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".

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Doni Tondo: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph*



Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo is one of the greatest masterpieces of the High Renaissance. It is his only surviving panel painting and now hangs in the Uffizi in its original frame. Most scholars date it somewhere between Michelangelo’s completion of the David in 1504 and his departure from Florence to Rome in 1506. Like many of the masterpieces of this era, it has elicited many different interpretations. At first glance it appears to be simply a traditional rendering of the Holy Family but, on closer inspection, a number of questions arise. 





In the foreground Mary, Joseph, and the Infant Jesus are situated in a landscape. But what is going on? Is Mary handing the Child to Joseph, or is Joseph handing the Child to Mary? Why does Mary look as she does with muscular arms shockingly uncovered? What is Joseph doing in the painting? Why, despite tradition, has he been brought so prominently into the center to play an apparently key role? What is the young John the Baptist doing behind a parapet or wall in the midground? Finally, who are the five male nudes in the background, and why are they there?

As far as the first question is concerned, I originally agreed with Giorgio Vasari’s view that Mary “presents” the child to Joseph. In his life of Michelangelo, Vasari wrote

There came to Angelo Doni, a Florentine citizen and a friend of Michelagnolo. who much delighted to have beautiful things both by ancient and by modern craftsmen, a desire to possess some work by Michelagnolo; wherefore that master began for him a round picture containing a Madonna, who, kneeling on both knees, has an Infant in her arms and presents Him to Joseph, who receives him. Here Michelagnolo expresses in the turn of the head of the Mother of Christ and in the gaze of her eyes, which she keeps fixed on the supreme beauty of her Son, her marvelous contentment and her lovingness in sharing it with that saintly old man, who receives Him with equal affection, tenderness, and reverence, as may be seen very readily in his countenance, without considering it too long. [i]
Most modern scholars disagree with Vasari’s opinion. In a 1968 essay Mirella Levi d’Ancona, because of her belief that Michelangelo was supporting a Dominican view of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, saw the Child raising himself out of his mother’s body as if he was actually being born and sanctifying his mother at the moment of His birth. She wrote,

The Christ child—God incarnated in human form—is issuing from the body of the Virgin to take his human form, and at the same time blesses his mother, to bestow on her a special sanctification. [ii]

On the other hand, in 2003 Timothy Verdon believed that the source of the Doni Tondo could be found in Marsilio Ficino’s Neoplatonic concept of three kinds of love. As a result, Verdon argued that not only was Mary receiving the Child but that the man in the painting was not even St. Joseph.

the old man in the Tondo Doni seems to flout the tradition of a passive Joseph, separate from Mary, for the simple reason that he is not Joseph: he does not represent the surrogate father, but the real one, God, from whom the Son proceeds ab aeterno. Vasari was mistaken when he said that the old man “takes” the baby from Mary; it is rather the baby who emerges from the Father, with his left foot on the Father’s thigh and his little hands in Mary’s hair to maintain his balance. The Baby, with his right foot on Mary’s arm, is about to push himself up and over, in order to descend into the Virgin’s womb.[iii]
I now believe that neither view is correct. Vasari was often mistaken or ill informed but he was a close friend and confidant of Michelangelo. It would be almost the height of temerity to reject his eyewitness description of the central feature in this painting. Nevertheless, it would appear that he did not take more than a glance at the painting. For example, he saw the Madonna kneeling although she is obviously sitting.

It is so easy to overlook or ignore important and obvious details in a Renaissance masterpiece, but there are significant elements in the Doni Tondo that call for a new interpretation. Rather than handing off the Child to Joseph, I would argue that Mary is actually elevating the body of her Son in the same way that a priest elevates the Host or Body of Christ at the Consecration of every Mass. The keys to this interpretation are the hands of Mary, and the posture of Joseph.



The position of Mary’s hands and fingers cannot allow her to either hand the Infant Jesus off to Joseph or take the Child from him. As I pondered the painting, I asked myself where had I seen hands like that before. Eventually, I realized that Mary’s hands and fingers resembled a priest’s at the Consecration. After the Second Vatican council liturgical norms in the Catholic church were somewhat relaxed, but I remembered from my childhood that the priest would take the host between the thumb and forefinger of both hands before and during the elevation. Naturally, his other fingers would then close or cup in the shape of Mary’s as he raised the host. Since the priest’s back was to the congregation, he would raise the Host high above his head and look at it intently in the same way Mary does in the Doni Tondo.




In the art of the Renaissance it was common to equate the infant Jesus lying on his mother’s lap, or on the ground surrounded by various worshippers, with the Eucharistic host. The Portinari Altarpiece is one of the best examples. The infant Jesus lies on the ground surrounded by worshippers including angels wearing the vestments of altar servers. In Franciscan theology, for example, even when Mary was holding her infant Son on her lap, she was the altar on which the Eucharist rested.

Hugo van der Goes: Portinari Altarpiece

Verdon noted that his view partly arose out of a conversation with the late famed art historian Leo Steinberg. In 1974 Steinberg published a brief essay on the Doni Tondo in Vogue magazine. Steinberg’s reputation was so great that practically every commentator on the Doni Tondo refers to the Vogue essay. In that essay Steinberg saw deliberate ambiguity in Michelangelo’s famous painting that makes it very difficult to determine who is handing the Child to whom. But he did find four levels of meaning including a Eucharistic one. Here is his ending.
Christian tradition made the Virgin’s identity interchangeable with Ecclesia; and it made Joseph the typus apostolorum, protector and spouse of the Church, “guardian of the living bread for himself and the whole world” (St. Bernard). And as the maternal function of the Church culminates in the Mass, which engenders the sacramental body of Christ, so in the tondo, the unprecedented pitch of the Child above the Madonna prefigures the Elevation of the Host, of the Corpus Verum, the Eucharist—literally, a “Thanksgiving.”[iv

Steinberg did note the “furled fingers” of Mary but only concluded that since no woman would ever receive a child in that way, “she must have just let it go.” So, in his opinion, the raising of the Child only “prefigures" the Elevation of the Host….”




I would also like to point out that the garments of Mary indicate a priestly role. Michelangelo depicted her in her traditional red dress with her blue cloak or mantle draped over her legs. But there is also a green cloth wrapped around her on which a book, perhaps a Missal, rests. Green is still the color of the priest’s vestments on most of the Sundays of the Church year.

The concept of St. Joseph as protector and spouse of the Church is sufficient to explain his prominent position in the Eucharistic celebration. The man in Michelangelo’s tondo bears all the characteristics of St. Joseph as he was portrayed during the early decades of the sixteenth century. Joseph was increasingly depicted as a virile man quite capable of protecting his family especially on the flight into Egypt. One just has to look at Raphael’s Sposalizio in the Brera. In addition, the purple and gold coloring of his garments also identifies Joseph as from the line of King David.

The posture of Joseph also confirms his identification. He is behind Mary and the Body of Christ. At the consecration of the Mass the sacrifice is offered to the Father above at the heavenly altar. Also, we see that Joseph is not standing since he does not tower over the sitting Madonna. Is he squatting awkwardly? Is he sitting on a hidden stool? We can only see his right leg but it is bent at the knee. It would appear that Joseph is kneeling or genuflecting as all worshippers do as the priest elevates the Body of Christ. At the same time his left hand is placed firmly on the Infant’s chest. Is he actually receiving Communion or just indicating the central role of the Church in the acceptance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?


Even before the Reformation doubts had arisen about the Real Presence. The building of the great Cathedral in Orvieto in response to the Eucharistic miracle at Bolsena is one example of the Church's response to these doubts. Raphael's so-called Disputa in the Vatican Stanze is another response.

Subsequent posts will discuss the young John the Baptist in the mid-ground, and the five nude men in the background.


###

*This post originally appeared on Giorgione et al... on May 31, 2015.

[i] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston du C. De Vere, with an introduction and notes by David Ekserdjian, Everyman’s Library, 1996, v. II, p. 656.

[ii] Mirella Levi D’Ancona: "The Doni Madonna by Michelangelo: An Iconographic Study." Reprinted in Michelangelo, Selected Scholarship in English, edited with Introduction by William E. Wallace, New York and London, 1995, V. 1.Life and Early Works, p. 404. This paper originally appeared in the Art Bulletin in 1968.

[iii] Timothy Verdon, Mary in Florentine Art, Firenze, 2003, pp. 97-98.

[iv] Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo,” Vogue, December, 1974, pp. 138.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Rona Goffen and the Venetian Renaissance



The late Rona Goffen passed away on September 8, 2004 at the age of 60. By that time she had become one of the leading scholars in the field of the Venetian Renaissance. She was one of the few art historians who saw the importance of understanding the religious and cultural background of Venetian artists and their patrons.



Goffen wrote many books and articles on the Italian Renaissance but, in my opinion, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice remains as the single best introduction to the art of the Venetian Renaissance. Subtitled “Bellini, Titian and the Franciscans,” she discussed the theological and devotional background of the magnificent paintings by Bellini and Titian in the Frari, the Franciscan center in Venice. *

As a prelude to viewing the paintings she discussed the writings of prominent clerics like St. Bernardino of Siena, a patron saint of Venice, and Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, especially when it came to depictions of the Madonna. She pointed out the importance, but also the difficulty, of seeing things through their eyes.

In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nevertheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination. (79)

Seeing through Venetian eyes means understanding first of all the great importance of religion to the ordinary Venetian. Because of its many disputes with the Papacy, Venice is sometimes regarded as a proto-Protestant state when in reality it was usually more Catholic than the Pope. Goffen understood that the Republic identified itself with the Madonna and her Immaculate Conception.

No Venetian--and no Venetian Franciscan--could have been unaware of the rich associations, both political and spiritual, of the Madonna in Venice, and indeed of the identification of the one with the other. After all, Venice, too, was apostrophized as a Virgin, always safe in the embrace of her beloved Evangelist St. Mark...(145).

This confluence of the sacred and the secular found its way into Venetian art.

And both Pesaro altarpieces embody that singular combination of sacred and civic elements that characterizes Venetian art, Venetian history, and Venetian piety, together with the very personal concerns and ambitions of the donors, concerns in themselves both spiritual and secular. In Venice the image of the Immaculate Conception combines the sacred and the secular in a very particular way. (136)

Goffen concentrated her attention on the Frari, itself dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and on its incomparable altarpieces. The dust jacket of her book gives a good summary.

The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice encapsulates the history of Venetian Renaissance art as well as the histories of a patrician family, a religious order, and a city. The decoration of the Frari—notably commissioned by members of the Pesaro family—not only reflects their piety but their rivalry; in addition, it represents the particular concerns and the character of the Franciscan order and alludes to the relationship between church and state in Renaissance Venice. All this is embodied in the altarpieces painted for the Frari by two of the greatest masters of Venetian art—Giovanni Bellini and Titian.

In chapter 2 Goffen described the influence of Franciscan spirituality on Bellini’s famous triptych where every detail is important.


The Frari triptych was his fourth (and last) great commission of works painted for the Franciscan order or with a specifically Franciscan theme,...Bellini learned much about Franciscan sensibility and Franciscan spirituality. (54)

Chapter 3 deals with the Assunta, the painting that established Titian’s reputation. Although called the Assunta, the “theological and spiritual context is the triumph of the Immaculate Conception.” (74)


For Titian and his Franciscan patrons, there can be no doubt that "S. Maria Gloriosa" implied "S. Maria Immacolata"... Given the liturgical and theological assimilation of the Virgin's Immaculate Conception with her Assumption, it comes as no surprise that the visual imagery of the former was frequently based upon representations of the latter. (93)

Goffen found the source of Titian’s work in a sermon by Lorenzo Giustiniani, whose collected sermons had been printed in Venice in 1506.

There is another text, however, that can almost be read as the libretto for Titian's "opera," and that is the sermon for the feast of the Assumption by Lorenzo Giustiniani... it seems that the artist or his Franciscan patrons must indeed have been referring to Giustiniani's text, or something very like it.

Chapter 4 is devoted to Titian’s famed Pesaro altarpiece. Looking at that painting with its "dual sacred and secular imagery, combining the representation of the Immaculate Conception with references to the Serenissima" through Goffen’s eyes is a revelation.



In her last chapter, “The Cult of the Madonna in Venice,” Goffen claimed the Bellini triptych, as well as Titian’s Assunta, Pesaro altarpiece, and Pieta were representations of the Immaculate Conception.
Titian's Pieta must be considered, therefore, together with Bellini's triptych and Titian's own earlier works for the Frari. The four altarpieces (or the three alone, in situ) represent the dedication of the Frari to the Immaculate Conception in visual imagery that suggests the similarities of the Madonna, and hence her church, with the Most serene republic of Venice. (154)

In the year 1500 Venice was not only the greatest city on the Italian peninsula but it was also the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Europe. England, France and Spain were just emerging from a century of civil wars. Germany was hopelessly divided and the Emperor was little more than a penniless figurehead. The Papacy was still contending with threats to its authority from Roman warlords and conciliarist bishops. Only Venice seemed to have the will and wherewithal to deal with the Ottoman Empire.

To read Rona Goffen’s book is to understand that in the age of Bellini, Giorgione and Titian,  practically every Venetian would have believed that they owed it all to the Immaculata. Yet in history things can sometimes turn on a dime. In the year after Titian painted the Assunta, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg. In the next few years radical Protestant reformers would be destroying images of the Madonna all over Europe.

It is hard for moderns, even Catholics, to understand or sympathize with the beliefs of Venetian painters and patrons. Interestingly, in the 19th century as hordes of Catholic immigrants were pouring into the United States, the Catholic hierarchy dedicated the country to the Immaculate Conception. Today, most of the descendants of those immigrants have no idea of the meaning of the doctrine.

I owe a great debt to the late Rona Goffen. When I originally saw the nudity of the woman in the Tempest as Giorgione’s way of depicting the Immaculate Conception of Mary, I just assumed that the doctrine was important in Catholic Italy. However, it was only after a chance encounter with Goffen’s Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice that I came to realize just how important the Immaculate Conception was in the Age of Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian.

###

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

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Emile Male: The Gothic Image


                                                
West Rose Window
Chartres
 “in reaching out to the immaterial through the material man may have fleeting visions of God.” Emile Male.

Emile Male was a pioneering nineteenth century French historian who almost single-handedly rediscovered the magnificent art of the French cathedrals of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. 

I first read The Gothic Image, the English paperback version of Male’s study of the thirteenth century cathedrals while teaching Western Civilization at a small college in Connecticut over 50 years ago. Even after I left academe to pursue a career in the world of finance, I continued to read Male and eventually went through his complete three volume set, Religious Art in France, re-published by Princeton from 1984 to 1986.*

Male was a pioneer not only because he was one of the first to see the real  subjects of the Gothic windows and sculptures after years of “Enlightenment” obscurantism, but also because  he employed the tools of modern historiography. It almost seems that he actually visited every church and chapel in France as well as a host of others on the European continent. He also found the long forgotten texts that provided the key to the understanding of the windows, paintings, and sculptures that filled the sacred spaces.

It may seem commonplace now but for Male the art of the Middle Ages was primarily didactic. Its purpose was to teach and instruct.  Although it often achieved great beauty, art was not to give visual pleasure. 
 Through the medium of art the highest conceptions of the theologians and scholars penetrated to some extent the minds of even the humblest of people. 
Every branch of human knowledge found its way into the cathedrals which resembled great ships carrying the faithful to their final destination. All that was needed to be known could be found on board. Male identified the six major areas of knowledge depicted in the cathedrals. 

•1. History of the World
•2. Dogmas of Religion
•3. Example of the saints
•4. Hierarchy of virtues (and vices)
•5. Range of the sciences
•6. Arts and crafts

Iconoclastic revolutionaries attacked and destroyed the statues and windows of the cathedrals because they believed that they were representations of the history of the French monarchy. Male showed that they were mistaken because the medieval theologians and artists were more interested in “sacred” history. History could be divided into six major subject areas. 

•1. Old Testament
•2. Gospels
•3. Apocryphal stories
•4. Saints and the Golden Legend
•5. Antiquity—secular history
•6. Close of History—Apocalypse

In dealing with such important subjects the artists followed the dictates of the scholars and theologians. 
the artistic representation of sacred subjects was a science governed by fixed laws which could not be broken at the dictates of individual imagination. 
Even in the Renaissance when great artists like Giorgione and Titian were stretching the envelope, they still were true to traditional iconography. When I was searching for an explanation of the two broken columns in Giorgione’s Tempest, I had only to turn to Male’s description of the apocryphal legends surrounding the flight into Egypt. 


Many medieval writers told that when Jesus entered the temple of Sotinen, called Hermopolis by others, he caused the idols to fall, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: “Behold the Lord will ascend upon a swift cloud and will enter into Egypt. And the idols of Egypt shall be moved at  his presence”…When the governor of the town, Affodosius, heard of the miracle, he went to the temple; when he saw that all the statues were broken, he worshiped Jesus…. 
The Church adopted the story of the Fall of the Idols, which like many apocryphal legends, grew out of a desire to justify a prophetic text, and it authorized the artists to represent it….The thirteenth century gave an abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend. There are neither town, temple nor priests…two statues falling from their pedestals and breaking in two suffice to recall the miracle. ** 
More than an encyclopedic reference, Male was a true guide for anyone seeking to understand Medieval and Renaissance art. He showed how symbols could be decoded to identify once familiar subjects. The nimbus or halo was a sign of holiness within and was only used to identify Christ, the Madonna, the Apostles, and the saints. Christ is always shown with his unique “cruciform” halo. God the Father, Jesus, and the Apostles are always bare foot, but not the Madonna and the saints. Divine intervention is usually indicated by a hand emerging from above or from clouds. Cherubs indicate the eternal rest of Heaven. 

Well-known Apostles have their identifying characteristics. St. Peter usually has curly hair and a short stubby beard. St. Paul is bald with a long straight beard since he belonged to the Jewish sect that did not cut their hair. He is often shown with the sword used in his own execution. St. John, regarded by tradition as the youngest Apostle, is usually beardless.

Even events must follow the rules. At the Last Supper Jesus and the Apostles are ranged opposite Judas who is bereft of halo. At the Crucifixion the Madonna must stand at the right hand of Jesus and St. John at the left. The right hand always indicates the place of honor. At the Annunciation artists could vary the postures and attitudes of the angel and the Virgin, but there must always be a flower between them.


Male explained why the altar must always be oriented toward the East, the direction of the rising sun. Only after the Reformation would the Jesuits discard this ancient practice. The cold, dark North side of the cathedrals would always depict scenes from the Old Testament while the warm and bright South would be used for the New Testament. The West was the direction of the setting sun and therefore used to depict the end of the world and Last Judgment as seen in the great West Rose window of Chartres.

Numerical symbolism was extremely important. The number 3 represented the Trinity and all spiritual things. Four represented all material things, since matter was made up of the four elements of air, earth, fire, and water. Seven was a particularly important number for it represented humanity, the unique sum of spirit and matter. There were the seven ages of man, the seven virtues with their corresponding vices, the seven sacraments, and even the seven planets that played a mysterious role in governing human destiny. The number 12, the product of 3 and 4, represented completeness. It was the number of the Apostles, the tribes of Israel, and of the universal Church.

Rose Window, Assumption Church
Fairfield CT ***

Consider this little Rose window from the back of my own parish church in Connecticut which was modeled on the Norman Gothic style of the twelfth century. The risen Lamb of God from the Book of Revelation reclines on an altar with the Seven Seals. Around this center the twelve petals of the rose each contain a symbol of one of the  Apostles who represent all the elect. This same circular window representing Paradise can be found in all the great French cathedrals, as well as in Dante’s Paradiso.

 For Medieval artists and craftsmen the choice of subject was extremely important. To paraphrase Male, every form clothed a thought, and thought fashioned the matter and assumed plastic form. 

Sadly, most modern scholars seem to have only a token knowledge of his work. I suppose it is regarded as out-dated and old fashioned but, in my opinion, it is impossible to fully understand the art of the Italian Renaissance without poring through his volumes. For Male the Middle Ages ended not with the Renaissance but only in 1517 with the onset of the Protestant Reformation. 

###


 * A convenient paperback collection of excerpts and essays can be found in Emile Male, Religious Art from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century, Princeton, 1982. 

 **Emile Male: Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1986, pp. 220-1. 

*** Image by Melissa DeStefano

Monday, July 29, 2019

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Versions of the  biblical episode on the flight into Egypt were very popular during the Renaissance. Although mentioned only briefly in the Bible, apocryphal legends were popular and formed the basis for most of the depictions, especially of the so-called Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Netherlandish masters like Memlinc and Gerard David led the way, and their versions could even be found in the homes of Venetian patricians. they also made their way to the New World.

Gerard David (c. 1460-1523)
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c. 1510.
Oil on panel, National Gallery, Washington

A version by David, now in Washington's National Gallery, is described as one of his "loveliest and most peaceful" creations. Indeed, it is so lovely that reproductions can still be found featured today in Catholic image sales catalogs. For years my wife and I had one of these reproductions hanging in our hallway without even realizing what it was.

In this version David puts the Madonna and Child in the center sitting on a rocky formation that must be the remains of the Egyptian idols and temple that, according to legend, crumbled on the entrance of the child into Egypt. The Madonna wears her traditional blue and red. The Child holds a bunch of grapes symbolic of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Joseph is in the background using his staff to get fruit from a tree. David dispenses with the bending palm of legend and Joseph does not appear to be very old. His pilgrim's basket is at the feet of the Madonna. The Ass is off to the left.

In this version the Madonna is not nursing but in versions in New York's Metropolitan Museum and in the Prado, David depicts her in the act of nursing. In the Metropolitan version the Madonna nurses in the foreground while the actual flight is depicted in the background.


Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Metropolitan Museum, 

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Prado

In her excellent but unfortunately unpublished 1975 doctoral dissertation Sheila Schwartz noted the popularity of the subject of the Rest.

This composition provided the basis for a new type of Rest—the ‘background’ or ‘fringe’ Rest, where an image of the Virgin and Child in a landscape is transformed into a Rest on the Flight by the addition of Joseph in the middle or far distance, performing his by-now traditional duties of plucking the fruit, getting the water, or even tending the donkey….this composition is most often used by Memlinc’s successor at Bruges, Gerard David…. In David’s many versions of the Rest (and in the shop replicas) the Virgin can be full-, three-quarter, or half-length, and the subject indicated either by Joseph alone or by the whole Flight into Egypt in the background. The frequency of this composition suggests that the David shop was turning out these small Rests (they average ca. 35 x 50cm.) to satisfy a market demand for private devotional images. *

In my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest, I have argued that many of the details in traditional depictions of the Rest on the Flight can be found in that famous painting. We see a nursing mother; a man off to the side; ruins in the mid ground; and dark clouds in the background. Giorgione had the audacity to paint the nursing Madonna in the nude, but if he had clothed her, no one would ever have failed to recognized his painting as a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

###

Sheila Schwartz, The Iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, New York University, Ph. D., 1975, p. 121.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Joachim Patenir: Painter of Landscapes



The popularity of the “Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt” became an important factor in the development of landscape in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Artists, especially in the Netherlands, had to deepen and broaden their landscape background in order to incorporate the very popular apocryphal infancy legends into their work . Depictions of the Rest by these “northern” artists found their way into the palaces of Venetian patricians. Marcantonio Michiel even noted a depiction of “Our Lady with St. Joseph in the desert” by John Scorel of Holland in the home of Gabriele Vendramin, the owner of Giorgione's Tempest.

Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Oil on panel, 1518-1520, Prado.


Joachim Patinir ( 1480-1524) painted many versions of the Rest. One of the best is in the Prado. The Madonna, dressed in blue and white, sits on a rocky outcrop nursing her Child. St. Joseph is off to the left gathering food for her to eat although his pilgrim's staff and sack are featured in the foreground. Behind the Madonna is what appears to be rocky rubble but the large stone ball indicates the remains of the Egyptian idols that collapsed on the arrival of the Child into Egypt. According to Emile Male, the pioneering nineteenth century art historian,  the legendary “Fall of Idols” was a commonplace in depictions of the flight into Egypt.

Northern artists like Patinir usually included episodes from the very popular apocryphal gospels in their paintings. In addition to the “Fall of Idols” Patinir depicted the legend of the “wheat or corn field” in the background. Here is an account of that charming legend told by Anna Jameson in her own inimitable way.

“In many representations of the Flight into Egypt, we find in the background men sowing or cutting corn. This is an allusion to the following legend:--

When it was discovered that the Holy Family had fled from Bethlehem, Herod sent his officers in pursuit of them. And it happened that when the Holy Family had traveled some distance, they came to a field where a man was sowing wheat. And the Virgin said to the husbandman, “If any shall ask you whether we have passed this way, ye shall answer, ‘Such persons passed this way when I was sowing this corn.” For the Holy Virgin was too wise and too good to save her Son by instructing the man to tell a falsehood. But behold, a miracle! For by the power of the Infant Saviour, in the space of a single night, the seed sprung up into stalk, blade, and ear, fit for the sickle. And next morning the officers of Herod came up, and inquired of the husbandman, saying, “Have you seen an old man with a woman and a Child traveling this way?” And the man, who was reaping his wheat, in great wonder and admiration, replied “Yes.” And they asked him again, “How long is it since?” And he answered, “When I was sowing this wheat.” Then the officers of Herod turned back, and left off pursuing the Holy Family….”


Mrs. Jameson added a little aside that could serve as a reminder for scholars even today.

“By those unacquainted with the old legend, the introduction of the cornfield and reapers is supposed to be merely a decorative landscape, without any peculiar significance.” *

In his seminal study of Netherlandish art Max Friedlander argued that the need to include these  stories had an important role in the development of landscape.

“The lovers and buyers of Patenier’s pictures were not satisfied with the effect as a whole, they wanted to read in the picture, they sought in it the leisure of a walk full of varied interest or a journey of discovery. If at every turn in the road they came upon adventure, discovered figures to interpret, relationships to trace, all the more satisfied did they feel….” **

In a 1975 unpublished doctoral dissertation Sheila Schwarz also pointed out that these stories created a new justification for landscape. Patenier had to expand and deepen the landscape in order to accommodate these little stories. “Then Patenir studded his landscapes with vignettes whose presence further authorizes the expansion of the setting.” ***

In the left background of Patenir’s painting we see the city representing Judea from where the Holy Family has fled. Notice the bridge leading out of the city. Then moving to the right we see the newly grown cornfield and the farmer encountered on the journey. In the foreground Madonna and Child have found safety and rest. Click on the Prado link above to zoom in on the details.

Despite obvious differences, it is not hard to notice the similarity between Patenir’s version of the Rest and Giorgione’s Tempest. In both paintings a woman nurses her child while their protector is off to the left. Patenier used rocks and rubble to depict the Fall of Idols while Giorgione used broken columns and ruins. In both paintings there is a city and a bridge in the background. Dark clouds cover Patinir's city just as in the Tempest. Notice how Patenier causes the sky to lighten and grow blue in the center and right background.


Finally, I have argued in my paper on the Tempest that the nudity of the Woman in the Tempest was  Giorgione's idiosyncratic way to depict the Immaculate Conception of the Madonna. Patenir dressed his nursing Madonna not in her traditional red and blue but in blue and white, colors which would later become the standard in depictions of the Immaculate Conception. In addition, Patenier illuminated the Madonna as if to suggest the woman "clothed with the sun" from the Book of Revelation.

Below find other comments from Max Friedlander on Patenir and the Prado Rest.

Patenier was a landscape painter, perhaps the first Netherlander to regard himself, and to be regarded, as a landscape painter, like Albrecht Altdorfer in Germany. Therein lies his fame. Durer, who was on friendly terms with him, calls him the ‘gut Landschaftsmaler’ (the good landscape painter). How highly the specialist was valued is made abundantly clear by the fact that two of his greatest contemporaries, Quentin Massys and Joos van Cleve, collaborated with him: they painted the figures and he added the landscape….

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the Prado is a mature masterpiece. From the plants in the foreground, studied with loving insight and botanical accuracy, to the dusky masses of foliage in the middle ground, from the fancifully constructed Romanesque temple buildings to the blue distance, everything is scrupulously worked out, abundant and rich. The principal figure, the Madonna in a light cloak, firmly outlined but with a softly flowing line, seems a little out of keeping with the whole.


A powerful mood is emitted from this panel; though descriptive and didactic, it seems imbued with poetry.


These last words could also apply to the Tempest.

###

*Anna Brownell Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, as Represented in the Fine Arts, Boston and New York, 1885. pp. 359-360.

**Max Friedlander, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, London, 1956, pp. 79-81.

***Sheila Schwartz, The Iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, New York University, Ph. D., 1975, p. 124.


Saturday, July 6, 2019

Jan van Scorel in Venice


Jan van Scorel, an artist born in the Netherlands around 1495, traveled to Venice to study around 1520, only ten years after the death of Giorgione. Scholars speculate that during his stay he became familiar with the work of Giorgione and Titian. He certainly could have seen the famous frescoes at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, as well as Titian’s Assunta in the Frari.

Jan van Scorel
Madonna with Wild Roses (Rest on the flight into Egypt)#
c. 1530, Utrecht, Central Museum



In 1530 Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician, saw the painting that would become known as the Tempest in the home of Gabriel Vendramin. In his notes Michiel described the painting as the “little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier,” and said it was by Giorgio di Castelfranco (Giorgione). Coincidentally, right after the Tempest entry, Michiel noted a “picture representing Our Lady with St. Joseph in the desert,” and said it was by John Scorel of Holland. The painting would most likely be a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”

One year later, Michiel noted another Scorel in the home of Giovanni Ram at S. Stefano. “The small picture representing the Flight into Egypt, is by John Scorel.” (121). Giovanni Ram’s collection also included two other small pictures representing the flight into Egypt by an unnamed Flemish painter. (122)* (Either one of these "Rests" might have looked like the Scorel on the left.)

[In my paper on the Tempest I have argued that it is also a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”]

Northern painters of sacred subjects like Patenir, David, and Memling were very popular with Venetian collectors. The lesser-known Jan Scorel would appear to have been just as popular. In 1966 Max Friedlander wrote of the vagaries of Scorel’s fame:**

The opinions of the sixteenth century are unanimous on Jan van Scorel and proclaim his fame loudly and--the reasons for this fame... So unbounded is our admiration for Netherlandish painting that Scorel’s determined and conscious turning away from tradition seems at first sight to be a dangerous uprooting. In quite recent times, it is true, there is a dawning tendency to recognize the positive side of the Rome pilgrim’s achievement.

Scorel’s popularity probably stemmed from the influences that Giorgione and other Italian painters exerted on his work. Scorel illustrates the continued importance of sacred subjects like the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” in Venice as well as the “naturalistic” treatments of Italian masters. Here is Friedlander’s account of Scorel’s artistic pilgrimage.

In that same year [1520], the year of Raphael’s death, he probably crossed into Italy and stayed for some time at Venice. From there he made a journey to the Holy land, not merely as a pious pilgrim but also as a mentally alert traveler eager to see the places where Christ’s feet had trodden. This painter’s desire to interpret the biblical scene more ‘correctly’ than had been possible for his predecessors by expressing time and place of the action in the costume, landscape, and architecture could not, of course, lead to results that would satisfy our modern historical sense. Nevertheless,… he was able to offer his contemporaries plausible novelty. The town of Jerusalem, painted in the landscape backgrounds of his religious pictures after studies from nature, was viewed with awe and curiosity...

Scorel returned to Venice from the East, visited several other Italian towns and finally reached Rome… Short as his stay in Rome was, it made a decisive and lasting impression on his entire production.
Because of the Italian influence Scorel represents a break from Netherlandish tradition. In a way, his paintings should be regarded as a primary source for students of Giorgione. He was in Venice only ten years after Giorgione’s death. We know that he was a serious and attentive observer. Michiel’s sketchy notes were recorded two decades after Giorgione’s death. The young Vasari only visited Venice in 1541. Scorel left no written records but his paintings should provide students with visual clues to both the subject matter and manner of Giorgione. Max Friedlander noted that even though Scorel studied in Rome after his sojourn in Venice, the Venetian experience stayed with him.

As a result of his Dutch temperament when he tried to be a Roman he became a Venetian.

Jan van Scorel: Mary Magdalene
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

His finely dressed Mary Magdalene certainly looks Venetian, and the rock formation at the left is Giorgionesque.

###


# Despite the title the presence of Joseph and the Ass in the right background indicates a "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."

*The Anonimo: Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy, London, 1903.

**Max Friedlander, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, London, 1966, pp. 126-132.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Morto da Feltre: Painter of Grotesques



In his brief life of Lorenzo Luzzo, commonly known as Morto da Feltre, Giorgio Vasari wrote that Morto worked with Giorgione on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in 1507-8. Morto was from Feltre in the Veneto, not too far from Giorgione’s hometown of Castelfranco. Although born about the same time as Giorgione, their lives took different paths before they met up again in Venice.  Giorgione went to Venice as a young man but Morto wound up in Rome. Vasari says that he arrived there when “Pinturicchio was painting the papal chambers for Alexander VI.” 

Example of grotesque
It was in Rome that Morto developed an interest in antiquities that led him to devote himself to a particular form of the painter’s craft. Vasari wrote:

Being a melancholy man he was always studying antiquities, and on seeing some arabesques which pleased him, he devoted his attention to them, while in his treatment of foliage in the ancient style he was second to none. He made earnest search in Rome among the ancient caves and vaults. In the villa of Hadrian at Tivoli he remained many months, designing all the pavements and grottoes… Hearing that at Pozzuolo, ten miles from Naples, there were walls full of grotesques in relief, with stuccos and ancient paintings, he went to study there for several months. At Campana, hard-by, a place full of old tombs, he drew every trifle, and at Trullo, near the sea, he drew many of the temples and grottoes. He went to Baia and Mercato di Saboto, places full of ruins, endeavouring thus to increase his skill and knowledge.*

When Vasari calls Morto “melancholy”, he does not necessarily mean sad or depressed.  Melancholia was one of the famous four humors Renaissance humanists believed formed the essence of any human being. Although all these humors were present in every individual, one would inevitably be prominent. So a person could be characterized as sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic or melancholic. 

Albrecht Durer: Melencholia


In his long study of Albrecht Durer’s famous engraving of Melencholia, Erwin Panofsky noted that melancholy had come to be regarded as the characteristic of most great men.

as Aristotle admirably puts it, they may still be subject to depression and overexcitement, but they outrank all other men: “All truly outstanding men, whether distinguished in philosophy, in statecraft, in poetry or in the arts, are melancholics…” ** 

Like many of the artists that Vasari wrote about, Morto has largely been forgotten. Their biographies are often overlooked and even omitted in shortened editions of the “Lives of the Painters.” Nevertheless, Vasari placed Morto on a very high plane and credited him for his studies of the images in ancient Roman caves and grottoes. Morto used this knowledge of the grotesque to become a master of ornamental decorative art.

During the Renaissance grotesque also had a different meaning than it does today. It did not mean ugly or hideous but just referred to the kinds of images found in these newly rediscovered grottoes. As Vasari pointed out, Morto used these strange devices to decorate or trim the walls of modern buildings. I suspect that Morto did not go to Venice by accident but that he was called there by Giorgione to assist in the decoration of the walls of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Giorgione would do the figures but leave the decorative elements to Morto. 

Vasari indicated that like most Renaissance craftsmen, Morto did aspire to do traditional subjects but quickly realized that he could not match the work of Leonardo or Raphael. Nevertheless, Vasari noted that he did try his hand at some Madonnas. He might have even been inspired by Giorgione while working together on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Below is a Madonna and Child that does look Giorgionesque.



In his history of Italian painting during the Cinquecento S. J. Freedberg discussed a painting done by Morto shortly after Giorgione’s death in 1510.

In 1511, at Feltre, Morto signed and dated an altar of the Madonna with St. Stephen and St. Liberale (now Berlin Dahlem). Its style is more advanced than anything on the contemporary Venetian scene except for Titian and Sebastiano…this painting reflects the density of form and something of the tenor of emotion of Giorgione’s later art. ***


Morto came to a sad end. Perhaps his melancholic nature led him to give up painting and seek fame as a soldier in the service of Venice. Without any military experience he was hired as a captain of a 200-man contingent but died in a skirmish outside of Zara in Sclavonia in 1524. 

Here is Vasari’s summation.

In his arabesques Morto approached more nearly to the ancient style than any other painter, and therefore he deserves great praise. What he began was continued by Giovanni da Udine and other artists with great beauty. But their success does not dim the renown of Morto, who was the originator…
###

   
* Giorgio Vasari: The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, in four volumes, translated by A. B. Hinds, ed. With introduction by William Gaunt, London, Everyman Library, 1927, last reprinted, 1970. V. 3, pp. 1-2. Vol. III, Part III, Morto da Feltro, Painter, and Andrea di Cosimo of Feltro (c. 1474—after 1522; 1490=1554)

** Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer, Princeton, fourth edition, 1955, p. 165.

*** S. J. Freedberg:  Painting in Italy, 1500-1600, Yale, third edition 1993, first published 1971, pp. 164-5.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Leonardo's Madonnas


This year marks the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Last month I put up a review post of Leo Steinberg's interpretation of the Last Supper, and I would like to follow up by reprising a 2012 post on Giorgione and Leonardo.

Leonardo: Madonna of the Yarwinder detail

In his famous “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters” Giorgio Vasari claimed a connection between Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgione.

Giorgione had seen certain works from the hand of Leonardo, which were painted with extraordinary softness, and thrown into powerful relief, as is said, by extreme darkness of the shadows, a manner which pleased him so much that he ever after continued to imitate it, and in oil painting approached very closely to the excellence of his model.*[i]

Vasari elaborated on this claim in his biography of Titian which only appeared in the second edition of his “Lives”. He contrasted Giorgione’s work with the work of the Bellini brothers.

But about the year 1507, Giorgione da Castelfranco, not being satisfied with that mode of proceeding, began to give to his works an unwonted softness and relief, painting them in a very beautiful manner; yet he by no means neglected to draw from life, or to copy nature with his colours as closely as he could. And in doing the latter, he shaded with colder or warmer tints as the living object might demand, but without first making a drawing, since he held that to paint with the colours only, without any drawing on the paper, was the best mode of proceeding and more perfectly in accord with the true principles of design.[ii]

Leonardo briefly visited Venice early in the year 1500 after he had been forced to flee Milan following the fall of the House of Sforza. Vasari did not claim that the fifty year old Leonardo met the young Giorgione on that visit or even that they might have seen each others work on that occasion. He traced the influence to about 1507 when Giorgione only saw “certain works from the hand of Leonardo.”

Practically everything Vasari wrote must be taken with a grain of salt. He certainly recognized the genius of Giorgione and claimed that he was one of the inventors of the “modern manner”, but it would have been typical for him to claim that the young Venetian had been influenced by Leonardo, a Florentine.

Nevertheless, Vasari was a painter more than a historian and we must credit him with the ability to detect stylistic similarities in the work of the two masters. But what paintings “by the hand of Leonardo” could Giorgione have seen? Here I would like to discuss the subjects that Leonardo and Giorgione depicted.

In his study of Leonardo, Martin Kemp included a picture gallery of paintings.[iii] It is surprising to find how few works Leonardo actually produced in his long career. Kemp lists twenty-two independent paintings starting with the famous “Annunciation” of 1473-4 done in the Verrocchio studio, to the last painting, “Madonna, Child, St. Anne and a Lamb,” started by Leonardo in 1508 but only completed by 1517.

Interestingly, Vasari’s words about the early Giorgione, that he was a painter of Madonnas and portraits also apply to Leonardo. Obviously both masters worked to satisfy their patrons’ demands for portraits. Leonardo’s portraits of women from Ginerva de Benci (c. 1476-8) to Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1516) are world famous, but the majority of his other works deal with the Madonna.

Madonna and Child with a Carnation

Around 1475-6, not long after the Annunciation in the Verrocchio workshop, Leonardo completed the so-called “Madonna and Child with a Carnation.” According to Kemp, this painting  “shows Leonardo’s first steps in reanimating the genre of the Virgin and Child.” Madonna and Child sit alone inside a room with a landscape perceived through windows. The landscape, according to Kemp, “may reflect his interest in Netherlandish art.”

Benois Madonna

In 1479-80 Leonardo depicted another Madonna and Child, the so-called Benois Madonna, now in the Hermitage.  In this small painting “Leonardo has endowed the relationship between mother and child with new complexity, energy, and intensity of emotional reaction.” Madonna and child are still in an enclosed room. Although there is a window, it is impossible to detect a landscape. 

Around the same time Leonardo also began work on a Madonna in profile (“the Madonna Litta”) which would appear to have been completed by his pupil Boltraffio by 1497. In this work the Mother is nursing the child and both are in an enclosed room with a landscape dimly perceived through windows.


Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre


In 1483 the Milanese confraternity of the Immaculate Conception negotiated a commission with Leonardo “for the large sculpted altarpiece in their chapel in San Francesco Grande in Milan, as part of a series of painted components and polychroming by Leonardo and the brothers Evangelista and Giovanni da Predis.” Two versions of this famous painting now known as the “Virgin of the Rocks" are still in existence: one in England’s National Gallery and the other in the Louvre. Kemp described the revolutionary nature of this painting:

the treatment of light, shade, and colour shows how Leonardo reformed their relationship in painting, using tonal description (i.e. the scale between white and black) as the basis of the definition of form. 

However, the painting also marked a departure in subject. Madonna and Child have been taken our of the enclosed room and placed right within the landscape with two other figures, the infant John the Baptist and an angel. Rocks is not the right word for this landscape. Leonardo has placed his figures in a cave.

Instead of “Virgin of the Rocks” this painting should be called the “Encounter of the Holy Family with the Infant John the Baptist on the Return from Egypt,” or more simply, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Among the apocryphal legends that grew up around the scriptural mention of a flight into Egypt, was the very popular story of a meeting in the desert between the Holy Family and the Baptist who had also escaped the murderous designs of King Herod. Here is Anna Jameson’s account.

Thus, it is related that among the children whom Herod was bent on destroying, was St. John the Baptist; but his mother Elizabeth fled with him to a desert place, and being pursued by the murderers, “the rock opened by a miracle, and closed upon Elizabeth and her child;” which means, as we may presume, that they took refuge in a cavern, and were concealed within it until the danger was over.[iv]

The story became very popular in the fifteenth century and many artists depicted the meeting that centered around the two young children, a meeting that foreshadowed the meeting years later at the Jordan River when John would announce the beginning of the public ministry of the Christ. 

Why was this subject chosen for a Franciscan chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception? As the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception became more popular in the fifteenth century, artists had to grapple with ways to depict the concept. One of the ways was to identify Mary with the Woman from the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation, clothed with the Sun, with the stars in her crown, and with the Moon at her feet. After giving birth to her Child the Woman fled into the desert pursued by the great dragon or devil. 

Until a text is found my best guess is that any depiction of Mother and Child in a landscape could be taken to represent Mary’s Immaculate Conception. In my interpretation of Giorgione’s Tempest I argued that Giorgione had not only put the nursing Madonna in a landscape but also had actually painted her nude to depict her Immaculate Conception.




It is possible that the “Virgin of the Rocks,” could have been seen by Giorgione. Another candidate could be the “Virgin of the Yarnwinder,” c. 1501-7. Kemp attributes both extant versions of this painting to Leonardo with pupils, and notes that technical examination of underdrawings indicates “Leonardo’ s direct involvement in making two pictures of this subject.” He also noted that in both versions underdrawings revealed “Joseph making a baby walker for Christ,” [v]a pentimento that would indicate another reference to the flight into Egypt. 

Finally, there is the Mona Lisa.  Kemp states that the “basis for the picture was established in Florence around 1503-4, where it was seen by Raphael amongst others, but it appears to have been finished much later.”  It’s hard to believe that Giorgione could have seen it. Is this famous painting only a portrait or does it have some mysterious subject? 

Of course, there is always the possibility that Vasari could have been wrong and that Giorgione never saw any of Leonardo’s paintings, and that both artists developed their revolutionary styles independently of each other. Nevertheless, it would appear that both were painters of Madonnas and portraits, and that both depicted scenes from the apocryphal legends concerning the flight into Egypt. 

###
     



[i] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, selected, edited, and introduced by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, NY, 1967, v. II, p. 227.

[ii] Op. cit, p. 235.

[iii] Martin Kemp, Leonardo, Oxford, 2005. Pp. 247-254. Except otherwise noted all the following quotes are from Kemp’s Gallery.

[iv] Anna Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885, p. 356.

[v] Kemp, op.cit., p. 41.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Leo Steinberg: Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper

May 2, 2019 marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci.  I thought it might be appropriate to reprise a review article on Leo Steinberg's interpretation of the Last Supper that originally appeared on this site on 9/18/2014.



The damage to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper is well known. Even after the most recent restoration the huge fresco that measures over 29 by 15 feet is in such perilous condition that viewing access is strictly controlled and limited. 

We know from early copies that much of Leonardo’s work has been irretrievably lost or covered. Early on, the feet of Christ and the Apostles had so disappeared that the monks had no reluctance to put a door in the wall under the figure of Christ. We know of this from copies but even the earliest copies are often unreliable.  They either omit or alter certain important details. Finally, although the painting is still in its original venue, it is impossible to replicate the monk’s dining room or cenacolo and see the painting as its original viewers would have seen it.

Compared to the physical damage that Leonardo’s work has suffered, the interpretive damage has been even greater. It was this damage that Leo Steinberg set out to repair in an extended essay, “Leonardo’s Last Supper,” that appeared in the Art Quarterly in 1973. Almost thirty years later in 2001 he published his definitive revised update, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.

I am not familiar with the critical reaction to either study except to the extent that Steinberg referred to it in the 2001 book. Nevertheless, anyone reading Steinberg's book today would have to acknowledge that it a revolutionary masterpiece by one of the greatest art historians of the twentieth century.

In the introduction to his book Steinberg recalled two questions that he had raised in the 1973 study. “Is there anything left to see? And, Is there anything left to say?” 

Of course his answer was positive. 
What remains to be told about Leonardo’s Last Supper is not some residual matter previously overlooked; the novelty of the subject is the whole of the work responding to different questions. In the present study, the picture emerges as both less secular and less simple; contrary to inherited notions, it is nowhere “unambiguous and clear,” but consistently layered, double functioning, polysemantic.[i]
Steinberg took on an academic tradition that had been entrenched ever since the time of the Enlightenment, especially after Goethe’s famous essay claimed that Leonardo had depicted the psychological shock on the faces of the Apostles at the moment immediately following the announcement of the betrayal. Goethe’s interpretation had seemingly settled the matter for all future observers. Steinberg, however, blamed nineteenth secularism for a profound mis-reading.
In the art of the Renaissance, the obscurantism imputed to religious preoccupations seemed happily superseded. Ideal art was believed to reveal humane truths which the service of religion could only divert and distort. And it was again in Leonardo in whom these highest artistic goals, originally embodied in ancient Greece, seemed reaffirmed. In this projection of nineteenth-century values upon Renaissance art, the masterworks of the Renaissance were reduced to intelligible simplicity, and Leonardo’s Last Supper became (nothing but) a behavioral study of twelve individuals responding to psychic shock. [ii]
By 2001, almost 30 years after his original study had been published, he could remark that his interpretation was “no longer news,” and that the “common view” was “no longer pandemic.” But I wonder if he was too sanguine. A quick web search found that the lead Wikipedia article began with the following pronouncement.
The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him. 
 I suspect that his thesis is still only known by a small coterie of Art historians. I even think that most Art history graduate students are not required to read it.

Reading Steinberg’s Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper not only brings one deeper and deeper into a great masterpiece, but also deeper and deeper into the mind and culture of the genius who was Leonardo. However, since the common view holds that the painting depicts the psychological reaction to the announcement of the betrayal, I would like to concentrate on Steinberg’s analysis of Leonardo’s portrayal of the Apostles.

Beginning with the general principle “that nothing in Leonardo’s Last Supper is trivial,” Steinberg asserted that the subject of the picture was not merely the betrayal announcement but the whole story of the Last Supper; the Institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, and the significance of it all to the viewer. 

Leonardo’s task,
never before attempted, was to collect in “conjoint presence” a super dozen male sitters strung across nearly 29 feet of wall, to convert the drag of enumeration into what he called a “harmonic total effect.”[iii]
Leonardo’s solution of the problem is “an untiring marvel” but first we must identify the Apostles. In their places from left to right there are Bartholomew, James (the eventual head of the Church in Jerusalem), Andrew, Peter, Judas, and John. On the other side there are James (the son of Zebedee), Thomas (who has thrust himself ahead of James), Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus (sometimes called Jude), and Simon.

anonymous copy, c. 1550

Much of the detail of the original has been lost but an anonymous copy c. 1550, gives a very good look at the hands and feet of the 13 men in the picture. Steinberg stressed the significance not only of the feet of Christ but of the Apostles. Christ’s feet are central and larger and they announce his impending crucifixion. The feet of the Apostles are there to be washed but also represent their role and future destiny.
this very night, each of these feet is washed and wiped dry by the Master. In view of the gospel…how negligible can these feet be; surely, this is their hour! [iv]
While he stressed the importance of viewing Christ and the Apostles as a whole, Steinberg also broke them down into groups of six, three and two, and discussed the various relationships in these groups. Here are some examples.



 Let’s start with the triad of Simon, Thaddeus, and Matthew on our right at the end of the table.  
A flotilla of six open hands in formation strains toward Christ, as if in immediate response to the word “take!” ….the Communion of the Apostles is imminent.[v]
Hands take on special significance. The “affinity” of the left hand of Thaddeus to the left hand of Christ “leaps to the eye.”
Thaddeus’ hand toward Christ; Christ’s toward us. It is missing a lot to dismiss the correspondence as accidental.
Feet, hands, even fingers are important. In the triad at Christ’s left hand (Philip, Thomas, James) the finger of Thomas, who has thrust himself forward toward Jesus, is a veritable sign marker, “the finger destined to verify the Resurrection, the Christian hope…"
this upright finger occurs in Leonardo’s rare paintings no less than four times, invariably pointing to heaven…The steeple finger is Leonardo’s trusted sign of transcendence…[vi]

The triad closest to Christ’s right hand includes Peter who denies, Judas who betrays, and John who remains to the end at the foot of the Cross.
The inner triad refers to imminent Crucifixion. It contains the dark force that sets the Passion in motion, then, behind Judas, St. Peter. Peter’s right hand points the knife he will ply a few hours hence at the arrest. And the interlocking hands of the beloved disciple are pre-positioned for their grieving on Calvary.
The figure of Judas who recoils from the plate is given special attention. Steinberg’s interpretation is buttressed by an analysis of a Leonardo drawing that depicts “the wretchedness of a man who had once been chosen by Jesus.”


Leonardo: study of Judas

Leonardo brought a tragic vision far in advance of what his contemporaries could fathom. The subjective experience of abjection never received more humane understanding.
The triad on the left furthest from Jesus includes Andrew, the brother of Peter, James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and Bartholomew. They are all interconnected. Andrew sits next to his brother and James places the hand of ordination on each of them. Peter’s knife points to Bartholomew and prefigures the form of his martyrdom. The pose of Andrew is particularly interesting.
For those who have seen a priest at the altar, who recall the corresponding pose of St. Francis stigmatized and, finally, Andrew’s own story, he is the Apostle whose lodestar is crucifixion….
At the end of the table Bartholomew has risen with his feet awkwardly crossed, an inexplicable oddity that has even led some copiers to correct Leonardo’s “mistake.” However, Steinberg noted one tradition that had Bartholomew crucified, a martyrdom he yearned for in order to emulate the Master. 
Speaking of Jesus, no review can do justice to Steinberg’s discussion of the figure of Christ, no longer seen as a passive figure sitting back while the Apostles react to the betrayal announcement. 
as the person of Christ unites man and God, so his right hand summons the agent of his human death even as it offers the means of salvation….the Christ figure as agent—both hands actively molding his speech, and both directed at bread and wine…[vii]
Unfortunately, Goethe only saw the painting briefly in Milan. In his analysis he relied on a copy that left out the bread and wine of the Eucharist. For Steinberg, the institution of the Eucharist is central to the painting.
Christ becomes the capstone of a great central pyramid…And midway between the…slopes of Christ arms and the floor lines that transmit their momentum, exactly halfway, there lies the bread, and there lies the wine.[viii]

I have only dealt with chapters 3 and 4 of “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.” Steinberg went on to show how the painting must be understood in terms of the whole room in which it was viewed, and even in terms of the whole complex of which S. Maria della Grazie was a part. The painting was a “willed visual metaphor.”
Within the geometry of the picture, the elements of the eucharist, placed in extension of Christ’s earthly presence, serve as conveyors: from the centrality of the Incarnate toward the faithful this side of the picture.
Steinberg backed up his interpretation with a virtuoso display of all the tools available to a modern art historian. He displayed a magisterial familiarity with the interpretive history; the texts; the traditional legends; the related paintings; and with the whole oeuvre of Leonardo. More than anything else, however, was his ability to immerse himself in the whole culture and devotion of Medieval and Renaissance Christianity.  He was born a Russian Jew and emigrated to America right after World War II. He somehow managed to graduate from Harvard and land a position at New York University where his original field was “Modern Art.” But he eventually gravitated to the Renaissance, and his integrity and great learning allowed him to see the “Last Supper” through the believing eyes of Leonardo’s contemporaries.

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[i] Leo Steinberg, “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper,” 2001, pp. 12-13.
[ii] Ibid. p. 13.
[iii] Ibid. p. 77.
[iv] Ibid. p. 61.
[v] Except where otherwise noted this quotation and all the following can be found in the relevant sections of chapter IV, “the Twelve.”
[vi] Ibid. p. 70.
[vii] Ibid. p. 57.
[viii] Ibid,. p. 58.