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, July 9, 2011

Giorgione Tempest: Paris and Oenone

In his essay, “the ‘Favola’ in Giorgione’s Tempesta,” in the 2004 Giorgione exhibition catalog, Jurgen Rapp found the subject of the painting in the mythological story of Paris and Oenone. Rapp took issue with those interpreters, including some in the same catalog, who claimed that there is “no subject” in Giorgione’s most famous painting.

"Observation alone forbids viewing the picture,…mainly as a landscape, in which the human figures play a subordinate role as atmospheric decoration. The expressive size and power of the figures, which dominate the lower half of the picture, are in this case independent and provide a precisely balanced counterweight to the landscape that extends into the upper half of the painting"….(119)

Since his short essay, a summary of a larger dissertation, attempted to fit all the iconographical elements into the story of the two ill-fated lovers, Paris and Oenone, it is necessary to provide a brief recap of the legend.

Pieter Lastman: Paris and Oenone. 1619. Worcester Art Museum.

As we know from Homer, Paris was the son of King Priam of Troy and his wife, Hecuba. At the birth of Paris, Hecuba had a dream that was interpreted to mean that her new son would be responsible for the destruction of Troy.

To avert this disaster, the parents decided to put their son to death by exposing him to the elements on Mt. Ida. However, he was saved and raised to maturity by a shepherd and grew up to be a shepherd himself, albeit an extremely handsome one. Eventually, his looks caught the attention of the seer-nymph Oenone, daughter of the Ilian river Kebren. They married and she bore his child, Korythos.

Soon after, Paris gets involved in the famous beauty contest known as the Judgment of Paris. Asked to decide who is most beautiful, Juno, Athena, or Aphrodite, he chooses Aphrodite after she bribes him by promising him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.

He promptly deserts Oenone and his newborn son, Korythos, and returns to Troy and the rest is history. Not unexpectedly, Oenone is broken-hearted, bitter and enraged. In the post-Homeric legends her son grows up to be even handsomer than Paris. He also travels to Troy where his looks attract Helen. Paris responds by killing Korythos. Later Paris is fatally wounded by a poisoned arrow and returns to Oenone, the only one whose healing powers can save him. Still angry, she refuses and he dies. Quickly repenting she kills herself and both she and Paris are buried in the same grave.

Not surprisingly, in Rapp’s interpretation the key to the painting is Paris, the man on the left.

"The key…is to be found in the figure of the standing young man with the crook. The inconsistency of his choice of dress is immediately noticeable: on the one hand the extravagant breeches that point to a noble warrior, on the other a simple, casually worn shirt, and a doublet loosely slung over his shoulders, which in combination with the crook, indicate a shepherd"….(119)

Paris is shown in the act of deserting Oenone and their son.

"Giorgione depicts the moment, when Paris bids farewell to his nymph Oenone and their child Korythos at the Kebren spring on Mount Ida. As he pauses one last time and looks back to his family, his right foot and the crook are already pointed toward the edge of the picture; in the next moment he will leave the scene." (122)

Although Rapp stresses the importance of looking at the painting, I believe that this observation is way off. I don’t believe that any observer of this masterpiece has ever seen the Man in the process of exiting stage left. Some have claimed that the Man has just encountered the woman, or that he has stumbled upon her in a wilderness. Some think that he might even be thinking of assaulting her. Others claim that she only exists in his imagination.

In my interpretation of the Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” the Man is St. Joseph and he stands on guard watching over the Woman and Child. Artistically, he acts as an Albertian “interlocuter” directing the viewer’s attention to the nursing woman and her Child. In no way is the Man the central or focal point of the painting.

I also question Rapp’s observational skills concerning the woman whom he identifies as the seer-nymph Oenone.

"After Paris has left her, the naiad is cast down by a bottomless grief, which soon turns to raging jealousy. (120)…the prophetic woman begins to see the dark fate with her gliding gaze." (122)

How is it possible to see “bottomless grief” and “raging jealously” in the look that Giorgione’s woman directs not at the Man but at the viewer of the painting?

Rapp takes on most of the other iconographical symbols. The broken columns in the mid-ground represent the common grave of Paris and Oenone.

The City in the background represents besieged Troy.

"Thunder, lightning and storms as heralds of personal and political catastrophes were also the subject of the widespread thunder books, called ‘brontologies’." (121-2)

He points out that Padua identified itself with ancient Troy. He identifies the bird on the rooftop as a heron, and notes that Virgil called the heron a harbinger of tempests. But he draws no connection between the siege of Padua in 1509 during the Cambrai war and the siege of Troy. He dates the painting to 1508.

Despite the importance Rapp attaches to Paris, he believes that the pentimenti revealed by scientific studies indicate that the Man was not in the “earlier” version. “The figure of Paris was painted over the left-hand naiad only later.” The earlier version included Oenone’s sister, Astarte, the goddess of lightning.

"The earlier version…represents a mental image in a pessimistic mood, or more precisely, a ‘pictorial’ elegy on the unhappy consequences of love, sketched with two mythological fates of women."(122)

Like other interpreters he does not discuss the other pentimento—the little man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s staff. Is such a character Homeric?

Finally, it can be said that Rapp’s thesis is partially based on a mistaken identification.

"Giorgione and his circle repeatedly used subjects from the youth of Paris,…For Giorgione himself the following are attested: Discovery of the Child Paris (previously in the collection of Taddeo Contarini) and a Judgement of Paris, a “Fauola di Parride” (drawn copy in the inventory of the collection of Andrea Vendramin.” (119)

The latter drawing is reproduced in the catalog as “after Giorgione.” The “Discovery of the Child Paris” originally in the Contarini collection only exists today in a 17th century copy. In my paper on the Tempest I have demonstrated this “lost” Giorgione actually represents “The Encounter of the Holy Family with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.”

If this pillar of Rapp’s interpretation falls to the ground, what happens to the whole edifice?

Jurgen Rapp: “the ‘Favola’ in Giorgione’s Tempesta.” Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004. Pp. 118-123.

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