Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow, c. 1508, Poplar, 48x42 cm, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
As far as I know the most important iconographical detail in Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” has never been discussed. I must confess that in an earlier post on the painting, I also failed to see it. It is the color of the young man’s tunic. Why did Giorgione deliberately choose to clothe him in red?
In that earlier post I agreed with those who identified Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” as St. Sebastian. I was struck especially by the resemblance of Giorgione’s boy to a St. Sebastian painted earlier by Raphael.
A recent exchange with H. Nyazi and his subsequent blog post on St. Sebastian in art at Three Pipe Problem prompted me to look again at Giorgione’s painting. The exhibition catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition jointly held in Venice and Vienna provided a full discussion of the interpretive history of the “Boy with an Arrow.”*
Marianne Koos, the author of the catalog entry, noted that the painting was not always attributed to Giorgione and that his authorship was only generally accepted after 1955. She also noted “it is usually dated to his mature period, between 1506 and 1508.”
“Boy with and Arrow” is another of Giorgione’s mysterious paintings and a number of different interpretations have been put forward. Koos, whose essay derived from her own doctoral dissertation, did a very nice job of summarizing and analyzing the different views.
While there is general agreement on the painting’s attribution and dating, its subject…remains controversial. Marcantonio Michiel described it as a “boy with an Arrow” in his inventory…compiled in 1531,…Nevertheless, to this day art historians are dissatisfied with the title “Boy with an Arrow”. Thus the figure is alternatively interpreted as “St. Sebastian”, “Apollo” or even “Eros”, respectively to identify the boy as a figure from Christian iconography or classical mythology.…Joannides recently suggested the identification of the boy as “Paris”, who would grow up to slay Achilles with his arrow.She indicated that Bernard Berenson accepted the Sebastian identification in 1957 but that most scholars since have supported the Apollo or Eros readings. She then proceeded to point out the shortcomings of each interpretation.
None of these interpretations, however, is totally convincing. Against the boy’s identification as “Sebastian” there is the fact that in the art of the early modern period the saint is depicted either as a male nude pierced with arrows, or as a young man in courtly dress….Also absent are the saint’s halo and the contemplative sideways glance, which—as in Raphael’s Sebastian, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo—manifests the painting’s religious content. On the other hand, the classical god Apollo, iconographically related to St. Sebastian via his function as a protector against pestilence is represented in Renaissance art as a blond male nude with laurel wreath, bow and quiver or with a lyre….In 16th century iconography the god of love, Eros, is depicted as a mischievous boy with wings, bow and arrows—not as a melancholy, self-absorbed youth. And in the iconography of the early modern period, Paris, the son of the king of Troy, is depicted holding the apple of Eris rather than an arrow.Koos believed that some more recent “metaphorical interpretations” pointed in the right direction and proceeded to devote the lion’s share of the catalog entry to her own.
The metaphorical interpretation of the arrow is—both here and in the context of Giorgione’s broader oeuvre—a most promising shift of perspective…which has the advantage of corresponding to Michiel’s description as “Boy with an Arrow”, while simultaneously taking into consideration the iconographic connotations of love and pain proposed for the painting.Her own conclusion was pretty much what one would expect from a contemporary Art historian.
Giorgione’s youth remains primarily a subject in the discourse of love, an ideal male figure, with whom the male observer may also form an alliance in thought. The ideal-boy picture is not only a painting of…desire, but also of narcissistic identification and a homosocial avowal of brotherhood. 186I’ll leave her objections to the mythological figures to their supporters, but I do not believe that her argument against the St. Sebastian interpretation is very strong. It is certainly true that most depictions of the martyr show a full-length nude figure riddled with arrows. Yet it is also true, as the recent post on Three Pipe Problem demonstrated, that a fully clothed, half-length figure of a doleful young man holding an arrow was popular at the time. Moreover, Giorgione never used a halo even in his obvious religious images.
Personally, I believe that the similarities between Raphael’s “St. Sebastian” and Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” greatly outweigh the dissimilarities. Typically, Giorgione removes an obvious iconographical sign like the halo and replaces it with something that I have come to believe characterizes much of his work. He uses color to identify the subject.
Red is the symbol of martyrdom. It is the color of the vestment of the priest at every Mass that commemorates a martyr. In an essay on Giorgione’s “Three Ages of Man” I have argued that the color of the garments of the three figures in that mysterious painting now in the Pitti Palace identifies them as Jesus, Peter, and the rich young man of the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s robe is bold red , a symbol of his eventual martyrdom. Christ is shown in green, in what looks like the vestment that a priest commonly wears on most Sundays of the liturgical year.
I have argued in another post on this site that the colors of the garments worn by the three men in Giorgione’s “Three Philosophers” support those who interpret that mysterious painting as the Three Magi. The color of their garments refers to their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Giorgione dressed the young man in the “Boy with an Arrow” in the color of a martyr. There is perhaps an insight contained in the metaphorical interpretation of Marianne Koos. Neoplatonic discussions of love and desire were not regarded as antithetical to Christian belief. On the contrary, in many respects they brought Christian beliefs, if only for a brief moment, to a new level on the eve of the Reformation.
Where it had been common to invoke St. Sebastian as a protector against the plague, now it would appear that Giorgione and others were seeing him again in his original guise; as one who gave his life for his fellow man. In this respect, he was truly a symbol of Christ-like love. No wonder his story inspired Christians throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and even beyond.
In his inventory of the collection of the humanist scholar, Pietro Bembo, Marcantonio Michiel noted a picture by Mantegna, "representing St. Sebastian, over life size, fastened to a column and shot at with arrows."
*Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004. pp. 184-7.