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

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bosch Exhibition: Venice 2017

When my wife and I visited Venice last October, our primary objective was to see Giorgione’s Tempest. It was most likely our final trip to Italy, and I wanted to see the famous painting one more time. In previous visits we had seen it hung somewhat inconspicuously in a small room or on a large wall replete with other paintings. This time we were pleased to see it given pride of place all by itself in a large gallery. 

Giorgione: Tempest on exhibition 2017 #

Surprisingly, across the way was a small exhibition of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, the Netherlandish painter well-known for his portrayal of seemingly fantastic and surreal subjects. Bosch was a generation older than Giorgione but did the Museum curators sense a connection between the two artists known for their seemingly mysterious and enigmatic subjects?

The Bosch paintings came from the collection of Cardinal Domenico Grimani, the Venetian churchman/patrician, who was renowned as an art collector. His collection, bequeathed to the city on his death in 1523, included the Bosch paintings in the Accademia exhibition. We know that Grimani was not the only Venetian patrician to collect works of art, especially sacred subjects, from the workshops of the Netherlands. The famous Grimani Breviary was a product of that northern region.

On returning home I decided to read Laurinda Dixon’s Bosch, a brilliantly researched interpretive study published in 2003. * The back cover of the book justly claims that Dixon challenges the popular conception of Bosch’s work as “the hallucinations of a madman or the secret language of an heretical sect.” On the contrary,
Dixon presents Bosch as an artist of his times, knowledgeable about the latest techniques of painting, active in the religious life of his community and conversant with the scientific developments of his day. She draws on popular culture, religious texts and contemporary medicine, astrology, and chemistry—especially alchemy, now discounted but then of interest to serious thinkers—to investigate the meaning of Bosch’s art. *
In Dixon’s book Bosch emerges primarily as a painter of “sacred subjects” who attempted to fit the latest developments in science and medicine into his work. Even his most famous and fantastic painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Dixon sees as an attempt to depict an earthly paradise envisioned by the alchemists in their search for the philosopher’s stone.
One thing seems certain: the religious devotion and strong community involvement of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, to whom both Bosch and the counts of Nassau belonged, argue definitively against any heretical content in The Garden of Earthly Delights, no matter how obscure its imagery. We must search for answers once again in the contemporary wisdom of the time, setting aside the biases and prejudices of our own era.* (228)
In this respect no chapters in Dixon’s book are more interesting than her discussion of the effects, often hallucinatory, of diseases like ergotism or “holy fire” that ravaged Bosch’s world. Not only does Bosch depict them in his paintings, but also the incredible cures attempted with often disastrous results. Paintings like the “Garden” are replete with images drawn from contemporary laboratories.

Although not as well-known as Bosch’s other work, the three paintings in the Accademia exhibit provided a good illustration of the various elements in his work. First, there was an unidentified young female martyr being crucified, a very unusual subject. There was a triptych featuring an ascetic St. Jerome in the wilderness replete with a number of odd details characteristic of Bosch’s work.  Finally, there were four small panels depicting the hereafter, ranging from the descent into Hell to the ascent into the heavenly Paradise.

Dixon believed that efforts to identify the young female martyr are not as important as her real significance.
The only sure thing about Bosch’s suffering saint is that, whoever she is, she imitates Christ in her martyrdom, serving as a model of faith and forbearance.* (153)
This depiction of faith and forbearance comes right out of Bosch’s religious background. Dixon’s Bosch is not a heretic, or a proto-Protestant. Bosch was a member of a devout confraternity in his home town of s’ Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. He, his patrons, and the other members of his confraternity were followers of the Modern Devotion that originated in the Netherlands in the early fifteenth century. It’s most famous manifestation was the Imitation of Christ, a little devotional treatise that became the world’s first best-seller after the invention of the printing press. 

Bosch: St. Jerome detail #

This religious orthodoxy can also be seen in the triptych whose central panel features an image of the ascetic St. Jerome in his hermitage in the desert. According to Dixon saints like Jerome,
Reflect the Modern Devotion’s concern with the relinquishing of material things and renunciation of the world. Bosch’s holy hermits are also in keeping with a revival of interest in the rich life of the inner spirit, demonstrated in popular theology and humanist thought. * (155)

Finally, Dixon describes the four apocalyptic panels in the Accademia exhibition with special attention to the last, the Ascension of the Blessed, a depiction “unique in its view of the elect ascending to heaven.” In it are elements drawn from a combination of the Modern Devotion, as well as contemporary astrological thinking.
Presumably, a soul making its way towards God would have to transect each planetary circle on its way up. Scholars have connected Bosch’s tunnel of light with the tenets of the Modern Devotion. In fact, the group’s founder, Jan Ruysbroeck, used the metaphor of unification with the Light to describe the soul’s becoming one with the Creator….Bosch links the essence of God with light itself. * (307)

Bosch: Ascension of the Blessed #

Religious orthodoxy and the need for devotional images must have been one of the reasons for Cardinal Grimani’s interest in Bosch.  
It has been suggested that Cardinal Grimani might have been a patron of Giorgione. In his Giorgione catalog, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo speculated on a connection.
Here we have a number of elements that would lead us to wonder whether behind this manifest connection between Cardinal Grimani’s interests and some of the themes developed by the artist there was an actual, if unrecorded, patron-artist relationship—which might have been at the root of the mix of cultures that defined the young artist.** (210-212)
If we follow Laurinda Dixon’s approach to Bosch, we should be able to imagine that similar motives inspired Venetian patrons who made Giorgione a favorite. Giorgione must be viewed through contemporary Venetian eyes, and not through modern bias and secular opinion.

Giorgione’s paintings remarkably differ from Bosch’s but like Bosch he stretched the envelope in depicting traditional subjects in striking new ways. If Bosch has been misunderstood, so too has Giorgione. Dixon argued that contemporaries of Bosch would have understood the mysterious details in his paintings and recognized them as sacred subjects.

I believe that Giorgione’s patrons would have seen him as a painter of sacred subjects. Vasari characterized him as a painter of Madonnas and portraits.  If we could look through the eyes of Cardinal Grimani, would we see the Tempest as the Rest on the Flight into Egypt; the Three Philosophers as the Three Magi; and the Laura as the repentant Mary Magdalen?


*Laurinda Dixon, Bosch, Phaidon, 2003. Pages cited in parenthesis.

**Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo, Giorgione, Milan, 2009., pp. 210-212.

# Image by David and Helen Orme, our companions and guides on our visit to Venice.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Giorgione's Tempest: The Solitary Bird on the Rooftop 2017

A dozen years after seeing the subject of Giorgione's Tempest as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt", I have found no reason to change my interpretation. Everything I have read since 2005 has only confirmed my initial view that the the nude Woman nursing the Child is the Madonna, and that the young man with the staff is St. Joseph watching over his family. I also identified the broken columns, the city in the background, the plant in front of the Woman, and showed how they fit easily into the puzzle.

However, I must admit that originally I saw no need to identify the bird on the rooftop in the background.  I thought it too insignificant a detail, not realizing back then that every detail in a Renaissance painting is significant. It was only after an online discussion with the late Hasan Niyazi, whose Three Pipe Problem blog had become one of the leading art history sites on the web, that I decided to look into the bird on the roof.

Tempest: Detail *

It is difficult to see the solitary bird hardly visible on a rooftop in the background of Giorgione’s famous painting. Most of the many interpreters of the Tempest fail to mention the bird or attempt to explain its significance. In his 2007 catalog Wolfgang Eller could neither make a positive identification nor offer an explanation.

“A white bird with a long neck sits on the ridge of this roof. The depicted bird is probably neither a heron nor a cormorant, since both of these have a straight neck when they are seated;” **  

Never mind that the bird appears to be standing, this was all Eller had to say.

In 2004 Waldemar Januszczak identified the bird as a crane to support his rather fanciful BBC TV interpretation of the Tempest as the story of Demeter and Iasion taken from one sentence in Homer’s Odyssey. He argued that a crane is often shown with the goddess Demeter. He paid a lot of attention to this little figure in the background but failed to explain why Demeter is nursing one child although she had twins by Iasion.

Eventually, I found the source of the solitary bird in Psalm 102, one of the seven penitential psalms that were so popular during the Renaissance. All of the Psalms were recited weekly in monasteries throughout Europe. John Fisher, the ascetic English bishop and martyr under Henry VIII, had even written a treatise on the Seven Penitential Psalms. Here are the verses from the Jerusalem Bible (102, v.7-8), and the Latin Vulgate where it is Psalm 101.

I live in a desert like the pelican,
In a ruin like the screech owl,
I stay awake, lamenting
Like a lone bird on the roof;

 Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis: factus sum sicut nycticorax in domicilio.
( I have become like a pelican in solitude. I have become like a night raven in a house.)
Vigilavi, et factus sum sicut passer solitarius in tecto.
 (I have kept vigil, and I have become like a solitary sparrow on a roof.)

I was led to the Psalm interpretation after browsing the web for images of various crane like birds. The innumerable images available made it difficult, especially when trying to distinguish between cranes, herons, bitterns, storks, and even pelicans. Despite it’s curved beak even an ibis seemed possible.

Then I recalled that Giovanni Bellini had depicted a Grey Heron in his "St. Francis in the Desert", now in New York’s Frick Museum. John Fleming’s study of this famous painting demonstrated the connection between depictions of fauna and scriptural sources. 

Fleming noted that Bellini's "command of animal anatomy and vegetable forms reveals a close empirical observation, his vision of animal ecology would seem to reflect the literary sources of the Scriptures, and his desert wildlife gives visual form to the poetic diction of the Psalms, Isaiah, and Job." ***(35). 

But how can the well-known and distinctive pelican be confused with a grey heron? Fleming provided the answer.

A cursory iconographic survey of the well-known emblem of the “Pious Pelican” in the Middle Ages and Renaissance will reveal an entire aviary, birds we would be disposed to call pelicans, egrets, herons, eagles, storks, and swans, not to mention many that we would be hard pressed to give a name to at all. In ornithological terms, the “pelican” seems to be any large bird, especially any large water bird. In poetic terms, the pelican is almost any desert bird, so that the pelican and the passerus are treated as equivalents in monastic texts…. ( 42)

Of course, Fleming was discussing Bellini’s "St. Francis" and not Giorgione’s Tempest.

Nevertheless, a solitary bird on a roof lamenting the massacre of the Holy Innocents, symbolized by the storm, is certainly appropriate in a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”  Even more if it is a large water bird associated with the desert and the Nile Delta. In my interpretation of the Tempest, I noted the connection.

The "Tempest” has one subject but more than one level of meaning. On a literal level it represents the escape of the Holy Family from the murderous havoc being visited on the children of Bethlehem and its environs. In the same passage of Matthew’s gospel where Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt, the evangelist records the plight of the  ”Holy Innocents,” and recalls the prophecy of Jeremiah,

"A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting: it was Rachel weeping for her children,…because they were no more."

The solitary bird on the roof is the last piece of the Tempest puzzle. It fits very easily into an interpretation of the painting as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt." As far as I can discover, it fits no other interpretation of the painting. #


* Image used by kind permission of David and Helen Orme, friends from England. When we met them in Venice last October, we had a chance to get as close as possible to the beautifully displayed Tempest in the Accademia. Click on the image to enlarge it and you will see that it is probably the best image of the bird available anywhere.

**Wolfgang Eller: Giorgione, Catalogue Raisonee,  p. 95.

***John Fleming, From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis, Princeton, 1982, 42.

# For an earlier discussion of the Massacre of the Innocents and the solitary bird, see my February 7, 2013 post and note the comment by Poussin scholar David Backwood about a Poussin version.