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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Titian: "Sacred and Profane Love" Relief

Titian’s so-called “Sacred and Profane Love” is one of the most important and mysterious paintings of the Renaissance. One of its most mysterious features is the relief on the front of the sarcophagus like fountain.

In my interpretation of the painting as the “Conversion of Mary Magdalen” I was able to identify the scenes depicted on the relief and fit them into the overall subject of the painting. The explanation of the relief, despite its central position, had defied even the greatest scholars.

Erwin Panofsky included a discussion of “ The Sacred and Profane Love” in his long essay on the Neoplatonic Movement in Florence and North Italy. The essay was published in 1939 along with others in his classic work, “Studies in Iconology”. The essay explored the philosophical work of Marsilio Ficino, and Panofsky used Titian’s painting as an example of Neo-Platonic themes. His essay became the starting point for all future discussions of the painting, and his "Two Venus" interpretation was widely accepted.

However, he did not discuss the relief and just relegated this admission to a footnote. “The reliefs on the sarcophagus invented by Titian in the classical style, have not yet been explained.”*  In the 1962 paperback re-issue Panofsky noted some criticisms of his essay but he still did not attempt to discuss the relief or alter the footnote. He was still not able to fit this piece of the puzzle into the picture.

In 1978 David Rosand accepted Panofsky’s Neo-Platonic "Twin Venus" interpretation and did attempt an explanation of the relief.

a third type is depicted on Titian's invented sarcophagus relief: bestial love-pure lust, which seeks not beauty and its procreation but rather mere satisfaction of sexual appetite-is symbolized by the unbridled force and the accompanying acts of passion and violence.**  

A few years later Rona Goffen, who wrote more on the painting than any one else, was obviously unsatisfied with Rosand's explanation but could only hazard a guess about the relief.
Perhaps Titian’s fictive relief—a pastiche of antique motifs—alludes to that myth (rape of the Sabine women)…***
Finally, in his Titian catalog of 2007 Peter Humfrey could only call the relief “Titian’s own invention" and leave it at that.#

The relief is not an insignificant detail. It is boldly presented right in the center of the painting. Why could these four great scholars with all their skill and ability not be able to see its real meaning? Is it just my imagination that led me to see three great sinners depicted on the relief in a painting whose subject is Mary Magdalen, the greatest of sinners? On the viewer's right is Adam and Eve standing around the Tree. On the left is a man falling from a horse that can only be St. Paul. But just to the right of center there is an act of violence that depicts Cain and Abel.

This striking image depicts a man with his arm raised as if to strike a blow on the man lying prone on the ground. Is this such an unusual image? Is it Titian's own invention or is it a commonplace in depictions of Cain and Abel. the first instance of sin after the Fall?

Titian himself painted Cain and Abel approximately 30 years after the "Sacred and Profane Love".

Titian: Cain and Abel
Here is Tintoretto's version of the act of violence.

Tintoretto: Cain and Abel
Rather than inventing this scene it would appear that Titian and Tintoretto were just following the standard universally accepted template for Cain's murder of his brother. In the Ghent Altarpiece Jan van Eyck used the same motif and even painted it as a sculpted relief.

Jan van Eyck: Ghent Altarpiece detail

I believe that any Venetian contemporary of Titian's would have immediately recognized the image of Cain and Abel on the relief in the "Sacred and Profane Love." This detail on the relief is enough by itself to make us consider the possibility that the "Sacred and Profane Love" is a sacred subject. ###

*Panofsky, Erwin: “The Neoplatonic Movement in Florence and North Italy (Bandinelli and Titian),” in Studies in Iconology, Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, Oxford 1939, Reprint 1962, p. 152.

**David Rosand: Titian, New York 1978. P. 80.

***Goffen, Rona: Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and Marriage, The Expanding Discourse, Feminism and Art History, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, NY, 1992, p. 121.

#Peter Humfrey, Titian, 2007, p. 47.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ringling Museum of Art

Ringling Museum of Art
The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida was built by circus magnate John Ringling on the grounds of his beautiful Italianate villa, Ca d’Zen around 1925.  The circus wintered in Sarasota and Ringling, one of the richest men in America in the 1920s, hoped that a world-class art collection might help to promote the city.

He was a little late in entering the Old Master collecting game since earlier magnates had gobbled up most of the available great works of Renaissance Masters. As a result he turned to works of the period that followed the Renaissance, the so-called Baroque. Baroque art was out of favor at the time especially since contemporary critics regarded it as smacking too much of the religious fervor of the Catholic Counter Reformation. Even though his collection includes works from the Renaissance through the eighteenth century, the emphasis is on the Baroque.

Francesco Cairo: Judith

One of the most popular paintings in the Ringling is a striking depiction of “Judith with the Head of Holofernes”, a magnificent example of Baroque art by Francesco Cairo. It depicts the Biblical Jewish widow Judith, who saves her people by dressing up in all her finery to seduce and then kill the leader of the enemy forces. Here she is presented in a mixture of light and dark that is so characteristic of the Baroque. She has already done the deed and decapitated the drunken Holofernes with his own sword, which is so elaborately done. As usual Judith is attended by her servant who will carry the head back to the Jewish camp and tell its leaders that their danger is over.

The Museum is currently featuring an exhibition of paintings by famed Venetian artist Paolo Veronese and his workshop that includes portraits, mythological subjects, and large-scale sacred subjects. The exhibition is augmented by works of Veronese contemporaries from the Ringling’s own collection. For example, there is a spectacular version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” one of the most popular subjects in Venetian art.

Veronese: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

In this version the Holy Family has fled from the deadly designs of King Herod and reached the relative safety of Egypt. They pause so that Madonna can rest and nurse her Child. Joseph looks on and pours some water for Mary while colorful angels hover about bringing fruit down from a palm tree. The palm was part of a famous legend that had the tree bending down and the command of the infant so that Joseph could pick its fruit. Among other things this painting shows that paintings based on apocryphal legends remained popular after the Reformation despite the strictures of the Council of Trent.

VanDyck: St. Andrew

The Museum’s bookshop features a little catalog entitled, “Curator’s Choice,” a sampling of the Ringling collection by the aptly named curator, Virginia Brilliant. It features some works from the Renaissance and the eighteenth century but the emphasis is still on the Baroque. There are three works by Rubens; a striking bust of St. Andrew by Anthony Van Dyck; a full-length portrait by Diego Velazquez of Phillip IV, the young King of Spain; and another Judith by Fede Galizia. The Museum's website provides very good access to the collection.

Fede Galizia: Judith

The grounds of the Museum are really lovely and also include a Circus Museum that is well worth visiting. The Museum also has a variety of cafes and a very nice gift shop. A provision in John Ringling’s will allows free admission on Monday and we along with a horde of tourists took advantage of Ringling’s beneficence.

Besides being a cultural and arts center Sarasota, which probably has all the same problems as any other American city, still presents a beautiful waterfront prospect. We stayed in nearby Longboat Key, a long narrow island that stretches between Sarasota Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.Longboat Key is full of expensive beach homes, condos, and hotels but we always like to stay at the Rolling Waves Cottages: eight tiny cottages that are a real throwback to the 1950s. 

These housekeeping cottages are nothing fancy but they are well equipped and maintained. The best part though is the beautiful white sandy beach that is only a few paces from your door. You practically have the beach all to yourself except for the pelicans and terns that continually dive for fish in a spectacular aerial display. Indoors and outdoors, there is much to see in Sarasota. ###

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Giorgione's Tempest: Massacre of the Innocents

In my paper on Giorgione’s “Tempest” I looked at all the iconographical elements in the famous painting and tried to not only identify them correctly but also to put them together in a coherent whole. I understood that no piece could be left out of the puzzle or forced into place.

Years ago I was an avid fan of jigsaw puzzles, especially landscapes. My method was to put all the end pieces together first as a kind of frame. Then, I would proceed to do the prominent figures in the foreground and put them in their appropriate spaces. Finally, the background landscape would be filled in with the usually blue sky saved for last.

In the past few posts I have been going through the process of re-examining the pieces of the “Tempest” puzzle. First, I discussed the broken columns in the mid-ground and showed that they were commonplace in depictions of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. In subsequent posts I elaborated on my discussion of the prominent figures in the foreground. In my paper I had claimed that the young man on the left holding a pilgrim’s staff is St. Joseph watching over the Madonna and Child, and in two posts I presented other contemporary examples of young, virile Josephs. I then discussed the nursing Woman and showed that the white cloth draped over her shoulders and the mysterious plant in front of her helped to identify her as the Madonna.

Now, only the city and stormy sky in the background remain in order to complete the puzzle. In my paper I discussed both city and storm and I agreed with those who have seen that the city in the background could be Padua under siege in 1509 during the War of the League of Cambrai.

Yet, Renaissance paintings are notorious for having many levels of meaning. The subject of the painting is the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and so the city in the background must be Judea or, more particularly, Bethlehem from where the Holy Family had fled after Joseph had been warned to flee the murderous designs of King Herod. The storm would then represent the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

In his great work on Medieval iconography, Emile Male discussed the liturgical importance of the Massacre.

The Massacre of the Innocents, which might seem to be an episode of secondary importance, is closely linked with the Christmas feast. In fact, during the three days following Christmas, the Church celebrates the Massacre of the Innocents along with the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John the Apostle. The liturgists tell us that the Church desired to gather around Christ’s cradle the innocent children and the proto-martyr who were the first to shed their blood for the faith; *

Many artists depicted the actual slaughter. Giotto and Duccio provided prominent early examples, and the subject was not uncommon in the Renaissance. In her many travels nineteenth century art maven Anna Jameson noted many depictions of the distasteful subject, but also noted that the Massacre could even be hinted at in versions of the Flight into Egypt.

In pictures of the Flight into Egypt, I have seen it introduced allusively into the background; and in the architectural decoration of churches dedicated to the Virgin Mother, as Notre Dame de Chartres, it finds a place, but not often a conspicuous place; it is rather indicated than represented. **

In my paper I argued that the storm clouds and lightning in the background of the “Tempest” can indicate the massacre of the Holy Innocents, a martyrdom that the Church had always regarded as intimately connected with the passion and death of Christ. I tried to show that storm clouds and lightning were not mere emblems but actual symbols of death and destruction. For example, Joachim Patenir, a Giorgione contemporary, darkened the sky above the city in the background of his depiction of the Rest on the flight into Egypt.

Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Here is Carlo Ridolfi’s description of a storm in a lost painting describing a scene of death and destruction by the early Titian.

It was then decreed by the senate that he should paint for the Sala del Gran Consiglio the armed encounter at Cadore between the imperial troops and the Venetians. In this work, he imagined the natural site of his hometown with the castle situated above on a high mountain where the flash from a lightning bolt in the form of an arrow is suspended and misty globes in the manner of clouds are forming, mixed among the terrors of the unexpected tempest; meanwhile the battlefield is obstructed by the horrible conflict of knights and foot-soldiers, some of whom were defending with their rapiers the imperial flag, stirred by the wind and boldly moving in the air. ***

Although not in a painting, Pietro Aretino gave a very vivid image of the scene of the Crucifixion in his “Humanity of Christ.”

Meanwhile the darkness which had lasted from the sixth hour to the ninth, grew so black that it seemed day had hidden beneath the cloak of night. The clouds driving through the air and obscuring vision resembled a thousand banners of vast size arrayed against the eye of the sun. The sky itself groaned in unprecedented horror. The pallid lightning flashed. The very globe appeared about to dissolve in mist. #

Finally, in my work on the “Tempest” I came to realize that the solitary bird on the rooftop in the painting comes from the Psalms and refers to Rachel lamenting her lost children. In the passage of Matthew’s gospel where Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt, the evangelist records the plight of the ”Holy Innocents,” and recalls the prophecy of Jeremiah,

A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting: it was Rachel weeping for her children,…because they were no more.

The solitary bird on the rooftop in the background of the “Tempest” has hardly been noticed or discussed in all the scholarly literature but it recalls the lamentation of Rachel.The source for the bird can be found in Psalm 102, one of the seven Penitential psalms. (Jerusalem Bible 102, v.7-8).

I live in a desert like the pelican,
In a ruin like the screech owl
I stay awake, lamenting
Like a lone bird on the roof

Coincidentally, a few days ago I came across a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Nicholas Poussin that now can be found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is actually a depiction of the encounter with the young John the Baptist on the return of the Holy Family from Egypt. The Museum notes that they are surrounded by many cherubs. It is true that those in the trees have little wings but the ones on the ground do not. These I believe to be the Holy Innocents. They all look to be the same age as the infant Christ. ###

 Poussin: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Edit: English Poussin scholar David Packwood has kindly supplied this information about the Poussin Rest.
Storm clouds do appear in Poussin's paintings of the Flight into Egypt, usually clouds and cross in a symbolic cluster surrounded by cherubs, who represent the Holy Innocents. See NP's Dulwich Flight and Cleveland one. I covered the New York "Rest on the Flight" in my Phd. It's possible that ALL the children represent the Innocents. There's a putto high up on the tree who has his arms outstretched in an "orans" gesture- and I think Poussin might have been alluding to the cross here, The iconography is very complex in this picture. Did you see the butterflies? I think these are symbols of the infants' soul. Some scholars think that the lake behind the children could allude to baptism. Diana di Grazia wrote a long article about it for the Poussin Cleveland conference way back in the 90s.There's lots of stuff on the Innocents in that. It's also significant that the children are the same age of Christ in the New York picture. According to Counter-Reformation doctrine and debates on infant baptism, Christ was the saviour of infants. Finally, I think the NY picture has a Neapolitan provenance. Significant because one of Poussin's patrons- the poet Marino- came from Naples and wrote a poem about the Massacre of the Innocents, which heavily influenced Poussin. 
Thank you, David.

*Emile Male: Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1858, p. 186.
**Anna Jameson: Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885, p. 353.
*** Carlo Ridolfi: the Life of Titian, Penn State, 1996, p. 75.
# James Cleugh:The Divine Aretino. NY, 1966, 99. 196-7