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

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Giorgione: Marian Symbols in the Tempest

If it wasn’t for the nudity of the Woman in Giorgione’s Tempest, we would easily recognize the painting as a version of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” The broken columns in the mid-ground are commonplace in versions of the Rest. At the beginning of the sixteenth century St. Joseph was also being portrayed as younger and more virile than in earlier depictions. We also know that a nursing mother will almost always be the Madonna.

Besides the fact that the woman in the Tempest is nursing, there are two other elements that help to identify her as the Madonna. First, there is the white cloth that extends over her shoulders and even envelopes her son. Second, there is the plant featured so prominently in front of the woman. 

First, let’s consider the cloth. Although some have called it a shirt, it is obvious that it is not an article of a woman’s clothing. It is much too large. No only does it cover the child, but it also covers the woman’s shoulders and back, and then overflows onto the ground. What is it? In my interpretation of the Tempest I identified the cloth as the corporale, the white cloth that covers the altar at every Mass. In Franciscan spirituality Mary was identified as the altar on which the Eucharist was placed. 

In “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice” the late Rona Goffen, one of the most prolific Venetian Renaissance scholars, noted the connection between the Madonna and the Eucharistic altar. For example, in Giovanni Bellini’s famed Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari, 

the viewer-worshipper is meant to identify the Madonna with the altar and the Child with the Eucharist. Bellini's visual assertion of this symbolic equivalence is explained by a common Marian epithet. The Madonna is the "Altar of Heaven." the Ara Coeli, that contains the eucharistic body of Christ....Ave verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine."* 

Later Titian would utilize the corporale in his famed Pesaro altarpiece. Goffen identified the white cloth on Mary’s head in that famous painting as the corporale:

the Madonna's veil recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.**

Titian: Pesaro Altarpiece, Frari

There are other examples. In the so-called “Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds”, variously attributed to Giorgione or Titian, the infant Christ lies on a white cloth that is placed on the stony ground. Many nativity scenes such as this one were actually depictions of the first Mass. The infant Christ, the Eucharist, lies on the white cloth that covers the stony ground.

A lost Giorgione painting that only exists in a seventeenth century copy was once thought to depict the story of the discovery of the infant Paris on Mt. Ida. It is actually a depiction of an encounter of the Holy Family with robbers, an apocryphal episode associated with the flight into Egypt. In that painting the infant Christ lies on a white cloth spread on the stony ground. 

Examples could be multiplied but the fact remains that no other explanation of the Tempest has tried to explain the significance of the white cloth.

Despite countless studies and interpretations, scholars have also avoided discussion of the plant in front of the woman. Some think that it is there to cover the woman’s nakedness although it is obviously doing a very poor job. Most interpretations don’t even mention it. If you take another look at the "Allendale Adoration" above, you will see that a plant (probably a bay laurel) also features prominently in that painting.

When I first saw the “Tempest” I wondered about the plant and thought that it might be one of the plants that are commonly associated with the Madonna. Knowing little about plants, I consulted my younger brother, a high school science teacher and master botanist. It is incredible to walk through the woods with him and hear him name every tree and plant and discuss their characteristics. Without flowers it is hard to identify, but he suggested that the root structure and the way it is growing indicate a nightshade.

Even I knew that the most well known nightshade was the deadly nightshade or belladonna, a plant that I subsequently found out was associated with witchcraft and the devil. Although poisonous, Italian women in Giorgione’s time commonly used belladonna extract to dilate and beautify their eyes. The belladonna plant became another piece of the Tempest puzzle that fit so easily into place. What else could explain the fact that the part of the plant below the heel of the woman had withered and died than the famous quote from Genesis 3:15? God speaks to the serpent about Eve and her offspring. 
I will make you enemies of each other:
You and the woman,
Your offspring and her offspring.
It will crush your head
And you will strike its heel. 
Modern scholars use either “he” or “it” to indicate that it is the offspring that will crush the head of the serpent. During the Renaissance the Latin Vulgate used “she” indicating the popular belief that it was the Woman who would strike at the serpent's head while it struck at her heel.


*Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, p. 53.

Goffen, op. cit., p. 114.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Giorgione: Maria Lactans

In 2006, when I first interpreted Giorgione’s Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt”,  I acknowledged that the nudity of the Woman in the painting was a great difficulty. A nude Madonna is so unique that it is unimaginable. Nevertheless, when I first saw the painting, I think the fact that the woman was nursing her child must have led me to see the Madonna. *

Giorgione: Tempest detail

If Giorgione had clothed the woman, or even just exposed one breast, no one would ever have failed to see the Madonna in this painting. The nursing Madonna or "Maria Lactans" was an extremely popular subject during this era. Usually she is depicted in a landscape with indications that the artist is representing a legendary episode on the flight into Egypt.

Here are some examples. First, we’ll look at two painters from the Netherlands who practically made a living by depicting this subject over and over again. 

Joaquim Patenier: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Joaquim Patenier painted many versions of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. In this version the Madonna sits squarely in the center draped in her traditional blue cloak with a white cloth on her head. One breast is exposed as she nurses her Child. St. Joseph's staff and pilgrim's basket are in front of her while off to the left he searches for food. Behind is a large stone ball atop what remains of the Egyptian temple that according to legend crumbled at the approach of the infant Jesus. In the background there is a depiction of a wheat field that is associated with another legend of the flight. In the left background storm clouds cover a city just as in Giorgione's Tempest.

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Gerard David and his workshop also turned out many versions of the "Rest." In these the Madonna is often just holding her Son on her lap but in the above painting in New York's Metropolitan Museum the Madonna's breast is exposed as she nurses her child. In the right background David depicted the Holy Family on their way into Egypt. A casual tour of the Met or most any museum will disclose other versions of the nursing Madonna by Netherlandish artists.

Italian artists also painted many versions of the nursing Madonna no doubt responding to the demands of patrons. Here are some examples by contemporaries of Giorgione. The Italian versions tended to be more naturalistic than those from the Netherlands and often omitted obvious apocryphal details. Here are examples by Bernardino Luini, Correggio, and Antonio Solario.

Bernardino Luini
Antonio Solario

In addition to the above five, a simple image search for "Maria Lactans" will reveal dozens of nursing Madonnas done by contemporaries of Giorgione. On the other hand, it is very difficult to find a pagan goddess or nymph nursing her child. Therefore, whenever we see a nursing mother, we should immediately think Virgin Mary. As far as the Tempest is concerned the question should not be, "Who is the Woman?" but "Why did Giorgione want a nude Madonna in this painting.?"

I have dealt with that question in my paper and in earlier posts on this site. I will reproduce these posts in the following weeks.


* A short essay appeared in the Masterpiece section of the Wall Street Journal on May 13, 2006. The full paper can be found on my website, MyGiorgione, along with other interpretations that followed upon the realization that this mysterious painting could be a "sacred" subject. I delivered the paper at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in 2010, held that year in Venice on the five hundredth anniversary of Giorgione's death.