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, February 6, 2011

Giorgione and Correggio

Correggio: Rest on the Flight into Egypt with St. Francis.

My interpretation of the Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” explained the “nudity” of the Woman as Giorgione’s way of depicting Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Was there something going on at the time that would conflate the iconography of the “Rest” with that of the “Immaculate Conception”?

In discussing the famed Grimani Breviary last week I wondered if it was more than a coincidence that the last two images in that extraordinary collection of images should be “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and the “Immaculate Conception.”

The editor of the Levenger press modern facsimile edition noted in his introduction the Franciscan influence in the whole collection. Is there any other evidence that the Rest and the Immaculate Conception were somehow linked in Franciscan spirituality?

In 1975 Sheila Schwartz’s doctoral dissertation, “The Iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” was the first and maybe the only full study of the subject. It was a brilliant, exhaustive study, done at NYU under the guidance of Colin Eisler. Unfortunately, it was never published and Dr. Schwartz subsequently went on to other things.

Nevertheless, she was also struck by the incongruity of the “Rest” iconography and the “Immaculate Conception” Of a work by Correggio, she wrote,

“With Correggio’s “Rest on the Flight with St. Francis…of ca. 1516-18, painted for the Church of San Francisco at Correggio, we have the first documented altarpiece with the “Rest” as its subject.” p. 140.

But she was puzzled by its placement in a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.

“ why should Munari (or anyone else) have commissioned an altarpiece of the “Rest on the Flight” for a Chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception? There was never a theological association made between the two themes and the traditional relationship between chapel dedication and altarpiece is not easily ignored. It seems most likely that Correggio’s “Rest” was painted for another part of San Francesco and only later moved to the Cappella della Concezione, perhaps during the sixteenth-century alterations of the Church or the restoration of the Chapel in 1572.” pp. 142-143.

Almost 20 years later David Ekserdjian referred to Schwartz’s discussion of the Munari chapel and tried to offer another solution.

“There remains the problem of whether there is any way in which the Immaculate Conception can be regarded as logically illustrated by the Rest…”

“It is as well to admit that I have no theological justification to put forward to explain why a Rest should serve as an illustration of the Immaculate Conception, but there are grounds for at least considering the possibility. The Immaculate Conception was a distinctively Franciscan iconography at this time, and there is no reason why San Francesco should not have a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. What is more, the iconography of the Immaculate Conception was far from fixed at this time.”

David Ekserdjian, “Correggio”. Yale, 1997. pp. 70-75

Ekserdjian did not precisely date this painting but gave it to Correggio’s “early period.” Schwartz put it between 1516 and 1518. Correggio, Cardinal Grimani, and Giorgione were contemporaries. Again, at this time was there something in Franciscan spirituality that linked the iconography of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” with the “Immaculate Conception”?

Perhaps someday a student will discover a text that provides such a link. For now, I would like to hazard a guess.

The twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) begins with “a great sign” that appeared in heaven. It was the image of “a woman, adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown.” The woman was pregnant and gave birth to a son “who was to rule all the nations.” Both mother and child were threatened by the “dragon” but the son “was taken straight up to God and to his throne, ‘while the woman escaped into the desert, where God had made a place of safety ready…”

As David Ekserdjian noted the iconography of the “Immaculate Conception” was far from fixed at the time of Giorgione but the image of the “woman, clothed with the sun” was becoming identified with Mary and beginning to be used in depictions of her “Immaculate Conception.” The Grimani Breviary contained such an image.

In the Book of Revelation the Woman flees into the desert where she is pursued and threatened by the dragon who has been cast down to earth. We are told “she was given a huge pair of eagle’s wings to fly away from the serpent into the desert, to the place where she was to be looked after for a year and twice a year and half a year.”

Despite some obvious discrepancies, there is enough imagery in the Book of Revelation to provide a source for linking the “Immaculate Conception” with the flight of the Holy Family into the Egyptian desert.

Here is another depiction by Correggio of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," sometimes called the "Madonna della Scodella" from the little dish she holds in her hand.


  1. Some very interesting links Frank. I am not sure how much it adds to what we know about Giorgione but it is fascinating to consider the evolution of these iconographical features.

    One thing I would be loathe to assume was that Renaissance artists and scholars were forging ahead with new iconographical treatments of subjects from scripture. So much of what was inherited by Renaissance artists evolved from Medieval sources - It would really be interesting to know of how The Rest/St Francis and the Immaculate Conception were rendered in illuminated manuscripts.

    Also that revelations quote reminded me of the famous William Blake painting, "The Red Dragon and the woman clothed with the sun" - have you seen it?


  2. It is interesting that "Rest on the Flight" was placed in a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. I don't know if this is a precise connection to the "woman clothed with the sun" argument, but given the context of your post, it is interesting to observe that Correggio's "Rest on the Flight into Egypt with St. Francis" is clothed in yellow, sun-like drapery!

  3. H:

    Thanks for the comment. You're right that renaissance artists built on medieval sources but I believe that the Immaculate Conception is an exception to the rule. It is such a difficult subject to depict. Also, the debate about the doctrine only reached a critical level in the latter half of the 15th century.

    I was not familiar with Blake's apocalyptic images. They look crude to me. I prefer Giorgione's vision.


    Thanks for pointing out Madonna's drapery in the Correggio. I shouldn't have overlooked it given my insistence on the importance of colors. I think you have made a discovery of your own here since I have not seen it mentioned before. I'll pay more attention to Madonna's wardrobe in the future.


  4. @Frank - The Immaculate Conception was a hot topic *long* before the 14thC. It seems even in Theology, like with Art, those writing in the 15th and 16th Centuries are always paid more attention for some reason, though they borrowed much from previous scholarship. There is a great summary of this by Franciscan Theologian Friar Carlo Balic:

    The Immaculate Conception: Mediaeval Contriversy up to the Death of Scotus

    Not light reading by any means, but definitely very interesting from an historical perspective.


  5. H:

    It's true that the Immaculate Conception debate was vigorous in the 13th century but it seemed to quiet down in the 14th century. The doctrine did not make its way into art until the late 15th century.

    Thanks for the link to the article on the IC. I will look into it. Also,
    because of your comment I have decided to do a post tomorrow on Emile Male's discussion of the Madonna in art.