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.