by Jung and cohorts is an individualised process - it is hence not necessary to qualify it even in a nominal sense.

    This type of approach tells us more about the person making the statement than about the actual painting, and that is exactly what has plagued art history for centuries - leading to the current gulf in methodologies between it and the sciences - which has had dire repercussions worldwide, but in the UK in particular.

    The most basic commonality I see in the examples you have chosen is that they are each an emotive response. Does this mean that anyone who does not have an emotive response to this painting is not perceiving it correctly or is less wise?

    I like the Rest/Cambrai reading, but I believe it is equally possible to arrive at this meaning by less florid means than Byron and Hutton!

    Kind Regards

  2. H:

    I know hardly anything about Jungian psychology. I posted the three comments because I thought it was interesting how three viewers of different eras who did not know the subject of the painting could still see something very important there. Indeed, I don't know of any other painting that has elicited such responses.

    A great artist can elicit an emotive response from a wide range of viewers. I don't know why some viewers are moved and others not.

    Thanks for the comment. Happy New Year.