My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of 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"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

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.

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