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".

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Giorgione: St. Sebastian


As far as I know the most important iconographical detail in Giorgione’s Boy with an Arrow has largely been ignored. I must confess that in an earlier post on the painting, I also failed to see it. It is the color of the young man’s tunic. Why did Giorgione deliberately choose to clothe him in red? In that earlier post I agreed with those who identified the subject of Giorgione’s painting as the Christian martyr St. Sebastian. I was struck especially by the resemblance of Giorgione’s painting to an earlier St. Sebastian by Raphael. 
Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow
Poplar, 48x42 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Boy with and Arrow is another of Giorgione’s mysterious paintings and a number of different interpretations have been put forward. The exhibition catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition jointly held in Venice and Vienna provided a full discussion of the interpretive history of the painting. Marianne Koos, the author of the catalog entry, noted that the painting was not always attributed to Giorgione and that his authorship was only generally accepted after 1955. She also noted that “it is usually dated to his mature period, between 1506 and 1508.” *
Koos, whose essay derived from her own doctoral dissertation, did a very nice job of summarizing and analyzing the different views. She indicated that Bernard Berenson accepted the Sebastian identification in 1957, but noted that most scholars since have supported a mythological reading such as Apollo or Eros. However, after pointing out the shortcomings of each interpretation, she offered one of her own to which she devoted most of her catalog entry.
Giorgione’s youth remains primarily a subject in the discourse of love, an ideal male figure, with whom the male observer may also form an alliance in thought. The ideal-boy picture is not only a painting of…desire, but also of narcissistic identification and a homosocial avowal of brotherhood. [186]
Her interpretation is what one might expect from a modern art historian but I do not believe that her argument against the St. Sebastian interpretation is very strong. It is certainly true that most depictions of the martyr show a full-length nude figure riddled with arrows. Yet it is also true that a fully clothed, half-length figure of a doleful young man holding an arrow was popular at the time. 
As mentioned above, there is a great similarity between Giorgione’s painting and an earlier depiction of St. Sebastian by Raphael. Both depicted a soulful looking young man with head tilted to one side and holding one arrow in his hand. Raphael also departed from the traditional version of a partially nude man tied to a tree or column and riddled with arrows symbolic of the plague.


Raphael: St. Sebastian

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, also produced a number of half-length versions of St. Sebastian in which he depicted a soulful fully clothed young man holding an arrow in his hand. Like Raphael, Boltraffio included the traditional halo.


Boltraffio: St. Sebastian


The similarities between Raphael’s and Boltraffio’s versions of St. Sebastian and Giorgione’s Boy with an Arrow greatly outweigh the dissimilarities. Typically, Giorgione removes an obvious iconographical sign like the halo and replaces it with something that I have come to believe characterizes much of his work. He uses color to identify the subject.
Red is the symbol of martyrdom. It is the color of the vestment of the priest at every Mass that commemorates a martyr. In an essay on Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man I have argued that the color of the garments of the three figures in that mysterious painting identifies them as Jesus, Peter, and the rich young man of the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s robe is bold red, a symbol of his eventual martyrdom. Christ is shown in green, in what looks like the vestment that a priest commonly wears on most Sundays of the liturgical year. The gold lapels of the young man indicate his wealth.
I have also argued that the colors of the garments worn by the three men in Giorgione’s Three Philosophers support those who interpret that mysterious painting as the Three Magi. The color of their garments refers to their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 
Anyone looking at Giorgione’s painting side-by side with Raphael’s and Boltraffio’s would be hard pressed not to see the saint in the young man. The small size of the three paintings would indicate that they were all made for private devotion. There was a real market for St. Sebastian in the days of recurring plague.
Scholars do not like to recognize Giorgione’s boy with an arrow as the martyr, St. Sebastian. I have come to believe that in addition to the color of his garment, the face of the young man has an angelic quality that can also be observed in the paintings by Raphael and Boltraffio. This face would be appropriate for a martyr. In the account of the persecution and death of St. Stephen, the first martyr, we are told that his face appeared to his accusers as the face of an angel.
And all that sat in the council, looking at him, saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel.


Giorgione dressed the young man in the Boy with an Arrow in the color of a martyr. There is perhaps an insight contained in the metaphorical interpretation of Marianne Koos. Neoplatonic discussions of love and desire were not regarded as antithetical to Christian belief. On the contrary, in many respects they brought, if only for a brief moment, Christian beliefs to a new level on the eve of the Reformation. 
Where it had been common to invoke St. Sebastian as a protector against the plague, now it would appear that Giorgione and others were seeing him again in his original guise; as one who gave his life for his fellow man. In this respect, he was truly a symbol of Christ-like love. No wonder his story inspired Christians throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and even beyond.
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Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004.

Hasan Niyazi


Note: I reprise this post on the fifth anniversary of the death of my blogging friend Hasan Niyazi who passed away suddenly and tragically alone in his apartment late in October, 2013. Hasan was the son of a Moslem family that had migrated from Cyprus to Australia when he was a child. Like the children of many traditional immigrants he broke away from the traditional religion of his family and became an avowed secularist. Somehow, he developed a passion for the art of the Italian Renaissance, especially for Raphael. 

He was obviously an outsider in every respect and so turned to blogging. His blog, Three Pipe Problem, quickly became a web sensation. To his passion for art, he added his scientific background, as well as technical proficiency in mastering blogging technology. Through social media he developed so many friends and contacts that he became a kind of sun around which they orbited. 

I first met him on the web in 2010 when Three Pipe Problem was just beginning to make traction. In the next three years he went from an obscure blogger to a presence in the art history world. Six months before his death he wrote me about his plans.

I am increasingly busy. I have a few interviews coming up, including one with a prominent Florentine restorer, Dr Goldberg and some other scholars. Work on Raphael continues and many other things in the offing. My blog received its millionth viewing the other week, which was pleasant - and I hope to commemorate it with a prize in the near future. I have started learning Italian, and am also still working as a clinician. Blogging has become more than a curious pastime, yet there is still no easy way to make it viable financially, so I must continue in my dual mode! (4/18/2013)

Then, like his beloved Raphael and my beloved Giorgione he was gone in his mid-thirties. He may not have had the face of a Renaissance angel and I don’t know what arrow took his life, but I will always think of him when looking at The Boy with an Arrow.

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