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.


  1. Frank--You connected with Hasan a year before I did. So, I missed his shift of favorite from "Three Graces" to "Madonna del Cardellino". Now, I am also struggling to imagine a time when Hasan claimed not to be "stirred" by Raphael's Madonnas! Ed G.

  2. Ed--You can still read our comments on Hasan's Tempest post. He got his back up a little when I criticized an interpretation based on the ancient legend of Demeter and Iasion. Like many he found it difficult to see that a painting he loved for its beauty could have a "sacred subject." So, his remark about the Madonnas of Raphael was perhaps more a defensive one. After he somewhat accepted my Tempest interpretation, he told me that he was worried that I might come up with a sacred subject for the Pastoral Concert, another favorite of his.

    After his blog took off in 2010 and he got deeper and deeper into the Renaissance, he grew to understand that paintings based on sacred subjects could indeed be beautiful even to non-believers. Shortly before he died, I sent him my interpretation of the Pastoral Concert, as not quite a sacred subject but still based on the Biblical story of David and Jonathan. He offered little comment but offered to tweet it around. Considering the way we all feel about Hasan now, I don't think I was off the mark in calling it Titian's Homage to the Deceased Giorgione."


    1. Hasan's "defensiveness" towards Christian content in art was certainly diminishing but it never entirely disappeared. And he was always most comfortable when there was a filter of "humanism" that he could peer through. We had quite a number of discussions about devotional pictures--particularly altarpieces--and how they functioned. Although I am quite "traditionally art historical" about such things, he was reassured by the essential fact that I am also Jewish!

    2. I am truly amazed that in the beginning Hasan had such qualms about sacred subjects since he seemed to have such a command over the material when I discovered his blog at the end of 2010. For someone who has no connections to the Judeo-Christian culture it can be a challenge to overcome the subject matter to be really passionate about the art at the level Hasan was. I am glad you helped him see the light Frank. What a beautiful way to end your post!

    3. Sedef:

      As I said to Ed, I think Hasan grew considerably in his appreciation of the "sacred subjects" of Renaissance art. It's not that you have to overcome the subject matter. A true understanding of the subject will create a better appreciation of the artist and his work.


  3. Hi Frank,

    Enjoyed the post.

    It was about 2010 when I started communicating with Hasan like you. It's weird because I was a speaker at RSA in Venice that year, but of course I didn't know you yet as we hadn't connected through Hasan. Don't worry- you're not the only person I missed in Venice!


  4. An interesting text. Have a question, why do you think that the Hermitage Holy Family is a Rest on the Flight to Egypt?

  5. Kiril:

    I suspect I made a mistake on the Hermitage painting. A "Rest" should be three figures in a landscape. Since the Holy Family is in an enclosed building, I suspect that Raphael was depicting them in their lodgings in Egypt, a not uncommon subject.

    My mistake came from my belief that at this time Raphael and other Renaissance masters did not do strictly devotional images of the Holy Family but rather chose to depict episodes from their life.

    Thanks for your comment and the correction.


  6. Hello Frank! I think that "cross-polliination" is a good way to describe my own relationship with Hasan too. We enjoyed sharing ideas and gaining inspiration from each other's posts.

    It is interesting that Joseph leans on a staff in the Hermitage painting, even though the figures are located indoors.

    1. I think he is leaning on the staff as in that particular picture he is depicted as an old man. So the staff is a cane, rather than the traveller's staff as in the Canigiani Holy Family and the Prado picture (The Holy Family with a Lamb) or the flowering branch which he holds in Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin at the Brera.

    2. Monica:

      In my discussion with Kiril forgive me for neglecting to reply to your comment. You were certainly correct to point out the indoor setting.


  7. Kiril:

    I don't think I have ever seen St. Joseph with a cane. The staff is his iconographical symbol. I refers to the legend depicted in the Sposalizio where all the suitors of the Virgin put there staffs in the Temple sanctuary. When a flower or dove appeared at the end of Joseph's it was the sign that he was the one. In the Sposalizio it is not a flowering branch.

    Thanks for your comments. I discuss the Sposalizio in my paper on the Tempest.


  8. Flowering branch was a bit of a misnomer. You are right, a flowering staff would be more proper. But for the cane, couldn’t Raphael have taken artistic licence? He already did that by depicting St Joseph without a beard and it doesn’t look like there is much youth in him. I could easily see him using the staff as a cane.
    By the way, I’ve always had problems with that painting. I am not a Raphael expert and I have never seen the canvas, but there are things that just don’t feel right. Is it really a Raphael?

  9. Kiril:

    I do not have the skill or tools to become involved in attribution issues. In most instances I follow the experts. With Raphael it is always difficult because of the number of assistants in his studio.

    You could be right about the cane. Good artists did not hesitate to add new touches to traditional forms. It might be curved at the top given the position of his resting hand. Maybe, he turned the staff into a cane to accommodate the hands.

    By the way, if you were the author of the Titian post that appeared on the Hasan Niyazi tribute, I added a comment.


  10. Yup one and the same.
    All of us are basically guessing when it comes to attributions, even sometimes when there is a signature on the canvas. But I am really curious to hear what other people have to say about that painting.

  11. Kiril:

    I will try to look into the Hermitage painting. I would also like to continue our Titian discussion privately. If you are interested, please contact me directly. My email address can be found under my profile.