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".

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Giorgione, Michelangelo and Renaissance Nudity

Michelangelo: "Risen Christ" S. Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

In his controversial and ground-breaking study Leo Steinberg explored the theological basis for the use of nudity in depictions of the infant Jesus as well as the crucified Saviour. In all honesty I must acknowledge that Steinberg never believed that his arguments could extend to the Virgin Mary. Neither did he ever see the nude Woman of the "Tempest" as the Madonna.

Nevertheless, in my paper on the "Tempest" I argue that the nude Woman nursing her child is the Madonna, and I fail to see how the following passages from Steinberg's study cannot apply to Giorgione's Woman.

My third consideration concerns Christ in the character of Redeemer. His manhood differs from that of all humankind in one crucial respect, which once again involves the pudenda: he was without sin—not only without sins committed, but exempt from the genetically transmitted stain of Original Sin. Therefore, applied to Christ’s body, the word “pudenda”…is a misnomer…For the word derives from the Latin pudere, to feel or cause shame. But shame entered the world as the wages of sin. Before their transgression, Adam and Eve, though naked, were unembarrassed; and were abashed in consequence of their lapse. But is it not the whole merit of Christ, the New Adam, to have regained for man his prelapsarian condition? How then could he who restores human nature to sinlessness be shamed by the sexual factor in his humanity? And is not this reason enough to render Christ’s sexual member, even like the stigmata, an object of ostentatio? [p. 17]

We are faced with the evidence that serious Renaissance artists obeyed imperatives deeper than modesty—as Michelangelo did in 1514, when he undertook a commission to carve a Risen Christ for a Roman church. The utter nakedness of the statue, complete in all parts of a man, was thought by many to be reprehensible….But the intended nudity of Michelangelo’s figure was neither a licentious conceit, nor a thoughtless truckling to antique precedent. If Michelangelo denuded his Risen Christ, he must have sensed a rightness in his decision more compelling that inhibitions of modesty; must have seen that a loincloth would convict these genitalia of being “pudenda,” thereby denying the very work of redemption which promised to free human nature from its Adamic contagion of shame….
We must…credit Michelangelo with the knowledge that Christian teaching makes bodily shame no part of man’s pristine nature, but attributes it to the corruption brought on by sin. [p. 18]

The candor of Michelangelo’s naked Redeemer consummates a development traceable through two and a half centuries of devotional art. I reproduce a sampling of representative instances. But I should feel defeated were these works taken as illustrations of texts, or as theological arguments. On the contrary: the pictures set forth what perhaps had never been uttered. They are themselves primary texts,…[p. 23]

The pictures tell us to reverse the priorities. Their chronology demonstrates that the conspicuous display of the privates, instead of resulting incidentally from the Child’s total nudity, is more likely the motive that prompted this nudity. [p. 28]

No longer was it conceivable that Christianity had once, during the Renaissance interlude, passed through a phase of exceptional daring, when the full implications of Incarnational faith were put forth in icons that recoiled not even from the God-man’s assumption of sexuality. [p. 45]

And because Renaissance culture not only advanced an incarnational theology…, but evolved representational modes adequate to its expression, we may take Renaissance art to be the first and last phase of Christian art that can claim full Christian orthodoxy. Renaissance art…harnessed the theological impulse and developed the requisite stylistic means to attest the utter carnality of God’s humanation in Christ. It became the first Christian art in a thousand years to confront the Incarnation entire, the upper and lower body together, not excluding even the body’s sexual component.
[p. 72]

Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, NY, 1983.

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano


  1. Very interesting Frank!! But why do you look forward to 1514? Donatello paved the way for Michelangelo to do this over half a century earlier with his bronze David.

    We also shouldn't exclude Michelangelo's preoccupation with the male form - which is very internal and not transferable to a contemplation of Giorgione's motives for disguisng his Madonna in a manner that she may be described as a gypsy.

    I believe the key to explaining the depiction lies is describing the Renaissance fondness for ambiguity and dual meaning.

    Titian's 'Sacred and Profane Love' is a great example, the same woman painted twice - but the sacred version not merely a classical Venus, but a celestial Venus flanked by a Church in the background.

    In depicting the Tempesta female with a baby and presenting her in a maternal aspect, the key symbolic attributes for a depiction of Madonna are satisfied.

    I still don't get why this is 'unimaginable'. It might have been at various times and to different viewers, but Giorgione seems content to load the picture with enough to give us sufficient detail whilt not being outrageously candid with his meaning.

    As it was a private commission, this complexity would have been welcomed by the patron.

    The answer is in the ambiguity!

  2. H:

    First, in one of Steinberg's quotes above he claimed that the 1514 Christ was the culmination of over two centuries of development of which Donatello was certainly a part. We could also mention the nude Adam and Eve of VanEyk and Masaccio.

    Moreover, David is one thing and so are Adam and Eve, But Christ and Mary are another thing. Steinberg's focus was exclusively on the depictions of the nude Christ both as an infant and as Resurrected.

    Scholars believe that the nude Madonna in the Tempest is unimaginable because there are no other examples. They can't see the Madonna in the Tempest because they have no precedents. If you are not looking for something, very often you will not see it.

    To a certain extent you are correct about ambiguity but mpst of the works that Michel describes in Venetian homes are not ambiguous. Very often the ambiguity comes in when we have lost the ability to understand the subject. For example, I believe you are correct to say that there is only one woman in the "Sacred and Profane Love." But I believe Titian's woman is Mary Magdalen before and after her conversion. After her conversion she is depicted in the nude holding her jar of ointment. Does Venus ever hold a jar?

    In any case I saw this painting at the Borghese Gallery and it is spectacular whether religious or otherwise.

    Thanks for the comment.


  3. Hi Frank - from what I've read about that Titian work, the small jar is actually a receptacle for a candle holding a flame - meant to represent the eternal flame of love.