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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow

As far as I know the most important iconographical detail in Giorgione’s  “Boy with an Arrow” has never been discussed. It is the color of the young man’s tunic. Why did Giorgione deliberately choose to clothe him in red? The following is a slight revision of two earlier posts on this subject.

The painting now in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum measures only 48 x 42 cm. The exhibition catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition jointly held by the Museum and the Accademia in Venice provided a full discussion of the interpretive history of the “Boy with an Arrow.” Marianne Koos, the author of the catalog entry, noted that the painting was not always attributed to Giorgione and that his authorship was only generally accepted after 1955. She also noted “it is usually dated to his mature period, between 1506 and 1508.” *

“Boy with and Arrow” is another of Giorgione’s mysterious paintings and a number of different interpretations have been put forward. Koos, whose essay derived from her own doctoral dissertation, did a very nice job of summarizing and analyzing the different views.

While there is general agreement on the painting’s attribution and dating, its subject…remains controversial. Marcantonio Michiel described it as a “boy with an Arrow” in his inventory…compiled in 1531,…Nevertheless, to this day art historians are dissatisfied with the title “Boy with an Arrow”. Thus the figure is alternatively interpreted as “St. Sebastian”, “Apollo” or even “Eros”, respectively to identify the boy as a figure from Christian iconography or classical mythology.…Joannides recently suggested the identification of the boy as “Paris”, who would grow up to slay Achilles with his arrow.

She indicated that Bernard Berenson accepted the Sebastian identification in 1957 but that most scholars since have supported the Apollo or Eros readings. She then proceeded to point out the shortcomings of each interpretation.

None of these interpretations, however, is totally convincing. Against the boy’s identification as “Sebastian” there is the fact that in the art of the early modern period the saint is depicted either as a male nude pierced with arrows, or as a young man in courtly dress….Also absent are the saint’s halo and the contemplative sideways glance, which—as in Raphael’s Sebastian, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo—manifests the painting’s religious content. On the other hand, the classical god Apollo, iconographically related to St. Sebastian via his function as a protector against pestilence is represented in Renaissance art as a blond male nude with laurel wreath, bow and quiver or with a lyre….In 16th century iconography the god of love, Eros, is depicted as a mischievous boy with wings, bow and arrows—not as a melancholy, self-absorbed youth. And in the iconography of the early modern period, Paris, the son of the king of Troy, is depicted holding the apple of Eris rather than an arrow.

Koos believed that some more recent “metaphorical interpretations” pointed in the right direction and proceeded to devote the lion’s share of the catalog entry to her own.

The metaphorical interpretation of the arrow is—both here and in the context of Giorgione’s broader oeuvre—a most promising shift of perspective…which has the advantage of corresponding to Michiel’s description as “Boy with an Arrow”, while simultaneously taking into consideration the iconographic connotations of love and pain proposed for the painting.

Her own conclusion was pretty much what one would expect from a contemporary Art historian.

Giorgione’s youth remains primarily a subject in the discourse of love, an ideal male figure, with whom the male observer may also form an alliance in thought. The ideal-boy picture is not only a painting of…desire, but also of narcissistic identification and a homosocial avowal of brotherhood. 
I’ll leave her objections to the mythological figures to their supporters, but I do not believe that her argument against the St. Sebastian interpretation is very strong. It is certainly true that most depictions of the martyr show a full-length nude figure riddled with arrows. Yet it is also true that a fully clothed, half-length figure of a doleful young man holding an arrow was popular at the time.#

Raphael painted a half-length, clothed St. Sebastian holding an arrow just a few years before Giorgione’s young man. Raphael’s “St. Sebastian” bears a striking similarity to Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow.” Both paintings depict a soulful young man, head tilted to the side, holding a single arrow in his hand. Raphael’s version is dated around 1501 and scholars guess that Giorgione’s dates around 1508. Both are small paintings of about the same size.

Starting with Vasari scholars have speculated on the possible influence of Leonardo on Giorgione, but it is interesting to speculate on the degree to which Giorgione was aware of Raphael’s work, especially after the sojourn of Fra Bartolommeo in Venice in 1508. The following description of Raphael’s painting could easily fit the “Boy with an Arrow.”

The saint grasps the fragile arrow of his martyrdom like a scepter; it is a marvelous image, a tour de force. The subtle treatment of the head, slightly tilted away from the spectator, is close in style to the Madonna with St. Jerome and St. Francis in spite of the difference in scale and like that painting, striking in its icon-like character and lack of three-dimensionality… **

Personally, I believe that the similarities between Raphael’s “St. Sebastian” and Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” greatly outweigh the dissimilarities. Typically, Giorgione removed an obvious iconographical sign like the halo and replaced it with something that I have come to believe characterizes much of his work. He used color to identify the subject.

Red is the symbol of martyrdom. It is the color of the vestment of the priest at every Mass that commemorates a martyr. In an essay on Giorgione’s “Three Ages of Man” I have argued that the color of the garments of the three figures in that mysterious painting now in the Pitti Palace identifies them as Jesus, Peter, and the rich young man of the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s robe is bold red, a symbol of his eventual martyrdom. Christ is shown in green, in what looks like the vestment that a priest commonly wears on most Sundays of the liturgical year.

I have also argued that the colors of the garments worn by the three men in Giorgione’s “Three Philosophers” support those who interpret that mysterious painting as the Three Magi. The color of their garments refers to their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (see "Three Philosophers" post on this site)

Giorgione dressed the young man in the “Boy with an Arrow” in the color of a martyr. There is perhaps an insight contained in the metaphorical interpretation noted above of Marianne Koos.  Neoplatonic discussions of love and desire were not regarded as antithetical to Christian belief. On the contrary, in many respects they brought, if only for a brief moment, Christian beliefs to a new level on the eve of the Reformation.

Where it had been common to invoke St. Sebastian as a protector against the plague, now it would appear that Giorgione and others were seeing him again in his original guise, as one who gave his life for his fellow man. In this respect, he was truly a symbol of Christ-like love. No wonder his story inspired Christians throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and even beyond.


*Marianne Koos, catalog entry, pp. 184-187 in Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004.

# See the comprehensive discussion of St. Sebastian in art in a post at Three Pipe Problem.

** Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Raphael, His Life and Works, 1985, p. 20.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Giorgione: The Three Philosophers

The colors of the garments of the men in Giorgione's "Three Philosophers" have hardly been noticed in the scholarly literature. Do they provide a clue to the subject of the painting? Below find an essay that supports the thesis that the Three Philosophers are actually the Three Magi but at the beginning of their journey. If so, this famous painting would also, like the “Tempest”, have a "sacred" subject. This post is the first in a series this summer where I reprise earlier essays on paintings by Giorgione and Titian as preparation for a projected book. If seen through a "sacred subject" lens, these paintings lose some of their mystery but none of their beauty. 

The "Three Philosophers" is one of only a handful of paintings that scholars definitively attribute to the great Venetian Renaissance master, Giorgione. It was one of the highlights of the magnificent 2006 exhibition, "Bellini, Giorgione, Titian: The Renaissance in Venetian Art," jointly sponsored by the National Gallery in Washington, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

At the symposium that ended the Washington exhibition, one scholar entitled his talk, "The Moment of Giorgione." Another scholar who was given the task of summing up said that despite the greatness of the works by Titian and Bellini, the exhibition was all about "Giorgione." What did they mean?

Besides the universally acknowledged quality of the works attributed to Giorgione, there is an air of mystery about the painter. His death in Venice in 1510 at about the age of thirty-three cut short an incredibly promising career. Although Giorgio Vasari in his famous work on Renaissance painters devoted a small chapter to Giorgione, there is little biographical data. Scholars think that he apprenticed in the workshop of the prolific Giovanni Bellini, but then went off on his own. He was either a mentor, colleague, or rival of the younger Titian who apparently completed some of Giorgione's unfinished paintings after his untimely death.

Giorgione was one of the first Italians to work with oil, a medium that enabled him to break new ground especially in landscape. His style, often called Giorgionesque, influenced Titian to such an extent that scholars often attribute the same paintings to one or the other, or sometimes to both. Moreover, there is an enigmatic quality about the works of Giorgione that is part of his fascination. He is the master of what is called "the hidden subject."

The "Three Philosophers" is a good example. This painting depicts three men standing on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful valley with the sun setting in the West behind a range of mountains. They are dressed in colorful Oriental robes and face a dark rock formation or cave. They and the cave are illuminated by another source of light. Who are they and what are they doing there?

In 1525 Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician and connoisseur, catalogued the paintings in the collection of Taddeo Contarini, another Venetian aristocrat, and described this one as "three philosophers in a Landscape." Two hundred and fifty years later the painting had found its way to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, its current home. In a 1783 catalog it was called, "Three Magi." In the nineteenth century English art doyen Anna Jameson also saw the Magi in this beautiful painting.

I must mention a picture by Giorgione in the Belvedere Gallery, well known as one of the few undoubted productions of that rare and fascinating painter, and often referred to because of its beauty. Its significance has hitherto escaped all writers on art, as far as I am acquainted with them, and has been dismissed as one of his enigmatical allegories. It is called in German, Die Feldmasser (the Land Surveyors), and sometimes styled in English the Geometricians, or the Philosophers, or the Astrologers. …I have myself no doubt that this beautiful picture represents the “three wise men of the East,” watching on the Chaldean hills the appearance of the miraculous star…” *

Since then scholars have debated whether the men are philosophers, astronomers, surveyors, representatives of the three ages of man, representatives of three religions, or the Wise Men or Magi of the Biblical account. *

Today, most scholars accept the "philosopher" interpretation even though they find it difficult to identify which ones. Indeed, the catalog of the National Gallery exhibition and the audio commentary dismissed the "Magi" interpretation. Nevertheless, recent findings suggest that the Magi are making a comeback.

In the catalog of the unprecedented Giorgione exhibition in 2004, a collaboration of the Kunsthistorische Museum and the Accademia in Venice, Mino Gabriele argued that in this painting Giorgione depicted the Magi not at end of their journey but at the beginning, that is, when they first saw the Star of Bethlehem. His most compelling point had to do with the lighting of the painting. If we look carefully, we can see the sun setting in the West behind the mountains, but the three men and the rock formation in the foreground are being illuminated by another source. According to the medieval legend which Giorgione apparently followed, the light of the Star which rose in the East was even brighter than the sun at midday.

Moreover, at the conclusion of the Symposium that ended the exhibition in the National Gallery Salvatore Settis, who had discussed the painting in his book on the “Tempest” offered a striking piece of evidence in support of the Magi. The exhibition itself had done an excellent job of educating the public on the value of using scientific techniques to evaluate the "underpainting" of some of these Renaissance masterpieces. X-rays and other techniques show many "pentimenti" or changes of mind on the part of the artists. When working with oils, the artists would frequently alter their paintings by painting over the original.

In the original version the old man on the right dressed in gold is wearing an elaborate headpiece crowned with a kind of solar disk. For some reason Giorgione decided to discard it in favor of a simple hood. Nevertheless, when the scholar projected an image on the huge screen of a painting by Vittore Carpaccio of the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, the old man in that painting was wearing the kind of headpiece discarded by Giorgione.

Vittore Carpaccio: Adoration.
Magi are in the background

Perhaps both Carpaccio and Giorgione took their inspiration from the elaborate public processions honoring the Magi which were common in the later Medieval world. Nowhere were they more elaborate than in Venice. More than any other city, Venice was aware of the styles and costumes of the Orient.

Finally, I believe that there is one more piece of evidence that so far has eluded scholars but will help to make the case for the Magi. The most obvious feature in the painting is the brilliant color of the costumes. In the ancient legend the gifts of the Magi were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the medieval legend, the oldest of the Magi was the bearer of the gold; the middle-aged man carried the myrrh; and the youngest brought the frankincense. The golden garment of the oldest man needs no explanation. In my encyclopedia the color of myrrh is a dark red, while the color of frankincense can be white or green, the colors of the sitting young man.

In his classic work on Medieval iconography, Emile Male discussed the three Magi and their gifts.

Of all these legends, none was more scrupulously followed by artists than that which assigned a different age to each of the magi….the first king is always shown as an aged man, the second as middle-aged, and the third as a beardless youth….The tradition is very old; it was already followed by miniaturists in the eleventh century, and goes back even further in time. The first mention appears in a strange passage attributed to Bede, and can be found in the Collectanea accompanying his works: “the first Magus was Melchior,” said the Pseudo-Bede, “an old man with long white hair and a long beard…It was he who presented gold, symbol of divine royalty. The second, named Caspar, was young, beardless, and ruddy; he honored Jesus by giving incense, an offering that manifested his divinity. The third, named Balthazar, of dark complexion (fuscus), wearing a full beard…bore witness by offering myrrh, that the Son of Man would die. **

Could it be that Giorgione hid his subject by making it obvious? I think it more likely that most of Giorgione’s contemporaries would have seen the Magi in this great masterpiece.


*Anna Brownell Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, as Represented in the Fine Arts, Boston and New York, 1885, pp. 347-8.

     **Emile Male: Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1986, pp. 216-217.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Giorgione and Titian: Pastoral Concert

The “Pastoral Concert” or “Concert Champetre” that now hangs in the Louvre is universally recognized as one of the world’s great masterpieces. Usually dated around 1510-1511 it is surrounded, like other famous products of the Venetian Renaissance, by an aura of mystery and enigma. Not only has scholarly opinion been divided about whether to attribute the painting to Giorgione or Titian, but also no one has been able to come up with a plausible explanation of the subject or meaning of the painting.

Titian: Pastoral Concert (Louvre)

In this post I present a synopsis of a “working hypothesis” that provides a new interpretation of the subject of the "Pastoral Concert" and also resolves the question of attribution. I argue that Titian used the famous Biblical story of Jonathan and David to provide a framework for a personal homage to Giorgione, his recently deceased mentor and friend. The full 3500 word interpretation can be found at MyGiorgione, a site devoted to my work on Giorgione, Titian, and the art of the Venetian Renaissance.

Before going any further it should be noted that my reading is speculative and unorthodox. As far as I know a painterly homage would be unique and unprecedented in the art of the Venetian Renaissance. Nevertheless, there is no settled opinion on the subject of the “Pastoral Concert”, and a Titian homage to Giorgione answers most of the questions that have surrounded the painting. 

This interpretation explains why Titian put so many Giorgionesque elements in the painting, but also identifies the four main figures in the painting as well as their relationship with one another. The man on the left wearing finery and holding the lute is Giorgione. Many of the features of Giorgione that Vasari mentions in his short biography can be seen in this young man. Moreover, three here-to-fore inexplicable details in the painting indicate that Giorgione is dead: his face is in shadow; the lute has no strings; and the nude on the left is pouring into a well.

This interpretation then identifies the young rustic on the right as Titian. He depicts himself as Giorgione’s social inferior but also as his successor. His closeness to the other man as well as his connection with the flock in the mid ground brings to mind the biblical story of David and Jonathan. Titian identifies himself with David, the soul-mate and successor of Jonathan.

Cima da Conegliano: David and Jonathan
National Gallery, London, c. 1506-10.

My interpretation agrees with those scholars who have observed that the two female nudes in the painting are muses who are invisible to the two men. Although muses are the source of inspiration, the men are oblivious of their presence. Indeed, I argue that the two nudes are the same muse. She is Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry and music. The standing nude is pouring Giorgione’s spirit out, but on the right she is looking directly at Titian.

To express his homage to the deceased Giorgione, Titian incorporated many Giorgionesque elements into the painting. Practically everything that Vasari said about Giorgione can be found in this painting. The most telling evidence is the reference to the story of the paragone where Giorgione claimed supremacy for painting over sculpture since he could portray every aspect of a figure on a flat surface. In one glance the viewer sees the front, the back and the profile of the nude Euterpe.

Many have seen that the relationship between the two young men in the “Pastoral Concert” is the key to the painting. Some have even seen a strong trace of  “homo-eroticism.” In my opinion the bond between two young warriors, or two young artists is sufficient to explain the painting. Look at the painting and consider David’s lament on hearing the news of the death of Jonathan.

O Jonathan, in your death I am stricken
I am desolate for you, Jonathan my brother.
Very dear to me you were,
Your love to me more wonderful
than the love of a woman.*

* 2 Samuel  1:19-26