Fra Bartolomeo, "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," 1499, Borghese Gallery.
Baccio della Porta, a noted Florentine artist, had been so moved by the death of Savonarola that he gave up his painting career and entered the Dominican order himself. He was given the name Fra Bartolomeo. In 1504 his superiors convinced him to take up his brushes again and become a kind of official Dominican artist in residence.
A little while later the young Raphael began his sojourn in Florence and the two unlikely personalities became friends and associates. It is generally believed that Raphael helped Fra Bartolomeo in developing his craft, but if we look at the latter’s 1499 version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" now in the Borghese Gallery, we can see that Raphael could just as well have learned from the friar.
In 1508 Fra Bartolomeo was sent to Venice to do some work for the Dominican house on the isle of Murano. It would have been hard for him not to have become acquainted with the work of Giorgione, another young genius. Besides his great reputation Giorgione had just completed his spectacular frescoes on the façade of the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi.
At the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in Venice in 2010, Alessio Assonitis presented a paper entitled “Fra Bartolomeo and San Pietro Martire at Murano.” He noted the following:
"As a friar-painter…Fra Bartolomeo was exempt from conventional pastoral duties.… His travels to the other two major centers of Italian painting were nothing but artistic sabbaticals which consented the friar to keep up-to-date with recent artistic developments....
Indeed, following his brief sojourn in Venice, Fra Bartolomeo was able to integrate elements of Bellini and Giorgione’s pictorial lexicon soberly and harmoniously….he also showed no reservations about borrowing compositional elements from Venetian artists like Carpaccio, Bellini, Giorgione and Titian."
If we look again at Fra Bartolomeo’s version of the “Rest” in the Borghese Gallery and compare it with another version done after the visit to Venice we will see a striking change.
The Borghese painting was done around 1499 and while it is often called an “Adoration” or a “Holy Family,” it is really a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” There are the three figures in a landscape so characteristic of “Rest” images, as well as the monumental ruins representative of the fall of the Egyptian idols as the Infant Christ entered Egypt. Artists sometimes just used rocks and rubble to depict the destruction of the idols, but Fra Bartolomeo liked to emphasize the ruins.
I would like to draw attention, however, to the figure of Joseph whose prominent position in the foreground represents his increased importance in Renaissance devotion. He is no longer a small figure off to the side or in the background. He is still portrayed as a very old man with a gray beard.
Ten years later, after the trip to Venice, Fra Bartolomeo did another version of the Rest that is now at the Getty in Los Angeles. This painting depicts the encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on the return from Egypt. Now there are four figures in the landscape but Fra Bartolomeo still features the ruins. However, Joseph now appears to be much younger. The beard is gone and he is middle-aged. He is certainly physically capable of protecting his Family.
In my paper on Giorgione’s Tempest” I interpreted his most famous painting as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” I argued that the young man in the painting is St. Joseph.
In the paper I also discussed an earlier Giorgione painting which has been mistakenly called “The Discovery of Paris.” This lost Giorgione only exists in 17th century copies but it is taken almost literally from an apocryphal account of the encounter of the Holy Family with robbers on the Flight into Egypt. In that early work Giorgione depicted Joseph as a very old graybeard. In the “Tempest,” done at the end of his short career, Giorgione chose to portray Joseph as a youthful, virile Venetian patrician.
What was going on in Venice at the beginning of the 16th century? Had artists finally caught up with the demands of religious reformers like Jean Gerson? In a study of Gerson, Brian Patrick McGuire noted that in the early 15th century the famed Chancellor of the University of Paris had called for a different artistic approach to Joseph.
"The chancellor imagined Joseph as a young man, full of energy and potency, able to take care of his wife and son by hard work, and not the broken-down, tired figure of popular imagination…."
"Gerson wanted a man who was virile and chaste, loving and affectionate, happy and fulfilled in his vocation….Such themes are expressed in greatest detail in Gerson’s Considerations on Saint Joseph, written between August and late September 1413. The text takes up more than thirty pages in the Glorieux edition and provides the basis for his later poem, the Josephina."
Brian Patrick McGuire, “Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation,” Penn State, 2005. Pp. 236-7.
Girolamo Savonarola, another reformer interested in naturalistic depictions of sacred art, might have also played a role in this new approach to Joseph. In the paper mentioned above Alessio Assonitis referred to the work of scholars on Savonarolan influence in Venice.
"Tafuri and Scapecchi have pointed out how certain religious circles in Venice had favorably accepted the Frate’s reformational program; Leathers Kuntz went so far to claim that Savonarola’s sermons had reinvigorated the reformational zeal of the Venetian nobility and popolani….Precisely due to the Serenissima’s relative tolerance, many of Savonarola’s works were published in Venice. Quite frequent were communications between Savonarolans and Venetian presses…."
Whatever the reason, both Giorgione and Fra Bartolomeo changed their approach to St. Joseph in the first decade of the 16th century. In the next decade Paris Bordone and Lorenzo Lotto would also paint a young, virile Joseph in depictions of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine.
Francis P. DeStefano
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".