My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of 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"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Renaissance Art Mysteries: Young St. Joseph

My original intuition that Giorgione’s “Tempest” was actually a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” naturally led me to see the young man in the painting as St. Joseph standing guard over the Madonna and Child. But how could that be? Since Joseph was usually portrayed as a sleepy old man, I had to find evidence to corroborate Giorgione’s departure from tradition.

A little investigation found a contemporary theological basis for a young, powerful Joseph who could be regarded as an able protector of his family and also as a protector of the Church. I also found that this young virile Joseph had also been depicted by some of Giorgione’s artist contemporaries, most notably by Raphael in the “Sposalizio”. 

However, the failure to see a young Joseph has led scholars to misunderstand or even mis-identify some paintings that all feature a young, virile St. Joseph. In earlier posts I have discussed these paintings and would just like to summarize them here.  

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine
(private collection)

First, Paris Bordone painted at least two versions of the “Mystic Marriage of Catherine of Alexandria” that depicted a powerful St. Joseph prominently displaying a muscular bare leg. The first is in a private collection but was featured in the great 2006 “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian” exhibition that was jointly sponsored by Washington’s National Gallery and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.* The second is in the Hermitage.

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage, Hermitage

There is no doubt concerning the subject of these paintings but so far no one has been able to explain the mystery of the muscular bare leg. I have argued that Bordone employed that device to indicate a contemporary practice used to “consummate” a marriage by proxy. In both of these paintings a young vigorous Joseph plays a very prominent role.

Second, I have argued that the young man in a depiction of the “Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine” by Lorenzo Lotto is also St. Joseph. Modern scholars have seen the man as St. Mark or St. Thomas but there is no good reason for either of them to be present at that legendary event. But again, St. Joseph acts as a proxy and Catherine directs her gaze to him. It is the spear point at the end of Joseph’s traditional staff that has confused scholars. That is strange but the next two paintings might shed some light on this martial aspect.

In his influential 1969 study of Giorgione’s “Tempest” Edgar Wind noted the similarity of two contemporary Venetian paintings to Giorgione’s “Tempest.” ** The first (shown above) he called Fortezza and Carita and attributed it to a follower of Giorgione. It is now on loan to Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. Like the “Tempest” it depicts three figures in a landscape: a standing soldier off to the side holding a halberd, and a plainly dressed woman seated on the ground with her infant son. Despite the weapon and the youthful soldier, I have interpreted this painting as a version of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”

"Allegory", Philadelphia Museum

The second painting Wind called “The Peaceable Warrior (ex bello pax) and attributed it to Palma Vecchio. It is now in the possession of the Philadelphia Museum which will only label it “Allegory”. Like the first, it depicts a soldier with a halberd standing guard over a seated woman, but this time there are two young children embracing. It is hard for me to believe that Wind and other scholars could have seen the two children and not at least considered the possibility that they are Jesus and the young Baptist embracing in the desert on the return of the Holy Family from Egypt, a scene depicted over and over again during the Renaissance.

It is true that in both these paintings Joseph has taken on the trappings of a warrior capable of defending his family. Actually both these paintings fit the description, "a soldier and a gypsy," that Marcantonio Michiel gave to the “Tempest” when he saw it in the home of Gabriele Vendramin.  However, something has happened in a short space of time to turn the traditional staff in the hands of Giorgione’s man into the weapons depicted in these other paintings. It would seem more fruitful to try to understand the reasons for this change in the depiction of St. Joseph than to just pass these paintings off as allegories.

In this and the previous two posts I have now listed 10 paintings in addition to the "Tempest" that have now been re-interpreted either completely or partially as a result of seeing Giorgione's most famous painting as a "sacred" subject. Others will be listed in future posts. This should serve as a lesson to all students struggling in the field of Art History. There is much more to be discovered in the world of Renaissance art.


* See the exhibition catalog. Brown, David Alan, and Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006.

** Wind, Edgar: Giorgione’s Tempesta, Oxford, 1969.

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