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".

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giorgione and Titian: Mystery and Enigma

In September I placed on my website a new interpretation of Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love" that identified the subject as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen." Last week a condensed version of the paper was featured on the popular Art history blog, Three Pipe Problem. Here is a brief abstract of the interpretation.

“Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love” interprets the painting in Rome’s Borghese Gallery as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen.” The finely dressed Woman is Mary Magdalen in the guise of a Venetian courtesan. The nude Woman is the converted Magdalen in the process of throwing off her worldly finery. In her hand she holds the jar of ointment that is found in practically every depiction of the great sinner/saint. The antique relief on the sarcophagus-like fountain, which so far has eluded explanation, can now be seen to depict three great sinners: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and St. Paul falling from his horse.

This new interpretation followed upon two other major interpretive discoveries of works by Giorgione. Over five years ago I saw the "Tempest" for the first time and immediately hypothesized that it depicted the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt. Here is a brief abstract of my paper that attempted to identify all the iconographic elements in the painting.

“Giorgione’s Tempest.” This paper identifies the subject of the “Tempesta” as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” The nude woman nursing an infant is the Madonna. The man is St. Joseph with his staff. The broken columns are commonplace in depictions of the “Rest.” The city in the background is Judea from where the Holy Family has fled but could also be Padua during the Cambrai war. The scraggly plant in the foreground is “belladonna” a plant associated with witchcraft and the Devil. The paper included a new interpretation of a “lost” Giorgione heretofore mistakenly called “The Discovery of Paris.”

Seeing the "Tempest" as a "sacred" subject led to a number of other discoveries. For example, I was able to see Giorgione"s heretofore inexplicable "Three Ages of Man" as the "Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man." Here is an abstract of the painting that now hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence.

“Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man” identifies this famous depiction of three half-length figures that now hangs in the Pitti Palace as the “Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man.” The subject derives from an episode in the Gospel of Matthew. The young man in the center, whose clothing indicates his wealth, has just asked how he can achieve eternal life. On the right, Jesus dressed in a green vestment commonly worn by priests at Mass points to the commandments that he has directed the man to follow. On the left, an aging, bald Peter, dressed in martyr’s red, invites the viewer to enter the scene.

I'd like to mention the methodology employed in the three above discoveries especially since it was remarkably similar. I am not a professional Art historian. I hold a doctorate in History but my specialty was 18th century British politics. I say "was" because I left academe 40 years ago to become a financial advisor. I never gave up my interest in history but it was on the back burner. About 15 years ago my wife and I began to travel in Italy and I became more and more interested in the art of the Renaissance. My wife and I are both Catholic and we shared an interest in religious art.

So when I first looked at the "Tempest" in 2005, maybe because I was an outsider, or maybe because of my interest in religious art, I immediately guessed that Giorgione had depicted a scene from the Flight into Egypt. My historical training made me understand that there were obvious problems with this interpretation. I realized that every major element in the painting would have to fit or else the hypothesis would fall to the ground. It would not do, as some have done, to ignore things that didn't fit the interpretation. For example, most interpretations of the "Tempest" have made no attempt to explain the "plant" in front of the Woman.

I proceeded with trepidation knowing that one inconvenient 'fact" could bring down the whole hypothesis. A good example would be the "bird on the rooftop" in the background of the painting. I had initially ignored it as being insignificant but when challenged on it last year, I was able to discover the source in the Psalms.

It was the same way with the "Three Ages of Man," and now with the "Sacred and Profane Love." An initial intuition that stemmed from seeing the paintings in Florence and Rome preceded the research. My wife and I were stranded in Rome last year because of the volcano eruption in Iceland. We decided to go to the Borghese gallery. When I first beheld Titian's magnificent canvas, I turned to Linda and said that the two women were Mary Magdalen.

On returning home the work of verification began. Each major element in the painting had to be explained. The work of all the leading scholars in the field had to be examined. To my surprise no one had ever seen the Magdalen in the painting. I didn't give up at this point because I quickly saw that there was no agreed upon interpretation of this famous painting. Moreover, some, like the late Rona Goffen, one of the most perceptive students of Venetian art, had provided great research findings that could support a Magdalen hypothesis even though they themselves could not see it.

My grandchildren tell me that in most video games the obstacles or enemies get more and more formidable as the game proceeds, and that at the end there is often an insurmountable obstacle. However, in the three paintings noted above the giants in the field had all demolished each other and the way was open for an amateur to use their discarded weapons and proceed to the goal.

These three paintings, one in Rome, one in Venice and the other in Rome, are prime examples of what Art historians mean when they refer to Renaissance paintings as enigmatic or mysterious. When such terminology is used it often means that there is no agreement in Art historical circles about the subject matter of the work involved. Finally, many of these interpretations often seem to ignore the actual paintings. Why, for example, has no one ever commented on the colors of the garments of the three men in Giorgione's "Three Ages of Man."

If an interpretation can explain all the elements in a painting and show how they relate to one another, can the painting be called enigmatical or mysterious?


  1. Thanks for the summation Frank. Renaissance colour and its meaning has an obscure literature, but it is there - usually with regards to identifying saints and religious figures - and often inherited from Medieval and Byzantine traditions. I would greatly recommend Marcia Hall's book on this topic, "Color and Meaning"

    I am not sure the video game analogy fits. The writers who have commented on these mystery paintings will usually stand by their readings. Your historical background predisposed you to identify patterns. With Renaissance iconography becoming an increasingly esoteric subject in the later part of the 20th century, those approaching these works often seemed to have a background which favoured a literary interpretation. For Tempest, Settis own background as an archaeologist allowed him to present a meta-analysis of the topic before adding his contribution.

    As a historian, you will also understand the need for evidence. There is often a tangible gap between evidence and even the most complete interpretation.

    These paintings are enigmatic exactly because they are created in a way that has invited varying meanings. The subjects in question can easily have been depicted in a traditional way to make the identification simple - as often seen in pieces for public devotion. These more esoteric, private works went a step further, why?

    Kind Regards

  2. H:

    Your right in suggesting that interpreters of mysterious Renaissance paintings often tell more about themselves than the paintings they discuss. It's natural for them (including myself) to hold onto their views but hardly any interpreter of the three paintings above accepts multiple subjects. Still, none of the other interpreters have ever seen sacred subjects in the Tempest, the Three Ages of Man, or the Sacred and Profane Love.

    To answer your question why the works of Giorgione and Titian invite various meanings, I would hazard a guess. Recently I listened to a commentary on Bach's St. Matthew Passion in which the scholar argued that Bach deliberately set out to create a work of art that would transcend everything that had gone before.

    Naturally, Bach drew upon all that had gone before in both secular and religious music but then took it all to a new level to create a unique masterpiece. Nevertheless, the subject is still Matthew's account of the Passion of Christ. I know that you can probably sit in a cathedral or concert hall for four hours and enjoy the beauty, power, and emotion of the music, but the commentator urged us to follow along with the libretto in front of us to fully appreciate Bach's achievement.

    Giorgione and Titian both aspired to be exceptional artists.


  3. When the title of the painting was changed or removed, it might have been done so to protect the artist or the work from persecution or destruction, to distract from drawing attention to the religious aspects of the piece. I can see that public display of a naked Virgin Mary (not many of those) in Giorgione's "Tempest" could have drawn a storm of comments or trouble for the artist and later the painting but less so than the title "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" which cannot be misinterpreted.

    Interesting for me is why the emphasis on a non-religious theme? Were these particular paintings hung or displayed where they might be destroyed or persecuted? Does a religious theme endanger their owners? Were title changes made to make displaying them secular? Does removing the secular titles, returning them to their religious origin endanger the works?

  4. Sarah:

    Renaissance painters rarely put titles on their work. The popular titles we use today were only added many years later. The patrons of Giorgione and Titian both came from the highest levels of society and I don't believe they had any fear of persecution.

    I believe that non-religious interpretations of these paintings came later for two reasons. First, scholars came to emphasize the ancient or pagan influences in the Renaissance, and believed that the renaissance marked a departure from medieval religion or religious belief. Second, many modern scholars are educated to regard religion as superstitious and incapable of producing paintings of such great beauty.

    Most likely, the paintings I mentioned were commissioned by a private patron for his own use and not for public display. For centuries after its completion, the Tempest was in a private home away from public view.