Since 2010 I have been using this site to discuss my interpretations of famous Renaissance paintings including 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"; Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione", and Michelangelo's"Doni Tondo." The full papers can now be found at

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Giorgione: Sacred Art Guides

Chartres: South Rose Window with evangelists on shoulders of prophets to represent dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants.

Two great 19th century writers, Emile Male and Anna Jameson, were invaluable resources for me in my work on the Tempest. One was a professional French historian and the other was an English amateur but together they did more than anyone else to preserve the great works of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance from neglect and even destruction.

Emile Male was one of those great 19th century scholars whose work is often overlooked today not only by the general public but even by art historians. His three volumes on the religious art of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries were beautifully re-printed by Princeton University Press in 1986. The second volume in the series, Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century, is probably best known since it is still available in paperback as “The Gothic Image.”

Male was a pioneer in rediscovering the iconography of the artwork of the Gothic cathedrals after the ignorance of the Enlightenment, and the destruction of the French Revolution. In true 19th century fashion his work was based on innumerable visits to sites throughout France and Europe, but also on exhaustive examination of the texts that formed the basis for the conceptions of the artists.

When I looked for an explanation of the broken columns in Giorgione’s Tempest I recalled something I had read years before in “The Gothic Image.” Writing about the depictions of the Flight into Egypt in the Gothic cathedrals, Male wrote,

“Of all these legends, they scarcely used any other than the Fall of Idols….

Many medieval writers told that when Jesus entered the temple of Sotinen, called Hermopolis by others, he caused the idols to fall, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: “Behold the Lord will ascend upon a swift cloud and will enter into Egypt. And the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence”…When the governor of the town, Affrodosius, heard of the miracle, he went to the temple; when he saw that all the statues were broken, he worshiped Jesus….

The Church adopted the story of the Fall of the Idols, which like many apocryphal legends, grew out of a desire to justify a prophetic text, and it authorized the artists to represent it….The thirteenth century gave an abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend. There are neither town, temple nor priests…two statues falling from their pedestals and breaking in two suffice to recall the miracle.”
Emile Male: Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1986. Pp. 220-221.

Could this be the reason why Giorgione used two broken columns?

Anna Jameson seems like a character out of Jane Austen. She was born into a respectable middle class family but her father never had much to give her except an education, and after a bad marriage, she turned to writing about art to support herself.

Modern scholars don’t like to use an amateur like Mrs. Jameson but she was an eyewitness of an incredible array of art before the beginning of the art-historical era. It is likely that many of the paintings she saw were subsequently ruined, dispersed, or lost.

Like Emile Male she also had a great familiarity with the biblical stories and apocryphal legends that formed the basis for most of the great art of the Renaissance. When I saw that the young man in the Tempest must be St. Joseph, I turned to Mrs. Jameson for help. Here’s what she wrote.

"In German pictures, Joseph is not only old, but appears almost in a state of dotage, like a lean, wrinkled mendicant, with a bald head, a white beard, a feeble frame, and a sleepy or stupid countenance. Then again, the later Italian painters have erred as much on the other side; for I have seen pictures in which St. Joseph is not only a young man not more than thirty, but bears a strong resemblance to the received heads of our Saviour." Mrs. Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885. pp. 271-2.

Later when I realized that Giorgione might have depicted the Holy Family in the lost painting copied by David Teniers and mis-identified as “The Discovery of Paris,” I again found the answer in Mrs. Jameson’s account of the Encounter with the Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.

Mrs. Jameson noted that the encounter with the robbers has been “seldom treated” as an artistic subject but did indicate that she had seen two representations.

“One is a fresco by Giovanni di San Giovanni, which, having been cut from the wall of some suppressed convent, is now in the academy at Florence. The other is a composition by Zuccaro.”

In a later edition she provided a sketch of the Zuccaro “Encounter,” which shows Joseph assisting the Madonna down from the Ass at the behest of the armed robber. Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885. pp. 361-362.

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

Monday, May 23, 2011

Giorgione and Gerard David

Gerard David (c. 1460-1523): The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c. 1510, oil on panel. National Gallery, Washington.

In the Tempest even though Giorgione created a unique and audacious version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," the subject itself was an extremely common one at the time. Many Venetian homes contained versions of this episode on the flight into Egypt derived from popular apocryphal stories. Most of these were done in the shops of Netherlandish masters like Memlinc and Gerard David. Copies even found their way to the New World.

David's version now in the National Gallery is described as one of his "lovliest and most peaceful" creations. Indeed, it is so lovely that reproductions can still be found featured today in Catholic image sales catalogs. For years my wife and I had one of these reproductions hanging in our hallway without even realizing what it was.

In this version done about the same time as the Tempest, David puts the Madonna and Child in the center sitting on a rocky formation that must be the remains of the Egyptian idols and temple that crumbled on the entrance of the child into Egypt. The Madonna wears her traditional blue and red. The Child holds a bunch of grapes symbolic of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Joseph is in the background using his staff to get fruit from a tree. David dispenses with the bending palm of legend and Joseph does not appear to be very old. His pilgrim's basket is at the feet of the Madonna. The Ass is off to the left.

In this version the Madonna is not nursing as she is in the Tempest. In other versions in New York's Metropolitan Museum and in the Prado, David depicts her in the act of nursing.

Gerard David, "Rest on the Flight into Egypt." Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York.

Here the Madonna nurses in the foreground with the actual flight in the background.

Gerard David, "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," Prado.

In this version we can see a city in the background just as in Giorgione's Tempest.

In her excellent but unfortunately unpublished 1975 PhD dissertation Sheila Schwartz noted the popularity of the subject of the Rest.

This composition provided the basis for a new type of Rest—the ‘background’ or ‘fringe’ Rest, where an image of the Virgin and Child in a landscape is transformed into a Rest on the Flight by the addition of Joseph in the middle or far distance, performing his by-now traditional duties of plucking the fruit, getting the water, or even tending the donkey….this composition is most often used by Memlinc’s successor at Bruges, Gerard David…. In David’s many versions of the Rest (and in the shop replicas) the Virgin can be full-, three-quarter, or half-length, and the subject indicated either by Joseph alone or by the whole Flight into Egypt in the background. The frequency of this composition suggests that the David shop was turning out these small Rests (they average ca. 35 x 50cm.) to satisfy a market demand for private devotional images. (p. 121)

Sheila Schwartz, The Iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, New York University, Ph. D., 1975

Friday, May 13, 2011

Giorgione's Tempest: A Renaissance Mystery Solved?

In the Fall of 2005 while preparing for a trip to Venice I looked into Edward Hutton’s nearly century old travel book, “Venice and Venetia,” and saw a reproduction of Giorgione’s “Tempest” for the first time. I had been a fan of Hutton’s for some years but was surprised to see his effusive praise for Giorgione—someone I had never heard of. Even though Hutton hardly ventured a guess at the subject of the painting, I had an intuition that I was looking at the Holy Family in a landscape.

I began to look into the matter and soon discovered that despite many different interpretations, there was no agreement on the subject of the “Tempest.” Even though I was still involved very heavily in my financial planning practice, I put together a little essay and naively sent it off to the sponsors of the ground-breaking 2004 Giorgione exhibition, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Accademia in Venice. I never heard from the latter but a staff member of the KHM had the courtesy to reply even though she insisted that she could never agree that the painting represented a sacred subject. She did, however, offer a number of objections that forced me to look deeper.

At about the same time the Wall Street Journal had begun to publish a Saturday edition that included a weekly art column entitled “Masterpiece.” Thinking it would be an appropriate venue, I sent the paper to them and a few months later, they decided to print a shortened version.

Below, on the 5th anniversary of its publication, find my “Tempest” interpretation as it appeared in the WSJ on May 13, 2006 entitled, “A Renaissance Mystery Solved?” The most recent version can be found on my website.

"Giorgione "La Tempesta": A Renaissance Mystery Solved?"

No great work of art has mystified art historians and critics more than Giorgione’s “Tempesta,” one of a handful of paintings definitively attributed to the Venetian Renaissance master. After his untimely death in 1510 of the plague at about the age of 30, most of his paintings were either lost or completed by others, especially his colleague, Titian.

Although little is known of his life, Giorgione was apparently apprenticed to the great Giovanni Bellini at the outset of his career, and certainly was a major influence on Titian. In June the National Gallery in Washington will be hosting a Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition.

While the “Tempesta” is universally admired as a pioneering work of landscape art because of its dramatic use of color and shadow, art historians have not been able to agree on the subject matter of this masterpiece of the High Renaissance. More than the painting itself, it was the mystery about its subject matter that first attracted me to it, and which prompted a trip to Venice last year.

This relatively small painting (82x73cm.) currently hangs in the Accademia in Venice. Over a hundred years ago my favorite travel author, Edward Hutton, described it as “a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towering country town.” The town is visible in the background and above it, clouds and a flash of lightning indicate that a storm is raging. In the middle distance, separated from the town by a bridge, are overgrown ruins and two broken columns. In a glade in the foreground, a nude woman nursing an infant sits on the right, while on the left, a young man dressed in contemporary Venetian clothing holds a long staff.

Although never named by Giorgione himself, the painting is usually called “La Tempesta” because of the storm. Sometimes it is called “The Soldier and the Gypsy,” even though critics have pointed out that the man is not a soldier and the nude woman is not a gypsy.

One tends to accept works of art at face value, particularly when they are as famous as this one. But one question struck me: Why is the woman nude? Other than a white cloth draped around her shoulder, there is no sign of any clothing. After all, it isn’t necessary for a woman to completely undress to nurse a baby. I believe that if the nursing woman were clothed, the subject would be immediately recognizable for what it is: a “Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.”

The “Flight” is a common subject in the history of art. It illustrates a passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew in which Jesus, Mary and Joseph, escaping from the deadly designs of King Herod, find an idyllic rest stop upon arrival in Egypt. Giorgione’s painting has all the elements common to a “Flight” image: Mary holding or nursing the baby Jesus; Joseph standing off to the side or in the background; a town in the distance; and ruins.

Why ruins? Emile Male, the great French art historian, pointed out that it was common for medieval artists to draw on the legend of the “Fall of Idols” when painting the “Flight.” According to it, when the infant Jesus entered Egypt, all the idols crumbled. Artists commonly used broken columns to represent this episode.

Giorgione was a master of artistic narrative. In this painting the Holy Family has left Judea and its dangers, symbolized by the storm, behind. They have crossed the bridge and stream representing the border between Judea and Egypt. They have entered Egypt and the idols, symbolized by the broken columns, lie broken behind them. We notice that the tempest is raging in the distance. The glade in which they rest is serene. Now they rest in safety.

It is only the depiction of the man and the woman that has deterred experts from recognizing this painting as the ”Flight into Egypt.” Joseph is usually portrayed as an old man by Medieval artists. Nevertheless, in the 15th century he began to be depicted as a young, virile carpenter. In Raphael’s depiction of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, the ”Sposalizio,” Joseph appears to be about the same age as Giorgione’s man. Italians especially found it unseemly to show Mary being married to an old man.

But why the nude Madonna? The explanation lies in the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine of which every Venetian would have been aware. Simply put it was the belief that Mary from the first moment of her existence had been created free from the stain of original sin which every other descendant of Adam and Eve had inherited.

The concept of Mary’s Immaculate Conception had been vigorously debated by theologians during the previous 250 years. The great advocates of the doctrine were the Franciscans; whose center in Venice, the “Frari” became a virtual shrine to the Immaculate Conception. Special impetus to the belief had been given by Pope Sixtus IV, himself a Franciscan, in 1476 when he added the feast of the Conception to the liturgy of the entire Western Church.

Theologians called Mary the new or second Eve. Artists had difficulty in expressing this increasingly popular doctrine. By Giorgione’s time they had not yet come up with the now familiar image of the “Woman Clothed with the Sun” from the Book of Revelation. Giorgione had the unprecedented audacity to portray a nude Madonna as Eve would have appeared in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

Nothing is in Giorgione’s painting by accident. The white cloth on which the Madonna sits is a symbol of the winding sheet or burial cloth of Christ. Franciscans regarded Mary as the altar on which the Eucharist rested. The altar was always covered with a white cloth.

Finally, in front of the Madonna a scraggly bush rises out of bare rock. Artists frequently used plants or flowers symbolically to identify characters. From the way it is growing, the plant could be a member of the nightshade family, a common plant found in Italy at the time. The most well known form of nightshade is the aptly named “belladonna.” This plant is associated with witchcraft and the Devil. Is that why the plant below the heel of the Woman has withered and died?

Francis P. DeStefano


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Giorgione Tempest: Adam and Eve?

In researching my interpretation of the Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” no book has been of greater assistance than “Giorgione’s Tempest,” written by Salvatore Settis in 1990. In addition to providing an in depth analysis of practically every previous interpretation, Professor Settis also laid down a series of iconographical ground rules that should be used in any interpretation.

For example, in his introduction he noted: “Interpreting the Tempest means providing “a well documented explanation for each feature, and fitting all together into one persuasive framework.”(2)

Indeed, he came very close to identifying the subject of Giorgione’s most famous painting. At least he did see that the painting had a “sacred subject” but instead of seeing the Woman as the new or second Eve, he identified her as the original Eve nursing her first-born son, Cain. The Man in the painting is Adam in the guise of a Venetian aristocrat accompanying his wife after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Even though his book is a must for anyone interested in Giorgione, his ingenious and painstaking interpretation came under serious criticism and was accepted by virtually no one. He argued that the famous painting must be treated like a puzzle and that any interpretation must be sure that all pieces fit and fit easily without being squeezed into position.

Unfortunately, he had to violate his own maxim. The major pieces of the puzzle are the Man, the Woman and Child, the broken columns, the plant in the foreground, and the storm and city in the background.

For Settis, the Man is Adam after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The nude Woman is Eve nursing the "newborn" Cain. The broken columns are a symbol of death which has entered the world as a result of sin. The plant is there to cover Eve’s nakedness, although obviously doing a very poor job. The city in the background is the lost Paradise forever barred to the Man and Woman who are doomed to a life of toil and hardship. The storm and lightning represent the wrath of God not only on the erring couple but also on what he called a serpent slithering into the rock beneath the heel of the woman.

Here are his words concerning the Man and the Woman:

“Adam leans, not on the short-handled spade of his Bergamo counterpart, but on a singularly long staff: various interpreters have agreed that this could be a soldier’s lance, a traveler’s wand or simply a generic tool. The allusion to the manual labor prescribed in the biblical text is underplayed, almost fleeting, for this Adam is an elegant Venetian…The medieval tradition portraying Adam at work…has evolved to show Adam at rest, with Eve as mother at his side….”(113)

“The handsome clothes belong to a Venetian gentleman, not to a peasant or a fisherman, and are appropriate with the attenuated image of the tool: in the hands of this meditative, or resting, figure the staff must allude to manual labour. Neither spade nor hoe, it has a point at one end but so hidden in the grass that it is only visible on a close and careful examination.”(114)

. “Eve is seated opposite him a white wrap that barely covers her. The baby in her lap and her own nakedness indicate recent childbirth, a familiar schema in earlier art. The slender bush that grows out in front of her cannot be a simple decoration in this painting of such deliberate construction: its compositional importance has already been noted by other interpreters…who have tried in vain to establish its meaning.”

In chapter 4 Settis provided a number of images of Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It was an impressive feat but in every image the Man and the Woman do not exhibit the disparity of clothed and unclothed figures found in the Tempest.

For example, in Amadeo’s, Bergamo bas-relief, both Adam and Eve are nude, just as they are in Jacopo della Quercia’s relief in St Petronio in Bologna. In all the other images it is the same. Either Adam and Eve are both nude, or both clothed.

The Adam in these images is always a rustic laborer, and not the poised Venetian aristocrat of Giorgione’s painting. This development is one of the main props for the “hidden subject” thesis proposed by Settis. Moreover, the Adam in these images is usually the central or focal point, but in the Tempest the Man directs the viewer’s attention to the Woman and Child.

The Woman’s nudity is only explained as a sign of “recent childbirth,” but the child in the Tempest is obviously almost a year old. He holds himself up nicely while nursing. Settis did not identify the plant in the Tempest, but he did argue that it is there to cover the Woman’s nakedness. He also argued that the dead root beneath the woman’s heel was not part of the plant but the “serpent” slithering into the rock fleeing God’s wrath.

Also, like some others, Settis argued that the lightning bolt in the background was a symbolic representation of God, and that it and the storm were hovering over the couple forever banished from Paradise. The gates of Paradise have forever been closed to them and the broken columns are symbolic of death. Yet according to the rules of perspective the storm and lightning bolt are miles in the distance. Moreover, in the foreground the couple is bathed in sunlight. They show no trace of fear, anxiety, or loss.

Speaking of Paradise, why would one of the buildings show an emblematic representation of Padua’s Carrara family?

Despite his thesis there is much in this work by Professor Settis that could support an interpretation of the "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt." See below.

“it is usually the case that we instantly recognize a picture of a woman and child as Mary and Jesus….We recognize Virgin and Child above all by means of the many different images in our memory and form, as it were, a single type. It is visual experience itself, repeated over and over again, but always receptive, that tells us the title of the picture.” (82)

“But that memory can be lost; and when this happens an image that was created for a public that could understand it becomes incomprehensible to observers who are alien to that particular figurative culture. This can give rise to absurd and fantastic interpretations.” (82)

“In choosing a painting as a vehicle for expressing personal feelings, ‘inventiveness’ must have been severely hampered by the inescapable weight of authority represented by previous iconographic tradition. The transformation of an ‘interior subject’ into something less comprehensible entailed searching out an unusual iconography, and also perhaps attenuating its meaning by eliminating or toning down its essential features.” (129)

“Even more complex and difficult was the task of fitting a religious theme into this ‘closed’ and private use of art….But to a painter in the time of Palma il Vecchio and Giorgione, a Christian subject would have had a different weight….The codification of iconography for religious subjects must have been that much more forceful for being accepted as serving the true Christian faith. Equally, it was that more difficult to dare to choose a Christian theme as a way of expressing personal thoughts.” (129/130)

Salvatore Settis, Giorgione’s Tempest, Interpreting the Hidden Subject, Chicago, 1990. Page references are in parentheses.

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano