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

Friday, March 29, 2013

Titian: Sacred and Profane Love, Relief summary

In my previous three posts on Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” I have discussed the figures in the antique relief that is placed so prominently in the center of the famous painting. I have argued that the three scenes represent great sinners: Adam and Eve around the Tree of Knowledge on the right; Cain and Abel toward the center; and on the left side St. Paul being thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus. The relief then has a direct relationship to the real subject of the painting that I have identified as, “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen.” See link.

Today I would like to deal with some possible objections to my interpretation and also present a summary account of the relief.  At the outset I would like to point out that my interpretation of the relief does not fly in the face of any settled opinion on the subject. For the most part scholars have either thrown in the towel, or just offered the scantiest of guesses.

However, in 2001 Paul Joannides, in his study of the young Titian, provided a somewhat thorough examination. He noted the similarity of the relief to an equally mysterious one in an earlier work by Titian, "Jacopo Pesaro presented to St. Peter."

The grey marble trough of the sarcophagus contains a relief. Like that below Peter in Jacopo Pesaro presented to St. Peter, it is not based on any identified classical source but seems to be the invention of the artist.*
In the case of the "Sacred and Profane Love" h e admitted that it would be “reasonable to suppose that the relief had some significance” but noted that so far there has been no plausible elucidation. He did agree that it “would seem odd if so prominent a scene had no relevance to the main one,” and so decided to take a close look. Here is his description of the relief in the “Sacred and Profane Love”.

Starting from the left an engagement of some type, perhaps but not necessarily, a struggle, is proceeding between two figures, one, at the far left clearly male, the other, partly obscured behind the hind quarters of a horse, perhaps, but not certainly, female. The horse, which bears neither saddle nor bridle, is being led calmly left to right by a nude male figure, although since he is partly obscured by the shrub, it is difficult to ascertain exactly the nature of his action. This scene is separated by the bronze nozzle from that to the right which shows a violent episode; a nude woman lying on the ground, is being beaten—probably but not certainly on the buttocks—by a nude man. Taken literally, the scene appears to be one of punishment rather than murder or sexual assault. This group is represented in notional high relief; behind it, in lower relief, is a nude woman, standing to the left of a tree, across which a nude man is advancing towards her from the right, but without any clear intent.
He then paused for a moment to consider the possibility that the nude woman lying on the ground could be a man and the possible implication.

If, on the right-hand side, the sprawled figure could reasonably be identified as male, then the scene might represent Cain killing Abel, in which case the couple behind could be their parents, Adam and Eve either side of the tree of knowledge. But aside from the relative unlikelihood of representing an Old Testament scene on a classical sarcophagus, such a reading of the figures is not convincing, nor would it appear to relate in any way to the scene at the left. The most one can say about it is that a punishment and a conflict do seem to be represented and that it is treated in a specific—and surely meaningful way. 
In other words, Joannides saw Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel but couldn’t believe his own eyes. Two objections deterred him from seeing the relief as a “sacred” subject. In the first place, “there was the relative unlikelihood of representing an Old Testament scene on a classical sarcophagus.” Secondly, he could not see how the biblical scenes from Genesis could relate to the left hand side of the relief. A third objection was left unsaid. Since there is a great likelihood that the centrally located relief is related to the painting as a whole, to see a scriptural subject in the relief would point to a “sacred” subject for the “Sacred and Profane Love.”

Here is another line of reasoning. The figure on the left hand side of the painting is St. Paul who not only called himself the greatest of sinners but who was also one of the great propounders of the doctrine of original sin. He referred to it continually in his letters and felt its effect in his own life. He argued that because of the Fall, sin and death entered the world, and that it was only through the grace of God that he was freed from their clutches.

The conversion of St. Paul fits very well in a relief that also depicts Adam and Eve, as well as the story of Cain and Abel, the first instance of the presence of sin and death in the world. If this relief is a sacred subject, scholars might also want to take another look at Titian’s earlier attempt at an antique relief in Jacopo Pesaro being Presented to St. Peter. The subject of that relief has also eluded identification but I think I see Adam and Eve on the left. Why is it unthinkable that Titian would use an antique relief to depict a scriptural scene? Art historians have to fit their theories to the actual work of the artist and not vice versa.

Finally, I have wondered, along with some correspondents, why the action in the relief seems to move from right to left. You will notice that Joannides in his above description of the relief read it in the traditional way from left to right. Normally, in a narrative painting the action does begin in the left background and progresses through the mid-ground until it culminates with the foreground figures who are either in the center or off to the right. Giovanni Bellini did so in the Frick “St. Francis in the Desert”, and so did Giorgione in the “Tempest.”

In my interpretation of the “Sacred and Profane Love”, I have argued that Titian employed the same left to right narrative scheme. As is often the case the city in the left background is a place of spiritual and even physical danger. The sinful Magdalen has left the city behind and now sits on the sarcophagus in the foreground contemplating her own conversion. We move across the water filled sarcophagus to see her own resurrection to a new life. She appears on the right side of the sarcophagus bereft of her worldly finery. Behind her in the right background the scene, where she will spend the rest of her life, is bucolic and peaceful.

I can only guess as to why Titian might have chosen to have the action on the relief move from right to left. First, it could have been just a painterly decision to have the action on the relief counterbalance the action in the main scene. It is after all a very large painting. I also wonder if he might have just used a copy of an engraving as a cartoon for the relief and just flipped the scene.

On a more profound level, perhaps Titian or his patron wanted the action on the relief to move backwards in time. So we can begin on the left and trace the action back from a story of a conversion from a life of sin to the origins of sin itself. Here is my view of the relief reading from right to left.

Adam stands on the extreme right on one side of the tree. Eve is on the other side and her outstretched arm actually touches her son Cain in the act of murdering his brother. Abel lies on the ground but he faces left away from his parents. In the medieval period Abel, whose sacrifice was acceptable to the Lord, was always viewed as a precursor of Christ. Dividing the relief in half is the spigot with flowing water, and right next to it is the emblem of the donor. On the left side, Paul’s attendant still leads the horse toward Damascus but Paul falls off in the other direction towards a new life. 


*Paul Joannides, Titian to 1518, The Assumption of Genius, Yale, 2001, p. 192.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Titian: "Sacred and Profane Love" Conversion of St. Paul

The meaning of the figures on the antique relief in the center of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” has eluded scholars for centuries. In this post I would like to discuss the horse so prominently depicted on the left side.

In my paper on the “Sacred and Profane Love” I argued that the subject of the mysterious painting is the “Conversion of Mary Magdalen”, and that the figures on the antique relief must therefore be depictions of great sinners.

In my previous two posts I elaborated on my discussion in the paper and looked at the right side of the relief where we can now identify Adam and Eve as well as Cain and Abel. On the left side of the relief we can see a horse whose rider appears to be falling off. We can also make out two other men in front of and in back of the horse.

Why has no one ever seen the conversion of St. Paul in this scene? Anytime, we see a riderless horse in a painting from the Renaissance we should suspect that the artist has attempted to depict the famous conversion on the road to Damascus. Here is the account of Paul’s conversion from chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles:

And as he went on his journey, it came to pass that he drew near to Damascus, when suddenly a light from heaven shone round about him; and falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?” And he said, “Who art thou, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom thou art persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goad.” And he, trembling and amazed, said, “Lord, what wilt thou have me do?” And the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and it will be told thee what thou must do.” Now the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing indeed the voice, but seeing no one. And Saul arose from the ground, but when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing. And leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus.

Although there is no mention of a horse in the scriptural account, it had become part and parcel of the story as early as the fourth century despite the objection of St. Augustine who argued that a Pharisee would never ride a horse. By the Renaissance the horse had become part of the common Catholic imagination and was usually included in artistic representations. 

For our purposes other important parts of the account would be the light from heaven that shone round Paul and forced him to fall to the ground. The voice of Jesus is heard but he does not appear. Also, Paul is accompanied by other men who hear the voice but stand by as speechless spectators.

In Titian's relief Paul is actually falling off the horse's hind quarters. One attendant can be seen in front of the horse, and another tries to prevent Paul's fall at the rear. 

Everyone is familiar with Caravaggio’s famous depiction of the event that still remains in its original location in the Cerasi chapel of S. Maria del Popolo in Rome. Paul lies on the ground, arms upraised toward the light and the horse towers over him.
Caravaggio: Conversion of Paul

Other depictions of the event often present a more tumultuous scene but still include the light, the other men, and the horse. These elements must have been commonplace even before the sixteenth century. Here is a famous tapestry made from a Raphael cartoon.

Tapestry from Raphael cartoon

Early in his career Giovanni Bellini also depicted the conversion of Paul.

Giovanni Bellini: Conversion of Paul

I know that Renaissance artists loved to depict horses but when we see a riderless horse in a seemingly inexplicably scene, we should at least consider the possibility of the conversion of Paul.

There is more than one reason why Titian or his patron might have wanted to include St. Paul in a painting representing the conversion of Mary Magdalen. The conversion stories of both saints were equally famous. At the same time, they were both symbols of sinners converted by divine love.

In researching this piece I turned to the always reliable Emile Male. In his magisterial study of later Medieval art Male re-discovered two extremely popular books of the fifteenth century that have subsequently slipped back into oblivion. The first was the Ars moriendi (the Art of dying):* 
The text was often striking, but it is the astonishing woodcuts above all that spread its fame throughout Europe….death appears not as a farcical dance, but as a serious drama played around the bed of the dying man; angel and devil stand at his side, contending for the soul that will soon depart...
The success of the Ars moriendi was even more extraordinary than the success of the Danse Macabre. Printed editions began to appear after the woodcut editions. Each country had its own…It appeared in turn in French, German, English, Italian, and Spanish….Even Italy, where Gothic barbarity was so scorned, was influenced by the crude woodcuts of the Ars moriendi, although it is true it robbed them of most of their original character. 
The other book was a commentary on the Ars moriendi in an edition published by Verard entitled "L’Art de Bien Vivre et de Bien mourir (The Art of Good Living and Good dying)".  Male noted that a "book that edified all Europe is worth some study." 
Verard's commentary includes a number of episodes with corresponding woodcuts where devils and angels compete for the soul of the dying man. In one episode Mary Magdalen and St. Paul appear with St. Peter and the Good Thief to console the dying man.
When the devil cannot shake the dying man’s faith, he changes tactics. He no longer denies God, but represents him as inexorable….Hideous monsters again rove around the sick man’s bed. One presents him with a large parchment document: this is the list “of all the evils that the poor creature has committed during his sojourn on earth.”…
The angel again descends from heaven, accompanied by four saints. They are St. Peter, who thrice denied his Master; Mary Magdalene, the sinner; St. Paul, the persecutor whom God struck down to convert him; and the good thief, who repented on the cross. These are the great witnesses of divine mercy….
The woodcut shows Mary Magdalene with her jar of ointment and St. Paul is shown atop the fallen horse. the woodcut is dated 1492. In the same year (1514) that Titian painted the "Sacred and Profane Love" Raphael did his famous depiction of St. Cecilia surrounded by four saints. Two of them were St. Paul and Mary Magdalen. ###

Raphael: St. Cecilia with St. Paul and  Mary Magdalen

*Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Late Middle Ages, Princeton, 1986, pp. 348-351.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Titian: Sacred and Profane Love. Relief Figures of Adam and Eve

In my interpretation of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” I identified the subject of the mysterious painting as the “Conversion of Mary Magdalen.” Seeing the painting as a “sacred subject” opened the way to an explanation of the figures on the equally mysterious relief. In a post last week I showed that even the greatest scholars had been unable or unwilling to deal with the figures on the relief.

Last week I discussed the two figures immediately to the right of center and identified them as Cain and Abel. It was not difficult to show that the image of a man in the act of delivering a blow to another man lying prone on the ground was the common way of depicting Cain’s murder of his brother. Titian himself used the same template years later.

In this post I will turn to the two nude figures to the right of Cain and Abel. How is it possible that scholars and others have never been able to identify the nude man and woman standing around a tree as Adam and Eve? What other woman is ever portrayed in full frontal nudity standing by a tree other than Eve. It is a little more difficult to see Adam but if we look closely we see him there on the other side of the tree.

The image of Adam and Eve standing around the tree at the moment of the Fall was probably ubiquitous during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was sculpted on exterior walls and on the interiors of churches and baptistries. Here is an example from the exterior of the Doge’s palace in Venice.

A quick search of the web will also reveal Adam and Eve around the tree on some famous paintings. In the Brancacci chapel Masaccio painted the  expulsion from the garden but Masolino, his associate, portrayed the first couple completely nude by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil right before the Fall.

Later Raphael used the same motif in the Stanze.

Finally, here is a Titian depiction of Adam and Eve around the tree from around 1550. (Prado)

How have scholars not been able to see Adam and Eve on the relief of the “Sacred and Profane Love”?  In his classic study of the art and iconography of the Middle Ages Emile Male noted a similar problem in his own time. He raised the issue in a discussion of carved calendars on famous Medieval cathedrals.
The most beautiful carved calendars are at Chartres, Paris, Amiens, and Reims. They are works of true poetry. In these small scenes, man appears in eternal attitudes. The artist probably intended to represent the peasant of France, but it is also a man of all time, bent toward the earth, the immortal Adam. In their universality, these thirteenth-century reliefs avoid banality. The artists, who themselves did not live far from nature, had experienced this life in all its detail, for just beyond the walls of small medieval towns lay the real country with its tilled fields, its meadows, the beautiful rhythm of its Virgilian labors…when sculptors were imagining scenes of rustic life, they had only to look around them for models….
It is hard to believe that the obvious meaning of these scenes escaped early nineteenth-century archeologists. In 1806, Lenoir interpreted the twelve scenes illustrating the calendar of the cathedral of Cambrai as the twelve labors of Hercules. Dupuis, author of L’Origine de tous les cultes, did identify the signs of the zodiac on the fa├žade of Notre-Dame of Paris, but from this he concluded that the cult of the sun or of Mithra had survived into the thirteenth century. *
Even today scholars and students expend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to find the equivalents of Hercules and Mithras in some of the most beautiful paintings of the High Renaissance. I believe that they are often looking in the wrong place, and often fail to see what would have been obvious to any Venetian artist, patron and even man in the street.  ###

* Emile Male: Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1986, p. 69.