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, December 22, 2012

Giorgione's Tempest: The Young Man, Part II

One of the major pieces in the puzzle that is Giorgione’s “Tempest” is the young man prominently featured in the left foreground. In my interpretation of the famous painting as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” I argued that the virile young man must be St. Joseph. In my previous post I provided examples of other virile young Josephs from contemporaries of Giorgione. In this post I would like to bring together some other young Josephs that have gone unrecognized in the scholarly literature.

Lorenzo Lotto: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

First, shortly after the death of Giorgione, Lorenzo Lotto painted a version of the “Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine”. Entitled, “Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Thomas”, it is in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna where it was featured in the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition of 2006/7. Here St. Joseph, sporting a full dark beard, kneels next to St. Catherine who gazes at him and not at the infant Christ. They are obviously exchanging vows. Just as in another version of the Mystic Marriage by Paris Bordone that was featured in the same exhibition, Joseph acts a proxy for the marriage of the infant Child and the legendary Queen. Joseph is shown with his traditional pilgrim’s staff but his virile good looks and the spear-point at the end of the staff have led scholars astray.

In his work on Lotto, Bernard Berenson identified the kneeling man as St. James the Greater but provided no explanation. In the catalog of the 1997/1998 Lotto exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Peter Humfrey accepted the identification as St. Thomas because of the spear-point. A decade later in the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition in Vienna, however, the man was still called St. James.

There is no good reason for either St. James or St. Thomas to be in the desert participating in the mystic marriage of St. Catherine. During that era if any male saint is in a Mystic Marriage, he is invariably St. Joseph. True, Lotto does not depict him as a doddering old man but during the Renaissance, as the role and status of St. Joseph became more important, artists followed the lead of theologians and preachers and began to depict younger and more virile Josephs. Perhaps Joseph’s role as protector of the Madonna and Child as well as protector of the Church led artists to give him a more martial aspect. This might explain the spear-point at the end of his traditional staff.

An armed Joseph can also help to explain two other paintings that have long been associated with Giorgione’s “Tempest”. I have discussed both paintings in a post dated Nov. 21, 2010 but will just present brief descriptions here.

Follower of Palma il Vecchio: "Allegory"

In the first painting, now in storage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, scholars have recognized a striking resemblance to Giorgione’s “Tempest,” even though there is no trace of a storm. On the Museum website the painting is simply given the title “Allegory,” and is attributed to “a follower of Palma il Vecchio.” It is dated 1510. Upon request a curator at the Museum very kindly allowed my wife and I to view this spectacular painting. It is a very large canvas, much larger than the “Tempest”, and despite the need for restoration it is still a beautiful painting.

I have interpreted this painting as a depiction of the Encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on the return from the sojourn in Egypt. This subject, featuring four figures in a landscape, was very popular. Whether taking a small cross from His slightly older cousin or embracing him, the infant Savior is accepting his destined role. In this painting there is even a lamb in the background to help identify the Lamb of God. 

In my opinion it is the attire of Mary and Joseph that has led scholars astray. Mary’s humble garb makes her resemble a gypsy woman, and St. Joseph is dressed as a heavily armed young Venetian patrician.  He is standing watch over the woman and children and his staff has changed into a halberd.

Follower of Giorgione: Rustic Idyll

A similar painting, now on loan to the Fogg Art Museum in Boston, was attributed by Edgar Wind to a “Follower” of Giorgione. As in the Tempest" there are three figures in a landscape. In the foreground a fully clothed plainly dressed woman sits on the ground with her infant son standing beside her supported by her arm. She is left of center and looks to the right in the direction of an armored soldier standing guard. He leans not on a staff but on another formidable looking halberd. For Wind the subject of the painting was also an allegory, “Fortezza and Carita,” the same subject he claimed for the “Tempest”.

It would seem that scholars invariably call something an allegory when they can think of no other subject. I agree that the painting has the same subject as the “Tempest” but the subject is “the Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and the armed soldier must be St. Joseph.

Titian: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

Finally, I would like to point to a depiction of the “Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine” done by Titian while he was still in what scholars call his Giorgione phase. The painting is most commonly known as the “Madonna of the Rabbit.”

This small oil on canvas (71 x 87 cm) in the Louvre was discussed extensively by the Louvre’s Jean Habert in a 1990 exhibition catalog . Like every other observer Habert identified the man on the right as a shepherd, but no ordinary shepherd. “The noble shepherd in contrapposto on the right is composed of the same hues, diminutively mimicking the main group.” Moreover, Habert pointed out that scientific examination of the painting indicated that the Madonna’s face was originally turned toward the man.
In an earlier version the Virgin turned her face toward the shepherd, which would tend to confirm the elevated status of this figure who from the beginning was crowned with laurel.*
The shepherd mimics the main group, the Madonna originally gazed in his direction, he wears a laurel wreath, and has an exalted status.

Some questions arise. What is a shepherd doing in a mystic marriage in the first place? Why does he have such a prominent position? Why give him an exalted status?

Although depicted without his staff, Titian’s man is very likely a young, virile St. Joseph. We have seen in other contemporary versions of the Mystic Marriage that Joseph plays an important, even a central role. More to come on the “Madonna of the Rabbit” in a subsequent post. ###

*Titian. Prince of Painters, Venice, 1990. p. 210.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Giorgione's Tempest: The Young Man

In my interpretation of Giorgione’s "Tempest" as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” I identified the young man situated so prominently in the left foreground as St. Joseph. In Giorgione's famous painting the young man stands at the left side of the painting holding a staff. The staff alone should be enough to recognize Joseph but in my interpretation I also discussed his pose and placement in the painting. I acknowledged that the youth and obvious virility of the man was a difficulty, but subsequent investigation has only confirmed my initial intuition.

In recent years scholars have documented the tremendous increase in devotion to St. Joseph that took place in the fifteenth century, a development that continued right through the Reformation. The increasing devotion, that included the establishment of the Saint’s feast day by Pope Sixtus IV in 1479, naturally made St. Joseph an  important figure in the art of the Renaissance.

In this artistic development the image of St. Joseph began to change to accommodate the thought of theologians like Jean Gerson, the sermons of preachers like Bernardino of Siena, and the demands of patrons and devotees. A new Joseph began to appear. Instead of as a sleepy old man, he began to be depicted as younger and virile: strong enough to protect the Madonna and Child especially on their arduous and potentially dangerous flight into Egypt.

Here I would like to present some other images of Joseph by contemporaries of Giorgione that I discovered in my search for a young Joseph. None are as a young as Giorgione’s man but still they appear strong and vigorous enough to protect the Madonna and Child. 

Raphael's "Sposalizio" is perhaps the most striking example. Raphael's version of the marriage of the Virgin became immediately popular after its completion in 1504. The differences between Raphael's version and the one by his old mentor Perugino have long been noted, but it is obvious that Raphael took pains to make his Joseph younger and more vigorous than Perugino's. Raphael's version is on the left and Perugino's on the right. Click on image to enlarge.

Below is a Raphael version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt". This Joseph sports grey hair and beard but he is certainly no more than middle-aged and looks vigorous enough. Moreover, he is dressed in royal purple and gold and has been brought into the center of the picture. He carries the legendary staff or rod that always identifies St. Joseph.

After painting the Sposalizio, Raphael moved to Florence in 1504 where he became associated with Fra Bartolommeo, a painter who had become a Dominican friar after the death of Savonarola. Both painters must have influenced each other. In a version of the encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on the return from Egypt  Fra Bartolommeo depicted a young, beardless Joseph.

Fra Bartolommeo: Encounter with the Baptist

Fra Bartolommeo did travel to Venice in 1508 to work in the Dominican house on Murano but I don't think it is necessary to posit a direct influence on Giorgione. The idea of a younger, virile Joseph was in the air, especially since his protection of the Madonna had long been seen as implying protection of the Church. After Giorgione's death in 1510 contemporary Venetian painters continued to portray a young, virile Joseph. Paris Bordone, for example, provided striking examples in versions of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, an event that was usually placed in the desert of Egypt.

One of Bordone's versions is in a private collection but was featured prominently in the 2006 Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition jointly sponsored by Washington's National Gallery and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In the exhibition catalog we can see a well-built Joseph in the center with his bare muscular leg prominently displayed. I have argued elsewhere that this scene represents a "proxy"marriage where Joseph stands in for the infant Jesus who is obviously too young to marry.

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

Bordone used the same device in a depiction of the "Mystic Marriage" now in Leningrad. Once again, a young, virile Joseph displays his powerful leg. He is not an old man.

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

No one has done more to document the increasing devotion to Joseph and its resulting influence on pre-Reformation art than American scholar, Carolyn Wilson. In a paper presented as the 1998 annual Joseph lecture at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, her description of Joseph in a 1566 version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Santi di Tito could well be used to describe Giorgione's man in the Tempest.

Artists in our period sought in innumerable ways to convey Joseph’s protectorship of Mary, and, of course, her Child. These efforts are apparent not only when we observe expressions of Joseph’s strenuous exertions in scenes of the Flight into Egypt or of his tender solicitude in examples of the rest on the Flight but also when we note the inclusion in Nativity scenes of the accoutrements that signal his preparedness for the imminent escape from Bethlehem and from Herod. The latter include, for example, in Santi’s altarpiece the walking staff that the virile figure grips…
Looking still at this picture, we observe, too, that the placement of Joseph at the lower left foreground puts him near the devout spectator of the work…as his or her mediator. St. Joseph is also in position to stand guard, as he does with confidence and elegance, over the Virgin and Infant…*
The Man in Giorgione's "Tempest"  exhibits the same confidence and elegance.

In the next post I will discuss other images that have heretofore gone unrecognized as St. Joseph.###

*Wilson, Carolyn: “St. Joseph as Mary’s Champion: Examining the Distinctive Connection between the ‘Madonna del Giglio’ the ‘Compagnia di San Giuseppe,’ and the Church of San Giuseppe in Florence,”  1998 St. Joseph lecture given at St. Joseph’s University, printed in Joseph of Nazareth, ed. By Joseph F. Chorpenning, O.S.F.S., Philadelphia, 2011. p. 90. In that same volume see the fine essay on Jean Gerson's influence by Brian Patrick McGuire : “Becoming a Father and a Husband: St. Joseph in Bernard of Clairvaux and Jean Gerson.”  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Giorgione's Tempest: Broken Columns

Giorgione: "Tempest" 

When I first saw Giorgione’s Tempest in a black and white image in an old travel book, I wondered whether the man and woman in the foreground had left the city in the background, or whether they were on a journey to the city. It was only after I sensed that in the “Tempest” Giorgione had depicted the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt that I understood that the Man and Woman had fled from the city in the background.

The famous and mysterious painting can be viewed as a narrative. The Holy Family has fled from the stormy city in the background; crossed the bridge and river that represented the dividing line between Judea and Egypt; encountered the ruins and broken columns so prominently depicted in the mid-ground; and finally found a place of rest and safety in the foreground.

Like many Renaissance narratives Giorgione’s “Tempest” begins in the left background, proceeds through the mid-ground, and culminates in the figures in the right foreground. The man in the left foreground acts as an interlocutor drawing the viewer’s attention to the woman and child. Although the viewer’s eye is directed toward the woman, her gaze deflects the action back to the viewer.

I knew that my initial intuition had great difficulties. Even though she was nursing, a nude Madonna was unimaginable and a young, virile St. Joseph was certainly unusual. My first thought was to look into the work of Emile Male, still the greatest source for Medieval iconography. The Flight into Egypt is based on a single verse in the gospel of Matthew but over the centuries legends had accumulated around the journey, and artists had delighted to depict them.*

I turned to “Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century”, the second volume of Male’s magisterial study, and found that of all the legends surrounding the arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt, artists “scarcely used any other than the Fall of Idols….” Male gave a brief description of the event.

Many medieval writers told that when Jesus entered the temple of Sotinen, called Hermopolis by others, he caused the idols to fall, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: “Behold the Lord will ascend upon a swift cloud and will enter into Egypt. And the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence”…When the governor of the town, Affodosius, heard of the miracle, he went to the temple; when he saw that all the statues were broken, he worshiped Jesus….

The Church adopted the story of the Fall of the Idols, which like many apocryphal legends, grew out of a desire to justify a prophetic text, and it authorized the artists to represent it….The thirteenth century gave an abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend. There are neither town, temple nor priests…two statues falling from their pedestals and breaking in two suffice to recall the miracle.

Idols falling from a pedestal are the way the incident is depicted in the Biblia Pauperum. The two broken columns, standing right in the middle of Giorgione’s mysterious painting, giving an “abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend,” provided the first initial confirmation of my intuition. Giorgione embellished the scene somewhat by including some nearby ruins.

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries these ruins were often seen in depictions of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. Flemish artists led the way in meeting the devotional demands of their patrons for this subject. One of Joachim Patenir’s most well known versions depicted the entire flight from the storm-shrouded city in the background to the nursing Madonna in the foreground. Behind the Madonna are the remains of a broken structure. A large, round, stone ball sitting atop a block of stone seems to be all that remains of the ruined idols. 

Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

In Washington’s National Gallery Gerard David’s most famous depiction of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt shows the Madonna resting with her Child who holds a bunch of grapes in his hand. She sits atop what looks like the remains of a building foundation that is now just covered with dirt calling to mind the words of Isaiah: "the lofty city He brings down; He tumbles it to the ground, levels it with the dust." 

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Among Italian artists Cima da Conegliano would also depict the Madonna and her child atop a rocky foundation that would appear to be the remains of a structure. The fallen temple has become an outdoor throne for the Madonna and her Child.

Cima da Conegliano: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

No Italian, however, liked to depict the ruins as much as Fra Bartolommeo, who became associated with Raphael in 1504 and then traveled to Venice shortly before Giorgione worked on the “Tempest”. His ruins are really elaborate.

Fra Bartolommeo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Giorgione could have been familiar with the work of any of these artists but I believe that his depiction of the fall of idols came from another source. In my paper on the “Tempest” I pointed out that Giorgione’s truncated columns are similar to those employed by Luca Signorelli in his 1504 depiction of the “End of the World” in Orvieto’s S. Brisio chapel. Domenico Grimani, the famous Venetian Cardinal and art collector, acted as one of Signorelli’s advisors on the project. Grimani had a summer residence near Orvieto.

Luca Signorelli: detail of "End of the World".

I know that other examples of broken columns have been found in emblem books and interpreted variously. Nevertheless, Giorgione’s columns and adjacent ruins were a piece of the “Tempest” puzzle that fit quite easily into a “Rest on the flight into Egypt” interpretation. ###

*The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is only recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew.

After they had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child with his mother with him, he left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:

I called my son out of Egypt

**Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century: A Study of Medieval Iconography and Its Sources, Princeton, 1984. p. 220.