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

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Giorgione: Year End Review 2018

Back in 2005 I discovered that Giorgione’s Tempest had a “sacred subject”: The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. In May, 2006 a short interpretive essay appeared in the Masterpiece section of the Wall Street Journal. In 2010 I presented a full paper on the subject at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America held in Venice that year on the five hundredth anniversary of Giorgione’s death.

Incredibly, the Tempest discovery led to a number of other discoveries that indicated that many of the most mysterious paintings of the Renaissance also had “sacred subjects”. In 2010 after failing to get any interest from academic publishers, I decided to publish my work on a website, MyGiorgione. I also began to use   Giorgione et al… for more informal articles on Giorgione and others. 
This year I have reprised about 20 of these articles. In the first half of the year I concentrated on different aspects of the Tempest itself like the Man and the Woman whom I had identified as the St. Joseph and the nursing Madonna. I also included essays on the broken columns, the solitary bird on the roof, and the storm in the background. I even reprised my essay on the pentimenti.
I used the summer for some posts on background issues like Venetian humanism but in the fall I reworked a series of earlier posts on other Giorgione paintings. Here is a brief listing.

Judith:This painting of the Jewish heroine Judith with her bare leg atop the head of the defeated enemy general Holofernes is regarded as a ground breaking work. In a September 9 blog post I discussed the reason why Giorgione might have bared the leg of the victorious Jewish heroine.

Homage to a Poet:In a September 28 post I revisited my interpretation of this mysterious painting that has been called any number of things. I still believe that it should be regarded as Giorgione’s version of the Man of Sorrows, an extremely popular sacred subject of the time.

Three Ages of Man:  On October 14 I once again offered my interpretation of this painting as The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man. Most scholars can’t see it but ordinary Catholics easily identify the man on the right in green as Jesus and the young man in the middle as the wealthy young man of the gospel account. The man in red must then be St. Peter the only other individual mentioned in St. Matthew's account.

Boy with an Arrow: In an October 28 post, I offered my reasons for identifying this painting as Giorgione’s version of St. Sebastian.The painting is remarkably similar to a depiction of the saint by Raphael but Giorgione characteristically removed obvious iconographical details like the halo. Instead, he used one simple arrow, the color of the young man’s tunic, and the angelic face to recall the martyr.

The Three Philosophers: On November 16 I again agreed with those who see the Magi in this famous painting. It now hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum alongside the Boy with an Arrow, and the Laura. My own contribution to the debate over this painting was to suggest that Giorgione used the colors of the garments of the three men to symbolize the gifts they presented.

Laura: On November 24 I once again argued that this painting represents Mary Magdalen. Scholars have been puzzled by this painting because of details indicating a chaste wife on one hand, and a courtesan on the other. Only Mary Magdalen fits that description in the Venetian Renaissance.

Adoration of the Shepherds:  Finally, on December 13 I reproduced my post on Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds. This painting is obviously a sacred subject but I believe that most scholars have failed to see the deep Eucharistic symbolism in this painting with the infant Jesus lying on the ground as Venetians believed he lay on the altar during the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
photo courtesy of David Orme

Is it a coincidence that these four last paintings hang next to each other in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum? What if they all are sacred subjects? What does that tell us about Giorgione? What does that tell us about the Venetian renaissance? What does that tell us about the direction of future scholarship? ###

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds

During this year I have been reprising posts that argue that some of Giorgione's mysterious paintings like the Tempest, the Laura, the Boy with an Arrow, and the Three Philosophers are actually "sacred subjects." Moreover, even when the painting has an obvious "sacred subject" I have argued that Giorgione's development of the subject was unique and exceptional. Here is a reprise of earlier posts on one of his most famous sacred subjects. 

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds, Washington

Scholars have expended more time dealing with the controversy that has surrounded the attribution to Giorgione of the so-called “Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds” than they have in trying to understand what is actually going on in the painting. Here I would like to deal with the subject and meaning of this famous Nativity scene that is now in Washington’s National Gallery.

The subject of the painting seems so obvious. It is a depiction of the adoration of the shepherds who have left their flocks to seek out the newborn Savior after hearing the angels’ announcement. Here is the biblical text from Luke's gospel. 

Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made know to us...” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. # 

The relatively small size of the painting indicates that it was done not as an altarpiece but for private devotion. Although the subject is clear, there is a deeper meaning. Why is the infant Jesus lying on the rocky ground and not in a manger or feeding trough? Why is he naked? Where are the swaddling clothes?* 

Actually the newborn infant is lying on a white cloth that just happens to be on the ends of Mary’s elaborate blue robe that the artist has taken great pains to spread over the rocky ground. Giorgione is here using a theme employed earlier by Giovanni Bellini and later by Titian in their famous Frari altarpieces. The naked Christ is the Eucharist that lies on the stone altar at every Mass. The altar is covered with a white cloth that in Rona Goffen’s words “recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.” In Franciscan spirituality Mary is regarded as the altar. 

Clearly, 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.**

The “Adoration of the Shepherds” represents the first Mass. This was not an unusual concept. Many years ago I attended a talk on the famous Portinari altarpiece that now hangs in the Uffizi. The speaker was Fr. Maurice McNamee, a Jesuit scholar, who argued that Hugo van der Goes had also illustrated a Mass in that Netherlandish altarpiece around the year 1475. His argument centered on the spectacular garments of the kneeling angels that he identified as altar servers wearing vestments of the time. He called them “vested angels,” and they are the subject of his 1998 study, “Vested Angels, Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish Painting.”

Hugo van der Goes: Portinari Altarpiece

His Eucharistic interpretation explained the naked infant on the hard, rocky ground. The infant Christ is the same as the sacrificial Christ on the Cross and on the altar at every Mass. In a study of Mary in Botticelli’s art Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel referred to this connection.

it needs to be pointed out first of all that the Renaissance era saw the spread of practices of individual devotion to be carried out primarily in the home…From the theological perspective attention should then be drawn to the emergence of a new trend that…tended to identify the mystery of the Incarnation with the Redemption itself, focusing on the Passion with much less fervour than in the past: whence the growing popularity of  ‘incarnational’ iconographies celebrating the word made flesh, such as pictures of the Infant Jesus in his mother’s arms…while the demand for images with Christ on the Cross, very common in the fourteenth century was drastically reduced.***

It would appear that Giorgione has used the same motif although his angels have become little putti who hover around the scene. The shepherds represent participants in the Mass who kneel in adoration. 

There are many other iconographical details in this painting that could be discussed. Joseph’s gold robe indicates royal descent from the House of David. The ox and ass in the cave are symbols of the old order that has been renewed with the coming of Christ. So too would be the tree trunk next to the flourishing laurel bush in the left foreground. The laurel is a traditional symbol of joy, triumph, and resurrection. (See below for a comment on the cave.)##

Giorgione has moved the main characters off to the right away from their traditional place in the center. Rather than diminishing their importance this narrative device serves to make all the action flow from left to right and culminate in the Holy Family.  Giovanni Bellini had done the same thing in his “St. Francis in the Desert,” and later Titian would use this device in his Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari.

Titian: Pesaro Altarpiece, Frari

Finally, art historian Mario Lucco has suggested that the long hair of the one indicates a Venetian patrician in shepherd’s clothing.* That may be so but I like to think Giorgione indicated that the Savior, whether present on the ground before the shepherds as a newborn King, or on the altar at Mass, is accessible to all. This King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion. 


#Luke’s account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds is the traditional gospel at the midnight Mass on Christmas . The actual arrival of the shepherds at the stable in Bethlehem is the passage used for the gospel reading for the Christmas Mass at dawn.

*Two recent catalogs have offered interpretations. See Mario Lucco’s entry in Brown, David Alan, and Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006. Also see the very strange interpretation of Wolfgang Eller in Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.

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

***Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel, “The Figure of Mary in Botticelli’s Art.” Botticelli: from Lorenzo the Magnificent to Savonarola, 2003. (ex. cat), p. 56.

##  Our recent Bethlehem trip gave an unexpected context to the story.Your remarks on the adoration of the Christ Child as a representation of the first Eucharist and the hard ground/stone as altar are explained very clearly. What is perhaps unusual for a painting of this period is the depiction of a cave rather than a stable, as in Botticelli and others. This seems to hark back to much earlier art.
Our first port of call on our Bethlehem trip was to the Shepherds’ field. There is a roomy cave there, now a chapel. Our guide told us that caves were the usual shelter for shepherds and their sheep – as I read it (via Wikipedia!) stables as such were a much later idea.
So why did Giorgione go for a cave? A few random thoughts. The Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem was a cave. Venice was an important stopping place for Holy Land pilgrims at the time, which Florence wasn’t. The church of the nativity, the Shepherds’ fields and – I think significantly – the Holy Sepulchre were largely in the care of Franciscans, who had an important presence in Venice at this time. Could this be the basis of the tradition?
So what about the Holy Sepulchre? The tomb of Christ was a cave too, and I wonder if this is implied in the painting. I wrote about this on my pages on the entombment – A cave behind, and often an altar-like sarcophagus in front with the dead Christ on it. Another Eucharistic image.
A couple of interesting paintings. One you’ll probably know well as it is in the Met is the Adoration of the shepherds by Mantegna – I think the death and Resurrection of Christ are hinted at here too. I may be wrong, but I think the background shows a depiction of Calvary – that dying tree in front is emblematic too.
Perhaps an even more interesting painting is another adoration of the Shepherds, this time by Cima da Conegliano, painted for the Chiesa dei Carmini in Venice, where it still is. The web Gallery of Art gives dates of 1509 – 10 for this – pretty well the same date as for the Giorgione.
The similarities are striking, though Cima’s painting isn’t as good, and he includes some odd characters – what are Tobit and his fish and that archangel doing there? Both paintings have a couple of odd characters in the background, though one in the Cima is somewhat out of scale. Are they the shepherds at an earlier moment?
What stands out for me in the Cima is the octagonal building in the background – I’m fairly certain this is the Holy Sepulchre, often depicted like this.
So which picture came first, and did they know the other’s work? The Cima was on view in a church, so Giorgione almost certainly would have known it, though whether he had already painted his own is, of course, a moot point.  (David Orme.)