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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Raphael, Giorgione, and the Flight into Egypt

In the Spring of 2010 I presented my interpretation of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt" to a small panel at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America held that year in Venice on the 500 hundredth anniversary of Giorgione's death.

A few months later I discovered that a fledgling art history blog named "Three Pipe Problem" had posted a discussion of another interpretation of the famous painting. My comment on the site initiated a whole series of comments by the mysterious "H" and some others. Our lively back and forth led to private communication and I discovered that "H" was Hasan Niyazi, a passionate admirer of the art of the Renaissance.

Hasan was especially enamoured of Raphael. His Giorgione post originally appeared on his site on July 28, 2010 and in one of his responses to me he wrote,

I indeed admire Raphael but primarily because he was possessed of a precocious talent and applied himself voraciously and passionately to his work. He also seemed genuinely fond of antiquity, evidenced by his adventures in the Domus Aureus, and depicting himself as Apelles in Causarum Cognito.
 My favorite image of his is actually the tiny painting he did of the Three Graces (Charities), modeled on the Roman statue you can now see in Siena.
His Madonnas are pretty, but I feel no spiritual stirring when I look at them. Margarita Luti herself is more fascinating to me than who she was posing as for Raphael.

At the time I knew little about Raphael but in the course of my work on the "Tempest" I did discover that he had an interest in depicting episodes on the flight into Egypt. In the next three years Hasan and I engaged in some cross pollination. His knowledge of Raphael was of great value to me, and I like to think that my work on Giorgione and "sacred subjects" was of great value to him. He particularly liked the post I reproduce below on "Raphael, Giorgione and the Flight into Egypt."

Raphael: The Holy Family under a Palm Tree*

In the first decade of the 16th century the work of Raphael indicates an interest on the part of him and his patrons in episodes on the Flight into Egypt. During his Florentine period (1504-1508) Raphael did at least two versions of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."

One is a tondo, the “Holy Family under a Palm Tree,” dated c. 1506/7 and currently on loan since 1945 to Scotland’s National Gallery. This painting reflects the naturalism that Italian artists liked to bring to the subject, but also an increased importance for St. Joseph.The prominent palm tree in the background is the only reference that Raphael gives to the popular apocryphal legends surrounding the flight. According to the legend the palm or date tree bent down at the command of the Child so that Joseph could pick its fruit and feed his wife.

In the foreground Joseph is not depicted as a little old man off to the side in search of food. He has been given a prominent position front and center. He holds his simple pilgrim’s staff but is dressed in royal purple and gold. He is no longer a doddering old man and seems capable of protecting the Madonna and Child. Surely, his prominence reflects the growing importance of Joseph in the first decade of the century for Raphael’s patron as well as for most believers.

Raphael: The Holy Family with the Young St. Joseph

Another Raphael “Rest” is the “Holy Family with the Young St. Joseph” in the Hermitage and dated around 1506. The three figures are in an enclosure that looks out on a landscape. Again Joseph is not depicted as a decrepit old man but as a beardless middle-ager.

These two versions of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” are only a hint of the interest of Raphael and his patrons in the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt. Many of the great Madonnas that Raphael painted during his Florentine period are depictions of the meeting of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt.

In Legends of the Madonna Mrs. Anna Jameson gave the background for this legendary meeting.**

Thus, it is related that among the children whom Herod was bent on destroying, was St. John the Baptist; but his mother Elizabeth fled with him to a desert place, and being pursued by the murderers, “the rock opened by a miracle, and closed upon Elizabeth and her child;” which means, as we may presume, that they took refuge in a cavern, and were concealed within it until the danger was over. (356)

Mrs. Jameson added that this meeting has led to some confusion in the minds of artists as well as viewers.

It is nowhere recorded, either in Scripture or in the legendary stories, that Mary and Joseph, in their flight were accompanied by Elizabeth and the little St. John; therefore, where either of these are introduced, the subject is not properly a Riposo, whatever the intention of the painter may have been…366.

Many of Raphael’s most famous Madonnas are versions of this meeting despite their popular appellations.

Painted in 1505 the “Terranuova Madonna” (Berlin, Staatliche Museum, Gemaldegalerie) shows the Infant Christ perusing the scroll presented by the Baptist. The writing clearly refers to the Lamb of God. Inexplicably, another infant looks on. In the left background is a city that represents Judea, and in the right background are the rocks that formed the hiding place of the Baptist.

In 1506 the famous “Belvedere Madonna” (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) shows the Christ Child accepting the sacrificial cross from the kneeling Baptist. Again they are in a landscape with a city in the background.

In the “La Belle Jardiniere” of 1507 (Paris, Louvre) the Christ Child looks up at his mother as John announces the mission. In a study Raphael has Christ looking directly at John.

Dated about 1507 the “Canigiani Holy Family” (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) is a much more elaborate version of the “Encounter with the Baptist.” With obvious reference to depictions of this scene by Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael adds Elizabeth and a prominent Joseph with his staff and golden robe.

Also in 1507 “The Holy Family with a Lamb” (Madrid, Prado) substitutes a lamb for the Baptist. Again in gold Joseph leans on his staff and observes the child riding the lamb.

Finally, around the end of the Florentine period Raphael painted the “Esterhazy Madonna” (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts). The Infant Christ points to the scroll.

What explains the popularity of the “Encounter with the Baptist on the Return from Egypt” in the first decade of the 16th century? It was common to transpose the events of Christ’s maturity to his infancy. The meeting with John the Baptist at the river Jordan is reflected in this earlier meeting on the return from Egypt. John's words, "Behold the Lamb of God," marked the beginning of the salvific mission of Jesus.

Raphael’s interest in these desert scenes reflected the devotion of wealthy patrons as well as humble worshippers. Who can doubt that Giorgione and his patrons did not share the same interest? In the Tempest Giorgione went far beyond the standard image of the “Rest on the Flight” but all the iconographical elements are there.

Vasari described Giorgione as a painter of Madonnas and portraits. The same description could apply to Raphael in the first decade of the 16th century. At the height of what later would be called the High Renaissance both young masters were responding to the great demand for sacred subjects like the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."


Note: Shortly before his tragic, early death Hasan Niyazi had done a post on Raphael's Madonna of the Cardellino (Goldfinch). In one of his last messages to me he thanked me for a comment on the post and indicated that his Raphael favorite had changed since 2010.

Thank you for the kind comment. You may be aware that the Madonna del Cardellino is my favorite Raphael.

*The source for the attributions and dating of the Raphael paintings in this post is Jean-Pierre Cuzin, "Raphael, His Life and Works," 1985.

**Mrs. Anna Jameson:" Legends of the Madonna," Boston, 1885.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Jesus and Mary Magdalen

When my wife and I travel to visit family, I always like to look into local museums if time allows. Recently we spent the whole month of February in the San Francisco bay area primarily to help our youngest daughter who was expecting her first child. Although she was two weeks late in delivering, mother and baby boy Jacob are doing well. We were doubly fortunate since our home state of Connecticut experienced the worst February weather in years.

We did not get to visit any of San Francisco’s noted museums but we did attend Mass regularly at St. Joseph’s Basilica on the island of Alameda across the bay from the city. The large colorful stained glass windows of the Church are interesting examples of Christian iconography, as well as a kind of window into the art history of the early twentieth century in America. The original Gothic church in Alameda, that dated back to the latter half of the nineteenth century burned to the ground in 1919. Back then the church primarily served Alameda’s Irish community and it would appear that they lost little time in rebuilding. The new church was built in California Mission style and the new windows reflected a mixture of traditional Catholic themes as well as a hint of the liturgical reform movement that had been launched by Pope Pius X a decade earlier.

St. Joseph's Basilica, Alameda*

All the windows depict events from the life of Christ. This may seem obvious but it was not always the case back in an age dominated by glass artisans like Tiffany. It was common then to see church windows devoted to the lives of saints or even secular subjects like prominent men and women or pretty landscapes. The spiritual revival that followed the end of the First World War led many architects and designers to reject nineteenth century models and reach back to the era of the early Middle Ages for inspiration.

So on one side of St. Joseph’s Basilica the windows depict scenes from the infancy of Christ. The first is a depiction of the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, a scene made famous by Raphael in his Sposalizio. Next is an Annunciation, followed by the Visitation. In the latter scene the pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who is also with child. In a departure from tradition Elizabeth kneels before Mary and her Child. I had never seen a kneeling Elizabeth before.

The Visitation
St. Joseph's Basilica
Alameda, CA*

The actual Nativity is saved for another place and the next window depicts the Presentation of the baby Jesus to the aged Simeon in the Temple. Then, the fifth window depicts the Flight into Egypt where Joseph leads Mother and Child astride the familiar ass to safety. Joseph, the patron saint of the Basilica, is in all of these windows.

On the other side of the church five windows depict an unusual selection of scenes from the life of Christ. In the first he presents the keys to St. Peter while the second is the healing of the blind man. Then we see Christ with Martha and Mary followed by another miracle, the raising from the dead of the son of the widow. Finally, Christ meets Mary Magdalen in the garden after the Resurrection.

Jesus and Mary Magdalen
St. Joseph's Basilica
Alameda, CA*

This last image deserves comment since it contains some unique features. It could easily be mistaken for a meeting between Christ and his Mother. Their attitudes are calm and both are dressed sedately. However, Christ holds a staff that could represent a gardening implement. Mary Magdalen initially mistook him for a gardener. Also, the Magdalen looks up into his eyes in a way never associated with his Mother. Although there is no trace of the nudity or flamboyance that can be seen in Titian’s “Noli me Tangere”, the depiction is full of emotion.

With his right hand Christ firmly grasps the Magdalen’s wrist to prevent her touching him, but the fingers of his left hand can be seen behind her head in a very tender gesture. I have never seen this before and it seems to me to be more moving than anything done by even the greatest Renaissance masters.

The Basilica of St. Joseph was built in cruciform style and there are three windows that can be seen in the transept. As one faces the altar the right transept contains a Nativity, the beginning of Christ’s stay on earth, and on the left there is an Ascension, the end of his earthly sojourn. Right above the altar is a Crucifixion with Madonna, St. John, and Mary Magdalen at the foot of the Cross. We can imagine the pastor, architect, and window artisan agreeing back in 1919 that the image above the altar should coincide with the sacrifice on the altar at every Mass.

There are five other windows that deserve mention. In the transept two windows can only be seen from the Altar. One depicts the Good Shepherd, and the other depicts “Christ Knocking at the Door”, a popular nineteenth century subject. In the original baptistry at the back of the church there are two windows, one a traditional Baptism of Christ, and the other a depiction of Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Finally, in the choir loft there is a window that depicts Christ pointing to his Sacred Heart and appearing to St. Margaret Mary, a French nun.

The windows of St. Joseph’s not only depict traditional scenes from the life of Christ but they also provide insights into the spirituality of the people who rebuilt the church in Alameda after the fire of 1919. As I said above, the church was primarily made up of descendants of Irish immigrants who had come to California in the previous century. The choice of windows was probably a joint decision between the pastor, architect, and window studio. The laity were rarely involved but all the windows do represent contemporary devotional subjects.

Today, the Irish priests are gone and the new pastor is a dynamic young priest from India. The associate priest is from Vietnam, and a young Deacon is of Mexican ancestry. They reflect an extremely diverse and enthusiastic community that has arisen from many traditions. Still, the beautiful windows link them all together to a history that goes back to the early days of the Church.


* Images by Richard DeMarco, a parishioner.