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, January 22, 2014

Venice in 1500



It is hard to imagine today but in the year 1500 Venice was the greatest power on the European continent. Founded in the fifth century by refugees seeking the protection of its lagoons from barbarian invaders, the city had become the leading commercial power in the Mediterranean world by the fifteenth century, especially after it had emerged victorious in its life and death struggle with archrival Genoa. Subsequently, Venice became much more than a sea power by gradually extending its dominion over the various cities in the surrounding mainland, the so-called Veneto. This process was largely completed by 1500 and Venice was even beginning to make incursions into the Papal States.

In 1500 none of the other cities in Renaissance Italy could compare with Venice in wealth, military power, or political stability. Florence was mired in civil strife after the downfall of the Medici. Pope Alexander VI and his notorious son, Cesare Borgia, were attempting to regain control over the various warlords of the Papal States, but events were to show that their efforts were built on sand. The fall of the House of Sforza in Milan had made that city and Genoa puppets of the French monarchy. Even the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily was mired in conflict between French and Spanish claimants to the throne.

At the same time France, Spain, England and Germany hardly existed as unified nations and were only beginning to be in a position to challenge Venice after a century of internal disorder and ruinous wars. Still suffering from the ravages of the Hundred Years War, the crafty Kings of France were contending with powerful local nobles while at the same time engaging in costly foreign adventures. In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella had spent the first 30 years of their reigns subduing not only rebellious nobles but also eliminating the last vestiges of Moslem Granada. It would take decades before the discoveries following the voyage of Columbus would help refill the depleted treasuries of Castile and Aragon. England was no better off. The Hundred Years War had been followed by the Wars of the Roses, and although Henry VII was to prove a skillful and resourceful ruler, the success of his Tudor dynasty was by no means assured. Despite the presence of the Holy Roman Empire, the various German states, both large and small, were disorganized and relatively poor. In 1509 it took the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of France, and the Papacy led by the warrior Pope Julius II to inflict a serious but only temporary defeat on Venice at the battle of Agnadello. Within a couple of years the Venetians had recouped most of their losses in the Veneto.

 By 1500 only the Ottoman Empire stood as a serious rival to the power of Venice. The conquest of Constantinople had finally brought an end to the last vestige of the Roman Empire, and established a secure foothold for the Sultan in Europe. Venice appeared to be the only state in Europe with the wealth and sea power necessary to resist further Moslem expansion. Although the Venetians seemed to prefer negotiations with the Infidel in order to safeguard their commercial interests, on occasion they did resort to military action to protect their overseas colonies.

Historians can look back and mark the downfall of Venice to 1453 with the fall of Constantinople, or in 1492 with the discovery of the “New World” by Columbus, but in 1500 the hegemony of Venice in the Mediterranean world seemed secure. The great city-state had existed for over 1000 years, and it would survive as an independent entity for another 300. In 1500 Venice was not just a city, or even a city-state, it was a great island empire.

Contemporary commentators noted that the unique government of Venice provided the stability that lay behind its greatness. Venice was a republic and not a monarchy. The titles of King and Queen were forbidden in Venice. The Doge, the chief executive officer, was elected for life and the position was never hereditary. However, the position of Doge had all the trappings of monarchy. The Doge’s palace on St. Mark’s square was unrivalled in Europe. The ancient and magnificent Church of San Marco was the chapel of the Doge and not the cathedral of the Patriarch of Venice. In fact, only recently had the position of Bishop of Aquileia been elevated to that of Patriarch. Despite the exalted title the appointment of the Patriarch was in the hands of the Venetian government. More than any other country in Europe, the Venetian church was firmly controlled by the state.

The Doge was chosen from the ranks of the patrician families that effectively ruled Venice. Although titles of nobility were also forbidden, Venetian patricians formed the most aristocratic class in all Europe. Unlike England, for example, where the King could elevate wealthy or powerful commoners to the ranks of the nobility, newcomers could not be added to the ranks of the patricians for any reason. In Venice wealth and military prowess were not sufficient to enter the ruling class. It was a closed caste. Positions in the Senate, the Venetian governing body, were reserved for patricians.

Although socially inferior to the patrician class, a host of humanist scholars, scribes, and lawyers played a key role in serving the State and its rulers. Forbidden by law and custom to marry either above or below their caste, these ‘mandarins’ performed both actual and virtual service to the State. At the head of the humanist bureaucracy was the Grand Chancellor, the highest-ranking non-patrician in the government. In most cases his position was also a lifetime appointment. Other humanists served as legal advisors, scribes, and even diplomats. Their virtual service to the State was just as important. They were the writers and historians who used their classical learning to extol the greatness and the destiny of Venice. In other Renaissance centers humanists might place their own studies first and even challenge traditional culture and religious orthodoxy. But Venetian humanists, even those who came from abroad, placed themselves and their learning at the service of the State.

The various merchant and manufacturing classes that made up the rest of the city’s population could be found in any other thriving medieval city, but no other city could match the wealth and prosperity of the Venetians. Venice was the Big Apple.

The artists of the city were regarded as mere craftsmen and they belonged to the guild that represented house painters and wallpaper hangers. The steady demand for devotional images for both public and private use was being augmented as the new century opened by the increasing needs of wealthy patrons to fill their new palaces with beautiful works of art.

Only at the turn of the century would the two Bellini brothers, Gentile and Giovanni, achieve independent fame and recognition. The correspondence of Isabella d’Este shows that Giovanni Bellini had become a kind of super star able to call his own shots and keep wealthy patrons in waiting. It was into this environment that Giorgione and Titian, two young artists from the Veneto, arrived in Venice to seek fame and fortune.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Titian: Madonna of the Rabbit

Titian’s “Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and a Shepherd” is commonly called the “Madonna of the Rabbit” because of the white rabbit prominently featured in the center. The rabbit is held by the Madonna with a thin white cloth that is hardly visible today. The relatively small painting ( 71 x 87 cm.) that bears Titian’s own signature is in the Louvre and most scholars date it to 1530 although some believe it could have been laid in as early as 1520.

The Louvre’s website provides a very comprehensive video examination of the painting featuring curator Jean Habert. He begins with a discussion of Titian’s naturalism and suggests that these figures in a landscape could almost be a genre painting, something like a picnic in the countryside. Nevertheless, Habert admits that it is obviously a religious painting and a “sacra conversazione” in particular. The Madonna and Child are in conversation with St. Catherine while the shepherd off to the right represents pagan antiquity.

This description echoes what can be found in recent catalogues beginning with the 1991 “Titian, Prince of Painters” where the essay on the painting was also written by Habert. Subsequently, Filippo Pedrocco discussed the painting in his Titian catalog of 2001, and then two years later David Jaffe wrote the article in another exhibition catalog, entitled simply “Titian”. #

Despite this virtual unanimity the painting is still largely misunderstood. The title, Madonna of the Rabbit, is almost childish and the painting is not a “sacra conversazione.” The painting is a version of the “Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine”, a very popular subject in the early sixteenth century.

It is very difficult for scholars today to understand the importance of St. Catherine in the Renaissance. It would even be difficult for a modern devout Catholic. Writing in the nineteenth century Anna Jameson noted that Saints Catherine, Barbara, Ursula, and Margaret were in a class by themselves.

Other female martyrs were merely women glorified in heaven, for virtues exercised on earth; but these were absolutely, in all but the name, Divinities… with regard to these, all such traces of an individual existence seem to have been completely merged in the abstract ideas they represented. The worship of the others was confined to certain localities, certain occasions; but these were invoked everywhere, and at all seasons; they were powers…and though the Church assumed that theirs was a delegated power, it was never so considered by the people. They were styled intercessors; for when a man addressed his prayers to St. Catherine to obtain a boon, it was with the full conviction that she had power to grant it. *

In “Sacred and Legendary Art” Mrs. Jameson devoted a long section to St. Catherine, her legend, and her representations in art. Although largely forgotten today, the legend must have been well known during the Renaissance especially given the fact that the famous monastery that bore her name on Mt. Sinai had become a favorite pilgrimage site. Let me just paraphrase Mrs. Jameson’s telling of the story with special attention to elements that might help to explain Titian’s painting.

According to the legend Catherine was born late in the third century to the pagan King and Queen of Egypt. By the time she was fourteen the young princess had already won renown for her great beauty and intellect. At that point her father died and she acceded to the throne. Despite her breeding and wisdom, her noble subjects insisted that she find a husband who could assist her in governing the Kingdom. She agreed but only if they could find a man whose wisdom and wealth exceeded her own. Of course, no such man could be found.

However, the Madonna, from her place in heaven, intervened and directed an Egyptian hermit to approach Catherine and tell her that Mary’s son is more than worthy of her hand. Then, Catherine has a dream and is taken up into the heavens where she enters into a room filled with beautiful saints and angels. They take her deeper into the sanctuary where she is introduced to Madonna herself, who then escorts her into the presence of her Son. But Jesus turns away and refuses to accept her. At this point, an anguished Catherine wakes from her dream. What had gone wrong? She seeks out the hermit who tells her she was rejected because she was a heathen. Immediately, Catherine takes instruction and is baptized a Christian.

Now Catherine has another dream. Once again she is welcomed into Heaven and ushered into the presence of the Madonna who presents her to her son and vouches for her by saying that she herself has become godmother to Catherine at the baptism. This time the Lord accepts Catherine and places a ring on her finger, a ring that is still there when she wakes from the dream.

It is only after this “mystical marriage” that Catherine would go on to suffer torture and death at the hands of a cruel Roman tyrant whose offers of marriage she spurns.

Titian’s painting is not about historical accuracy. It is an account of Catherine’s dream. Painters typically portrayed the mystical marriage as taking place in the Egyptian desert three hundred years before the time of Catherine. The Holy Family is returning from their sojourn in Egypt when Catherine comes upon them.

In Titian’s version of the Mystic marriage Catherine is easily identified by her regal, golden finery although she is somewhat disheveled. Her red robe has fallen around her thighs. She kneels on a wooden box that most commentators have identified as the broken wheel, the famous instrument of her later torture. She has taken the Christ Child in her arms and while he appears to look away, he strokes her chin with his hand.

Madonna sits on the ground wearing her familiar red dress and blue robe. She has obviously handed the child off to Catherine but still looks intently at him. Scientific investigation of the underpainting has revealed that she was originally looking at the man off to the side. Her right arm is hidden but her left hand holds, with a hardly visible white cloth, a striking white rabbit.

The man on the right dressed in rustic clothing is usually called a shepherd but he can only be St. Joseph. Who else would be with Mary and the Child in the Egyptian desert? In contemporary paintings of the same subject by Paris Bordone and Lorenzo Lotto he would figure even more prominently. Both Bordone and Lotto portrayed Joseph as quite young and virile and in one Bordone version, now in the Hermitage, Joseph’s garb is also rustic. 

Paris Bordone, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

Moreover, even when commentators have called him a shepherd, they note some regal features like the laurel wreath in his hair. Some think it might even be a portrait of Titian’s noble patron. The fact that the underpainting shows that the Madonna was originally looking at him also points to his elevated status. Joseph sits on the ground stroking another animal, either a black sheep or ram.

Titian’s “Madonna of the Rabbit” is full of Eucharistic significance. In the 1991 catalog entry Jean Habert noted:

The fruit in the basket…gives the scene, notwithstanding the naturalism of a motif that indicates autumn, a mystical significance of redemption, since these fruits are the symbols of the Passion (original sin redeemed by the wine of the Eucharist). **

There is much more than the fruit in the basket to indicate the Eucharist. The strawberry plant in front of St. Catherine is often associated with an earthly paradise, but can also symbolize the Passion. The prominent plant in the foreground to the viewer’s right appears to be the cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex), with its characteristic five pointed leaf. It was common in Europe and was often used in Medieval architectural decoration. This painting would seem to indicate that its five leaves symbolize the five wounds of Christ.

The Passion of Christ was re-enacted at every Mass and in Franciscan theology Mary was regarded as the altar on which her child is consecrated. Her infant son and the symbolic white rabbit are one and the same. The Infant looks at the rabbit to affirm their identity. Habert claimed that the rabbit is a sign of Mary’s purity or fecundity but why then would she be holding it with a white cloth? In her study of Titian’s famed Pesaro altarpiece Rona Goffen noted the symbolism of the white cloth or corporale. A white cloth is always placed on the altar on which the host rests. *** 

Catherine like all her pious admirers has just offered herself to the Lord and now receives Him from Mary. Catherine herself holds the Infant with a white cloth. It’s as if she had just been handed the communion host by a priest. Joseph sits off to the right and strokes a black sheep or ram, itself recalling the Eucharistic symbolism of the scapegoat from Leviticus 16:20-22.

When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.
Years ago famed art historian Erwin Panofsky noted that it is important to go beyond the naturalism and beauty of these famous and mysterious Renaissance paintings.

In a work of art, “form” cannot be divorced from “content”; the distribution of color and lines, light and shade, volumes and planes, however delightful as a spectacle, must also be understood as carrying a more-than-visual meaning. ****

In the years immediately following the onset of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church responded with renewed devotion to the Eucharist. Artists and their patrons naturally followed suit. Titian, Bordone, and Lotto became increasingly responsive to the devotional needs of their patrons.

# Notes from these sources are appended below.

* Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, ed. By Estelle H. Hurrl, II, Boston and New York, 1895, v. II, 458.

**Titian, Prince of Painters, 1991, cat. entry #23.

*** Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, 114.

****Titian’s Allegory of Prudence: a Postscript, in Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Garden City, NY, 1955, p. 168.


Edit. I have edited the original version of this post to include a brief discussion of the two plants in the foreground. I owe the identification of the cinquefoil to my brother, a master botanist.

Appendix: See below for notes from recent catalogs.

Titian, Prince of Painters, exhibition catalog, Washington, 1991.

209. # 23. Madonna of the Rabbit (Jean Habert)
(signed bottom left on St. Catherine’s wheel: TICIANUS F.

Hourticq [1919] maintained that Federico II is represented as a shepherd crowned with laurel leaves, visible on the right of the painting.

The herd of rams could allude, according to Hope, to the duke’s role as head of state.

X-radiography, published by Hours (1976), has revealed numerous pentimenti, as was normal with Titian. However, a rabbit, cut in half on the lower right of the painting, seems to be the result of bad restoration…

The pose of the Virgin was modified, and hence also her dress, which became more stylish, as did that of St. Catherine. 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….In the final composition, the Virgin restrains a white rabbit, which was added in this phase, becoming a dominant motif.

The fruit in the basket…gives the scene, notwithstanding the naturalism of a motif that indicates autumn, a mystical significance of redemption, since these fruits are the symbols of the Passion (original sin redeemed by the wine of the Eucharist). The white rabbit became in Venice, from Durer and Giovanni Bellini onward, the symbol of the fecundity of Mary without sin and thus of the revelation of the incarnation (Panofsky). The Virgin holds the rabbit with a white cloth which has become almost illegible with time and clumsy restoration, underlining the sacred nature of the animal, symbol of Mary’s purity.

Filippo Pedrocco: Titian, Rizzoli, NY, 2001.

147. #85. Madonna and Child with St. Catherine of Alexandria and a Shepherd (Madonna of the Rabbit)
Canvas 71 x 87 cm. Paris, Louvre.

147. “an important illustration of Titian’s style at the beginning of the 1530s. It shows a return on Titian’s part to Giorgionesque models, especially in the rendering of the broad landscape and the figure of the shepherd on the right (variously identified as St. Joseph or St. John the Baptist, or a portrait of the patron),

147. X-ray examination showed that in an initial version the head of the Virgin was turned toward the shepherd behind her and that her arms were crossed over her chest….The many subsequent modification prompted Beguin (1980) to claim that the work was executed in two phases—the first version in 1520, and the second in 1530.

Charles Hope: Titian, ed. David Jaffe, London, 2003.

118. # 18. The Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and a Shepherd (‘The Madonna of the Rabbit’) 1530.

The female saint is usually identified as Saint Catherine as she appears to be kneeling on her wheel, but it could be read as a chest with a drawer. The painting is one of the most highly finished jewels in Titian’s oeuvre. Evert blade of grass, flower and gold thread is lovingly described….The basket containing grapes and an apple (perhaps alluding to the Eucharist and to the Fall) underlines the devotional intent of the image.

The animated child, the most dynamic of the figures, is the focus not only of the viewer’s attention but also the Virgin’s and St. Catherine’s. He reaches towards the rabbit in a touching, naturalistic gesture, and the rabbit pricks up its ears. The Virgin’s caress of the rabbit is echoed by the shepherd’s putting a black animal usually identified as a sheep, and close examination does suggest a ram’s horn just below the shepherd’s hand.

The royal status of Saint Catherine of Alexandria justifies her rich and fashionable attire,…She carefully holds the child but does not touch his sacred skin…