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, June 25, 2011

Giorgione: "Saturn Exiled" or "Man of Sorrows"

"Saturn Exiled" or "Man of Sorrows" National Gallery, London.

In his monumental 2009 study of Giorgione*, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo began his discussion of the individual paintings with a work that is not usually given to the master from Castelfranco.
In a clearing, a figure with a melancholy air, who is dressed in dark cloth save his showy yellow cloak, sits on a throne covered with an oriental rug, surrounded by books varying in size and sealed with metal clasps. Standing before him is a young boy wearing a heavy grey garment with a fur collar; he is staring straight ahead as if he were waiting for something. Behind him a servant kneels as he holds out a bowl full of flowers and leaves; he has taken off his hat as a sign of respect…On the first step of the throne a lute player, wearing tights and a pleated shirt, hints at a chord while staring in the direction of the viewer.(120)
Pozzolo believed that this medium-sized panel (59x 48 cm), now at the National Gallery in London, “might be the first of Zorzi’s works to have been handed down to us." He called it a “bizarre” painting and pointed out the difficulties surrounding it.
The use of the conditional concerns every single aspect of it—the attribution, the date, the subject—because it is a work unlike any other from that time…” 
It was purchased by the National Gallery in London in 1885: from that moment on its attribution has bounced back and forth between the master…and his workshop or circle…Similarly, much uncertainty has always surrounded its dating (ranging from the early 1490s to around 1550) , and the subject it is supposed to represent. (120)
He noted that some have believed the main figure is David or Solomon, while others have argued for Jason or Zeus, or even an indistinct “Poet.” Then, Pozzolo himself went out on a limb and made an astounding assertion.
But the main figure is none other than Saturn, the god who devoured his own children, was castrated and denounced by Zeus, represented here in decline and exile in a hortus conclusus inside which human beings and animals live together in peace, all within the bounds of a “virtuous “laurel shrub….
Enrico dal Pozzolo is one of the world’s foremost Giorgione authorities and I have no problem agreeing with him that this work could be an early Giorgione. His interpretation, however, leaves much to be desired. He himself admits that even on those rare occasions when painters depicted Saturn, he was never shown as in this painting.

It seems much more likely to me that this painting is a version of the “Man of Sorrows” in a landscape filled with iconographical elements that Venetian artists like Giorgione loved to employ.

He has the same sorrowful visage of the “Man of Sorrows,” and looks out at the viewer in the same way that so many others do. He wears a royal golden robe and sits on a throne placed upon what could easily be the steps of an altar.

Instead of waiting to be devoured the young men are in postures of humility and adoration. I cannot identify all the iconographical elements in the painting at this time but the peacock is usually a sign of incorruptibility or immortality, and the leopard a sign of sin. In the Giorgionesque rocky outcrop someone appears to be kneeling in contemplation.**

A recent visit to MOBIA, the Museum of Biblical Art, in New York City led me to wonder if Giorgione had ever depicted the “Man of Sorrows.” The title of the Museum’s most recent exhibition, “Passion in Venice, Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese,” might have thrown some visitors off for the exhibition was given over almost entirely to images of the suffering Christ, a popular subject in the 15th and 16th centuries, usually called the “Man of Sorrows.”

MOBIA is a unique museum located on New York’s West Side at 61st St. and Broadway, right off of heavily trafficked Columbus Circle. MOBIA has no permanent collection of its own. Originally created by the American Bible society a little over a decade ago, it is now an independent entity that puts on exhibitions inspired by Biblical themes. These exhibitions are put on in one large exhibition room on the second floor of the American Bible Society headquarters.

Past shows have featured American stained glass, American folk art, Medieval Ethiopian art, and a Rouault retrospective. “Passion in Venice” appears to have been MOBIA’s most ambitious venture yet. Most past exhibitions have been put together by other institutions but this time MOBIA mounted its own, a blend of loans from other museums as well as from private owners. Moreover, the exhibition dealt with a single subject, “Christ as Man of Sorrows.”
Its origins rooted in Byzantium, the figure entered Venetian art in the late Middle Ages after which it flourished locally for centuries, eventually acquiring its own name in dialect, Cristo Passo.

The first thing to note about the subject was its ubiquity. “Cristo Passo” was obviously popular in Venice but the exhibition had works from all over Europe. Moreover, the image appeared in all different types of media, “Illuminated manuscripts, paintings, prints, sculpture, and liturgical objects." There was even a striking polychrome paper mache relief based on a Donatello pictured here.

To go through the exhibition was to realize that Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian were just the tip of the iceberg working in Renaissance Venice and its environs to satisfy the enormous public and private demand for devotional images.

Durer: Man of Sorrows

The next thing that struck me was that all the images, despite their obvious differences, were basically the same. It was as if all these artists, the great and the not so great, all used the same model, especially when it came to the head of Christ. Even without his cruciform halo, he is easily recognized. He is a man who has suffered, who has been beaten and humiliated, and whose head slumps to one side, usually his right. His beard is short and pointed albeit ragged. Artists could not depart far from this model.

In addition to the "Saturn Exiled" that Dr. Pozzolo placed at the very beginning of Giorgione's career, the famous “Christ Carrying the Cross” that I discussed in a previous post could also be a depiction of the "Man of Sorrows." Vasari claimed that this painting had miraculous healing powers from the time it was first unveiled in the Scuola di San Rocco. Unfortunately, Vasari originally claimed that Giorgione did the painting, but in his second edition he gave it to Titian. Since that time scholars have not been able to resolve the question of attribution.

Whether by Giorgione or Titian, the face of Christ that looks out at the viewer, certainly seems derived from the standard image of the “Man of Sorrows.”

What was the reason for the popularity of the image of the “Man of Sorrows?” It was obviously based on the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter 8 after recording a number of the miracles of Jesus, Matthew echoed the words of Isaiah:“He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Matthew drew from the famous account in Isaiah 53 of the suffering servant:
A thing despised and rejected by men,a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering…And yet ours were the sufferings he bore,
Ours the sufferings he carried…Yet he was pierced through for our faults,Crushed for our sins.On him lies a punishment that brings us peace,And through his wounds we were healed.
The MOBIA exhibition demonstrated that every Venetian would have immediately recognized the figure in the painting in the National Gallery.


*Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo, “Giorgione”, Milan, 2009.

**Edit. 11/2/2013. Please notice the baldachino above the head of the Man in Giorgione's painting. It looks somewhat like an ornate lampshade. In a recent exchange with David Orme, an English friend and lover of Venice, he told me that he had seen similar fixtures still existing in Venice. Below is an image supplied by his friend, Albert Hickson.

It covers a Madonna and Child on the Rio Ognisanti near San Trovaso. Many thanks, David and Albert.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Giorgione: Rona Goffen's Venetian Eyes

Giorgione"s Tempest or "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."

I owe a great debt to the late Rona Goffen. When I originally saw the nudity of the woman in the Tempest as Giorgione’s way of depicting the Immaculate Conception of Mary, I just assumed that the doctrine was important in Catholic Italy. However, it was only after a chance encounter with Goffen’s “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice”* that I came to realize just how important the Immaculate Conception was in Giorgione’s time.

Goffen wrote many books and articles on the Italian Renaissance but in my opinion this small volume was her best work. In her book, subtitled, “Bellini, Titian and the Franciscans,” she never discussed the Tempest but her discussion of the historical background of the controversial doctrine of the Immaculate Conception solidified my thoughts about Giorgione’s most famous painting. Moreover, she insisted that the art of the Venetian Renaissance could only be understood by attempting to see it through the eyes of contemporary Venetians.

In discussing the writings of prominent clerics like St. Bernardino of Siena, a patron saint of Venice, and Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, she pointed out the importance, but also the difficulty, of seeing things through their eyes.

In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nevertheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination. (79)

Seeing through Venetian eyes means understanding first of all the great importance of religion to the ordinary Venetian. Because of its many disputes with the Papacy Venice is sometimes regarded as a proto-Protestant state when in reality it was usually more Catholic than the Pope. Goffen understood that the Republic identified itself with the Madonna and her Immaculate Conception.

No Venetian--and no Venetian Franciscan--could have been unaware of the rich associations, both political and spiritual, of the Madonna in Venice, and indeed of the identification of the one with the other. After all, Venice, too, was apostrophized as a Virgin, always safe in the embrace of her beloved Evangelist St. Mark...(145).

This confluence of the sacred and the secular found its way into Venetian art.

And both Pesaro altarpieces embody that singular combination of sacred and civic elements that characterizes Venetian art, Venetian history, and Venetian piety, together with the very personal concerns and ambitions of the donors, concerns in themselves both spiritual and secular. In Venice the image of the Immaculate Conception combines the sacred and the secular in a very particular way. (136)

In her book Goffen concentrated her attention on the Frari, itself dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and on its incomparable altarpieces. The dust jacket of her book gives a good summary.

The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice encapsulates the history of Venetian Renaissance art as well as the histories of a patrician family, a religious order, and a city. The decoration of the Frari—notably commissioned by members of the Pesaro family—not only reflects their piety but their rivalry; in addition, it represents the particular concerns and the character of the Franciscan order and alludes to the relationship between church and state in Renaissance Venice. All this is embodied in the altarpieces pain ted for the Frari by two of the greatest masters of Venetian art—Giovanni Bellini and Titian.

In chapter 2 Goffen described the influence of Franciscan spirituality on Bellini’s famous triptych.

The Frari triptych was his fourth (and last) great commission of works painted for the Franciscan order or with a specifically Franciscan theme,...Bellini learned much about Franciscan sensibility and Franciscan spirituality. (54)

Titian: "Assunta", Frari, Venice. 1516

Chapter 3 deals with the “Assunta”, the painting that established Titian’s reputation. Although called the “Assunta”, the “theological and spiritual context is the triumph of the Immaculate Conception.” (74)

For Titian and his Franciscan patrons, there can be no doubt that "S. Maria Gloriosa" implied "S. Maria Immacolata"...Given the liturgical and theological assimilation of the Virgin's Immaculate Conception with her Assumption, it comes as no surprise that the visual imagery of the former was frequently based upon representations of the latter. (93)

Goffen found the source of Titian’s work in a sermon by Lorenzo Giustiniani, whose collected sermons had been printed in Venice in 1506.

There is another text, however, that can almost be read as the libretto for Titian's "opera," and that is the sermon for the feast of the Assumption by Lorenzo seems that the artist or his Franciscan patrons must indeed have been referring to Giustiniani's text, or something very like it.

Chapter 4 is devoted to Titian’s famed Pesaro altarpiece. Looking at that painting through Goffen’s eyes is a revelation.

This dual sacred and secular imagery, combining the representation of the Immaculate Conception with references to the Serenissima, is embodied also in Titian's Assunta of the high altar.

In her last chapter, “The Cult of the Madonna in Venice,” Goffen claimed the Bellini triptych, Titian’s Assunta and Pesaro altarpiece, and even his Pieta were representations of the Immaculate Conception.

Titian's Pieta must be considered, therefore, together with Bellini's triptych and Titian's own earlier works for the Frari. The four altarpieces (or the three alone, in situ) represent the dedication of the Frari to the Immaculate Conception in visual imagery that suggests the similarities of the Madonna, and hence her church, with the Most serene republic of Venice. (154)

In the year 1500 Venice was not only the greatest city on the Italian peninsula but it was also the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Europe. England, France and Spain were just emerging from a century of civil wars. Germany was hopelessly divided and the Emperor was little more than a penniless figurehead. The Papacy was still contending with threats to its authority from Roman warlords and Conciliarist bishops. Only Venice seemed to have the will and wherewithal to deal with the Ottoman Empire.

To read Rona Goffen’s book is to understand that in Giorgione’s time every Venetian would have believed that they owed it all to the Immaculata. Yet in history things can sometimes turn on a dime. Only a decade or two after Giorgione’s death radical Protestant reformers were destroying images of the Madonna all over Europe.

It is hard for moderns, even Catholics, to understand or sympathize with the beliefs of Giorgione and his patrons. Interestingly, in the 19th century as hordes of Catholic immigrants were pouring into the United States, the Catholic hierarchy dedicated the country to the Immaculate Conception. Today, most of the descendants of those immigrants have no idea of the meaning of the doctrine.

Rona Goffen's book is not just her best work: it is probably the single best guide to the Venetian Renaissance.

*Rona Goffen:"Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice". Yale, 1986.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Giorgione and Titian

Titian: "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt," Longleat, Marquesse of Bath collection, oil on wood, 46.3 x 61.5 cm, c. 1510.

This version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt received much notoriety a few years ago when it was stolen from the home of the Marquess of Bath in Wilshire. It was recovered in 2002 after a seven year search. At that time the painting was valued at 5 million pounds.

Lately I have been posting about various versions of the “Rest” by both Flemish and Italian artists to support my interpretation of Giorgione’s “Tempest” as a “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” Perhaps no version comes closer in time and location than this one usually given to the young Titian.

However, in “Giorgione, Catalog Raisonne” (Petersberg, 2007) Wolfgang Eller attributed the painting to Giorgione. I find it difficult to agree with and sometimes even follow Eller’s overly complex interpretations, but no one looks at a painting better than him or explores painterly technique better in matters of attribution.

In catalog entry # 27 Eller wrote,

“Due to its high quality, especially of the figures and a number of stylistic characteristics and also when compared to other secured works by Giorgione, this painting is attributable to him.”

Eller argued that the “composition of the picture, the execution, and the expression of the figures” pointed to Giorgione. The treatment of the landscape also pointed to Giorgione.

“Titian’s landscapes look like a striped background decoration added on to the scenario…The feeling of space and the merging of the figures into the landscape as experienced in Giorgione’s works is missing with Titian.”

Eller also argued that a comparison with other Giorgione works supports his view. For example, the seated position and the expression of the Madonna can be seen in other Giorgione women including the one in the “Tempest.” “A Madonna of such figural and facial style and detail does not appear in Titian’s early works.”

The figures of St. Joseph and the infant also appear closer to Giorgione’s work. Even the trees bear witness to Giorgione. “The tree looks like the trees Giorgione painted in the “Tempesta”, the “Sunset/Tramonto”, and in the Allendale “Adoration of the Shepherds”…

Finally, Eller concluded by expressing his surprise that the painting is still given to Titian. “In the exhibition in Venice in 1990, the painting was hung in such a manner that the differences to Titian’s painterly technique were easy to recognize.”

I must confess that questions of attribution are somewhat beyond me. I am usually content to defer to the experts. If this painting is by Giorgione, it certainly establishes his familiarity with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Even if it is by the young Titian, it demonstrates the popularity of the subject in Venice during the years when both he and Giorgione were establishing themselves as Venetian masters.

Actually, Vasari indicated that Titian painted more than one version of the Rest. Here are two excerpts from his life of Titian.

At the time he first began to paint like Giorgione, when he was no more than eighteen, Titian did the portrait of a friend of his, a gentleman of the Barberigo family…Meanwhile, after Giorgione himself had executed the principal fa├žade of the Fondaco de’ Tedeschi, through Barbarigo Titian was commissioned to paint some scenes for the same building, above the Merceria. After this he painted a large picture with life-size figures which is now in the hall of Andrea Loredano, who lives near San Marcuola. This picture shows Our Lady on the journey to Egypt in the middle of a great forest, and it contains several landscapes. These were beautifully executed because Titian had studied this kind of painting for many months, when he gave hospitality for that purpose to some German painters who specialized in depicting verdant scenes and landscapes. In the woods he painted a number of animals, drawn form life, which are truly convincing and realistic. Pp. 444-5.

In the house of the lawyer Francesco Sonica, a crony of Titian’s, there is a portrait by Titian of Francesco himself, along with a large picture of Our Lady on the journey into Egypt. The Blessed Virgin has dismounted from the ass and is seated on a rock by the wayside; near at hand is St. Joseph and the little St. John, who is offering the Infant Christ some flowers gathered by an angel from the branches of a tree, which is in a wood full of animals; and in the distance the ass is grazing. All this forms a most graceful picture, which has been placed by the gentleman I mentioned in the palace he has built near Santa Justina in Padua. P. 460.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, Volume I, a selection. Translated by George Bull, Penguin Books, London, 1987.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Giorgione and Giovanni Bellini

Despite obvious differences there are similarities between “St. Francis in the Desert,” painted by the young Giovanni Bellini around 1475, and the “Tempest” painted by Giorgione over 30 years later.

In both paintings there is a city in the background. In the “Tempest” the main characters have turned their backs on it, and in the “St. Francis,” the main figure is oblivious to its existence. In both cases there is a prominent iconographical element in the mid-ground. In the Bellini it is the donkey or Onager, the wild ass of the desert; in the Giorgione, it is the broken columns.

In the left foreground of the “Tempest” the young man acts as an interlocutor whose over the shoulder gaze at the woman and child draws the viewers attention to her. In the “St. Francis” the strangely bent laurel tree directs attention to St. Francis. Finally, in the foreground both painters have moved the main character away from the center and placed them on the right to emphasize that the whole narrative ends with them.

My wife and I took advantage of a lovely spring day to take the commuter line from Fairfield to New York City to view the recently restored “St. Francis in the Desert” at the famous Frick Museum on 5th Avenue and 70th Street right across from beautiful Central park.

The painting has long been a personal favorite of mine. I remember seeing it at the Frick more than 50 years ago when I first visited the Museum as a young college student. At that time I had little interest in Art, sacred or otherwise, but the building, Henry Clay Frick’s former home, and its great collection struck me with awe. Even then Bellini’s painting had pride of place in the magnificent living room where it was hung between two Titian portraits. Years later I discovered that this painting besides being one of Mr. Frick’s favorites was also the most popular with the general public.

Recently the Frick decided to collaborate with the conservation department of the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to clean the painting, and subject it to extensive scientific investigation. After the cleaning the painting was returned to the Frick and placed in an exhibition gallery right off the central courtyard or garden where it will stay throughout the summer.
Online computers allowed visitors to access the results of the investigation, that can also be found on the Frick’s own website. The most striking result was the revelation of the incredibly detailed underdrawing used by Bellini. The detail is almost Van Eyckian. Especially impressive is the drawing of the Saint’s head.

Moreover, what the investigation failed to find might be of even more significance. Some have long argued that the painting depicts St. Francis in the act of receiving the Stigmata (wounds of Christ) on his body during a retreat on the mountain of LaVerna. One of the objections to this interpretation has been that the traditional signs of the stigmata episode, such as Christ or an angel in the sky, are missing. Some were apparently hoping that the new investigation would reveal that the heavenly figures had been cut or trimmed out of the painting. However, the results were negative. The painting on display in the Frick is what Bellini painted.

I must confess that I was struck by the failure of the Museum and its online analysis to pay much attention to John Fleming’s 1982 study of the painting, “From Bonaventura to Bellini.” Fleming argued that every detail in the painting is there by design, and that Bellini was following an iconographical scheme based on a profound understanding of Franciscan spirituality.
I have discussed Fleming’s interpretation in a guest post at 3 Pipe Problem. Here is an excerpt. [The painting can be explored in detail on the Frick website or on the google Art project]

The landscape in the painting is not La Verna, the site of the stigmata episode, but the desert of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. In particular, it is the Egyptian desert. The prominent animal in mid-ground is the Onager or wild ass of the desert while the heron standing before it is a bird of the Nile delta.

Franciscans often associated their founder with Moses and Elias and their life in the desert. In the background beneath the city there is a shepherd tending his flock just as Moses did before his encounter with the Lord. Indeed, the leaning tree so prominent in the upper left is the famous burning bush in which the Lord appeared to Moses. It is a laurel which at the time was believed to be impervious to fire.

We also notice that Francis has removed his sandals and stands barefoot in the same manner as Moses. The wooden structure behind Francis is a Sukkoth, variously translated as tent, hut, booth, or tabernacle, a kind of portable structure used by the Israelites in their wanderings in the desert. The Sukkoth also recalls the scene of the Transfiguration when Christ was revealed in His glory accompanied by Moses and Elias to the three apostles, Peter, James, and John. Dumfounded, Peter offered to build three booths or Sukkoth for the Lord and his guests.

If we look closely, we will see beneath the right hand of Francis a rabbit in a hole in the rock, and beneath his left hand a jug. The rabbit was a symbolic reference to Moses who hid his face from the Lord and the jug is a reference to Elias. Indeed, the abundant vegetation sprouting around Francis is a garden or carmel, another reference to Elias who was supposed to have been the founder of the Carmelite order. Francis stands between Moses and Elias in the same way as Christ stood between them at the Transfiguration. In Franciscan spirituality and imagery, Francis was the new Christ.

Just as Moses came to lead his people out of the slavery of Egypt, so too did Francis come to lead his followers out of the slavery of sin. The city in the background then is a place of danger and peril, both physical and spiritual. The desert is symbolic of the life of poverty and humility preached by the famous founder of the Franciscan order.

Fleming’s book was written almost 30 years ago. How long does it take for a new theory based solidly on textual evidence to gain acceptance in scholarly circles?