This post includes two paintings usually attributed to Giorgione in the early stages of his career. The first is the "Trial of Moses" and the second is the "Judgment of Solomon." I include references from three recent catalogs as well as from a recent major study.
Trial of Moses, Oil on panel, 89x72 cm, Florence, Uffizi
Judgment of Solomon, Oil on panel, 89x72 cm, florence, Uffizi.
In her 1997 catalog Jaynie Anderson placed the “Trail of Moses” and the “Judgment of Solomon” at the very outset of Giorgione’s career.*
Of all the paintings attributed to the youthful Giorgione, these have the best claim to be considered his earliest works, dating c. 1496, shortly after his apprenticeship with Bellini ended.
Unlike some previous scholars, Anderson believed that the works were not the result of a collaboration.
scientific investigation of the panels does not reveal any disjunctures that would be proof of joint collaboration. Thus the uneven characterization of the figures could reflect the inexperience of a youthful artist….
Two years later Teriseo Pignatti and Filippo Pedrocco also attributed the paintings to Giorgione but noted that they had variously been given to Giovanni Bellini, Giulio Campagnola, Romanino, Rocco Marconi, Costa, and Vincenzo Catena, Giorgione’s one-time associate. They placed the paintings a little later in Giorgione’s career and labeled them number 9 and 10 in their catalog.**
In our opinion these paintings are Giorgione’s first authentic landscapes after his initial attempts that were more closely tied to Northern models.
However, in his 2007 Giorgione catalog Wolfgang Eller gave the paintings to Carpaccio with only the heads of the two figures on the platform of the “Trial of Moses” by Giorgione. He was not the first to suggest that more than one artist worked on these panels.***
But in 2009, in his monumental study of Giorgione, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo definitely gave the paintings to Giorgione but argued that the uneven quality of the work in the two paintings provided evidence that even early in his career the young master employed assistants in his workshop.#
Dal Pozzolo's study included the fullest discussion of the two panels. He noted that “an imitation marble decoration featuring plant motifs” on the reverse of each of the panels indicates their original use.
What we do know for sure is that at some point in time they were employed as shutters for a piece of furniture (hence to be viewed front and back); no doubt two support pieces—then removed—were originally mounted there, and the holes which are visible at one time probably housed hooks and bolts.
Dal Pozzolo also provided a series of magnificent images including a close up of the mysterious relief on the throne of the Egyptian pharaoh in the “Trial of Moses.”
Fortunately, although there are questions of attribution and dating, there is no uncertainty or ambiguity about the subject of the two panels. Both are religious or sacred subjects with a judicial theme. The story of the “Judgment of Solomon” is well known from Scripture but the “Trial of Moses” comes from a Jewish legend that became popular in medieval Christianity.
The subject of the Moses panel is taken from an apocryphal story told in the Midrash Rabbah as well as in other Jewish sources….It was frequently repeated and elaborated on in medieval Christian writing and illustrated in the Biblia Pauperum….*
Dal Pozzolo’s study includes a full discussion of both stories as well as their artistic representation around 1500. In the “Trial of Moses” the child is put to a test because of a playful prank. He had taken Pharaoh’s hat and thrown it to the ground, an action that could be seen to be full of symbolic significance. As a result he must choose between the plate full of red-hot embers or the one full of gold coins. According to the legend he chose the embers and actually placed one on his tongue, the cause of the speech defect noted in the Book of Exodus.
The story of the “Judgment of Solomon” is much more famous and dal Pozzolo gives a very full account. Solomon is on the right sitting on his judgment seat giving the order to cut the child in half. The bad mother stands in the center her gesture agreeing with Solomon’s. Her deceased infant is at her feet. The good mother kneels and surrenders her child in order to save its life.
Scholars have pointed out the importance of landscape in both these paintings. Rather than in a palace or a temple the figures in the foreground are out of doors. For some reason they have left the city in the background behind, a feature that Giorgione would use in his undisputed works.
Also, in these two panels great pains have been taken to dress the young men in contemporary Venetian finery including fashionable codpieces. Giorgione most notably used this type of attire for the young man standing guard over the woman in the Tempest.
The relief on the judgment seats in both panels remains inexplicable but Titian would later employ a similar device in two of his most famous paintings. The wikipedia entry allows one to zoom in but dal Pozzolo’s full page reproduction provides the best view I have seen.###
*Anderson, Jaynie: Giorgione, 1997, catalog entry.
**Pignatti, Terisio and Pedrocco, Filippo: Giorgione, Rizzoli, NY, 1999, catalog entry.
***Eller, Wolfgang: Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007, catalog entry listed under paintings not attributable to Giorgione.
#Dal Pozzolo, Enrico Maria: Giorgione, Milan, 2009, pp. 126-144.