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".

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.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Albrecht Durer in Venice


Albrecht Durer traveled to Venice in the latter half of 1505 and stayed until early in 1507. It seems that he had planned this journey for a while but apparently an outbreak of plague in Nuremburg hastened his departure. Erwin Panofsky devoted a whole chapter to the Venetian sojourn in his magisterial study, The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer. Panofsky entitled the chapter, ‘The Second Trip to Italy and the Culmination of Painting, 1505-1510/11.’



Panofsky points out that Durer had achieved a high degree of fame even before this visit to Venice. In Panofsky’s words,
The young beginner who had visited Venice eleven years before was now a world-renowned master whose inventions were copied and imitated everywhere. Also, he was no longer poor….Thus he did not walk about the city as an unknown and insignificant tourist but plunged into its colorful and stimulating life as a distinguished guest. He became acquainted with ‘intelligent scholars, good lute-players, flutists, connoisseurs of painting and many noble minds’ who honored and befriended him. [107-8]
Despite his mastery in wood-cut and engraving, Durer turned exclusively to oil painting while in Venice. Panofsky indicates that Venice and its painters had a great impact on the German master. From his correspondence we know that Durer regarded the aged Giovanni Bellini as still the greatest of painters, but in a letter dated February 7, 1506, Durer mentioned that he had also found “many painters much superior to Jacopo de’ Barbari,” an artist already well-known to Durer before the Italian trip.

Panofsky indicates that Durer turned to painting to show that he could work with color as well as any Venetian, but also because of the desires of his patrons in Venice. Almost immediately on his arrival Durer was welcomed by the prosperous German merchant community. It would appear that connections in Nuremberg and Augsburg had paved the way for him and even arranged a lucrative commission to paint an altarpiece for S. Bartolommeo, the German church in Venice. In a letter to a friend about the altarpiece, usually called the “Feast of the Rose Garlands,” Durer claimed that the commission was an effective way to “silence those who said I was good as an engraver but did not know how to handle the colors in painting.” [109-110]


On the completion of the Feast of the Rose Gardens Durer bragged, “I herewith announce that there is no better image of the Virgin in the country.” This claim might be exaggerated but the painting did gain much acclaim.
Old Giovanni Bellini…visited his studio and expressed the wish to acquire one of his paintings…When the “Feast of the Rose Garlands” was completed it was admired by the whole Venetian aristocracy, including the Doge and the Patriarch, and finally even by Durer’s colleagues….” [109]
Panofsky agrees with this contemporary evaluation despite the very poor condition of the painting today. “In one propitious moment he succeeded in synthesizing the force and accuracy of his design with the rich glow of Venetian color.” Panofsky acknowledges Durer’s debt to Bellini
The balanced grandeur of this composition would not have been attainable to Durer without the study and complete understanding of the style of Giovanni Bellini whom he so frankly admired… (112)
The painting was inspired by the increasingly popular devotion to the rosary, especially among the Dominican friars, whose founder was considered to have been the creator of the devotion. The rose garlands in the painting actually represent the decades of the rosary, and in Panofsky’s opinion the painting should actually be titled, “the Brotherhood of the Rosary.” 

While working on the altarpiece for S. Bartolommeo, Durer also completed two smaller paintings of sacred subjects. The first was the so-called Madonna of the Siskin, now in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. The second was a version of Christ Among the Doctors that is now in the  Thyssen Bornemisza collection in Madrid.




The “Madonna of the Siskin” derives its popular name from the bird on the arm of the infant Jesus. However, it is actually a representation of the meeting of the young John the Baptist with the Holy Family on their return from the sojourn in Egypt. Panofsky notes that the young Baptist is the most significant iconographical feature in the painting.
The inclusion of this figure…was an utter novelty in Northern art which…knew only the triad of the Holy Family and the complete circle of the Holy Kinship, but not the “Virgin with the Infant Jesus and the Little St. John.” This theme was Central Italian rather than Venetian, but that compositions not unlike Durer’s…existed in Venice and the “Terra Firma” is demonstrated… [113]
In Panofsky’s opinion, Durer took this traditional subject to a new level. He “surpassed this and similar prototypes by enlivening the entire composition and by endowing the little St. John with a Leonardesque or even Raphaelesque vitality which had been foreign to the earlier Venetian and Venetianizing schools.”... [114]


While the Madonna of the Rose Garlands took months to complete, it would appear that Christ among the Doctors, the final painting in the Venetian triad, was done in a matter of days. Yet, Durer considered this painting as “something new and extraordinary” and Panofsky concurs.
The emphasis on manual gesticulation, and even the specific gesture of arguing by counting fingers is unquestionably Italian, as is also the compositional form as a whole. The idea of presenting a dramatic incident by half-length figures so that the whole effect is concentrated on the expressive quality of hands and faces had been sanctioned by Mantegna…and had gained favor in all the North Italian schools, particularly in Venice and Milan. [114]
Panofsky’s description of this painting reminds me of the so-called Three Ages of Man usually attributed to Giorgione. I have interpreted that painting as a dramatic incident also from the life of Christ: the Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man. Giorgione, who was working in Venice at the same time as Durer, also used the expressive hands and faces of half-length figures to create an effect. In both paintings the half-length treatment provides a kind of close-up or zoom effect. 

Giorgione: "Three Ages of Man"
Pitti Palace

In the year after Durer left Venice, Giorgione was given the commission to fresco the exterior walls of the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the center of German community in Venice. Over the years scholars have tried to find some northern influence on Giorgione’s work, but Panofsky never mentions Giorgione. Instead, he argues that Durer was greatly influenced by what he saw in Venice. After his return to Germany, Durer eventually gave up painting and went back to his wood cuts and engravings. But they would never be the same. His stay in Venice had brought his work to an even greater level.

I like to think of him and Giorgione both trying to satisfy the demands of their patrons for sacred subjects while at the same time working to a make their work exceptional and innovative. 

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Note: This essay originally appeared as a post on Giorgione et al... five years ago, on April 28, 2014.

*Erwin Panofsky: The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer, Princeton, 1955. Page citations are in brackets.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Raphael: Czartoryski Portrait


Below I reprise my essay on Raphael's Czartoryski Portrait, a post that first appeared on this site on October 28, 2014. The essay had originally appeared on the late Hasan Niyazi' s very popular art history blog, Three Pipe Problem. Hasan died in October 2013 in his mid-thirties at about the same age as his beloved Raphael. He had done a fine survey of the attribution issues and provenance of this painting, and it led me to consider the sex of the sitter.

Raphael: Portrait of a Young Man
Lost during Nazi occupation of Poland

In a recent post at "Three Pipe Problem" Hasan Niyazi presented a very comprehensive study of the attribution and provenance history of a famed “Portrait of a Young Man”, usually attributed to Raphael. The painting was one of those looted from the Czartoryski collection in Poland by the Nazis during WWII and has still not been recovered.

Three Pipe Problem did mention that scholars have disagreed on the identity of the subject of the painting, and that even one, Oskar Fischel, had claimed that it was a young woman, and not a man. This struck a chord with me for on first glance the sitter appeared to me to be a woman of a particular kind.

Giorgione: Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)


The painting reminded me of Giorgione’s Laura where a young woman in a state of undress is partially covered with a man’s robe. Scholars of Venetian art have noted that both the disheveled look and the man’s robe indicate a courtesan. In “Giorgione, Myth and Enigma”, the catalog of the 2004 Giorgione exhibition, the entry for Giorgione’s Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura) noted the following.

According to Junkermann (1993) she is wearing a male garment, which far from being a reference to marriage, instead indicates that the model has adopted a typical male role, perhaps that of a poet; but that does not exclude that she may also be a courtesan. Her sumptuous fur-lined red garment is, more than an item of male attire, the winter dress of Venetian women of pleasure (Pedrocco 1990; Junkermann 1993; Anderson 1996), according to Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti (1590);… (catalog entry #8) 

My first impression led me to take a look through other Raphael portraits of men and women. Even a cursory look at a Raphael catalog indicated that the hair of a Raphael man is rarely in such a long and stringy, even unkempt, fashion. Moreover, with one exception he never parts their hair in the middle or even exposes their foreheads. Men’s foreheads are usually covered with a cap that sits firmly on top of the head and not worn at the same rakish angle as in the lost painting. Raphael’s women, even Madonnas, inevitably have their foreheads exposed with hair neatly parted in the middle.





Raphael's portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni provide a striking example of hair fashion around 1505-6. The man’s forehead is covered with his cap firmly on top of his head. The woman’s long hair is parted neatly in the middle and her hair is covered with a diaphanous veil. Things are much the same ten years later if we compare the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione with La Donna Velata. Castiglione’s cap is firmly atop his head and completely covers his forehead. The donna’s forehead is uncovered with long hair parted neatly in the middle. The back of her head is covered with a long white veil. Even the famous La Fornarina has hair neatly parted in the middle but with her hair tied back with a scarf. Only in the “Double Portrait with a Fencing Master” is a man’s forehead exposed but in that case the hair is neatly trimmed and the man has considerable facial hair.

Raphael: La Fornarina


It is true that most of Raphael’s woman have hair well done up and combed but I think Raphael could have been depicting a courtesan posing in her lover’s clothing. It looks like she’s sitting in her shift with a man’s robe casually thrown over her shoulder, and a man’s cap pinned to the back of her head as if to say “she’s mine” in a somewhat less obvious way than Raphael did in  La Fornarina

My first impression led me to get a copy of Oskar Fischel’s two-volume study of Raphael, a work that represented the culmination of a lifetime devoted to the rehabilitation of Raphael. Like the Czartoryski painting Fischel was also a casualty of the Nazis. He was born in 1870 and the book jacket describes him in this fashion. * 

Oscar Fischel was a well-known art historian and scholar. Among the important appointments he held was that of Professor of Art in Berlin University. He was author of numerous works on Italian Art, Modern Art, the History of Costume and the History of the Theatre. But the theme that lay nearest his heart was the art of Raphael. He made this his life’s work.

Unfortunately, Fischel’s career was interrupted in 1933 when he was dismissed from his post at the University of Berlin by the new Hitler regime. Student protests forced his reinstatement but he was finally dismissed in 1935. Apparently, museum officials in London were successful in bringing him to London where he died in 1939. His study of Raphael was translated and published in London in 1948 with the first volume containing text, and the second prints. The publisher summarized Fischel’s approach in this way.

Oscar Fischel contends that Raphael has been misrepresented in the same manner as Mozart. His natural grace and the apparent ease and fluency with which his work was accomplished have led to the charge that he was lacking in deeper understanding. The author is at pains to refute these criticisms. He reveals to us not the superficial, sentimental, pious and graceful artist, but a true poet and creator, interpreting the fundamental and essential meaning of life.
Fischel devoted only half a page to the Czartoryski painting discussing it right after the more famous La Donna Velata. To put it in context here are a few of his words on that woman that lead him into a discussion of the Czartoryski.
The Donna Velata of the Pitti Palace is the result of a commission of his very own, in the midst of the great frescoes and orders for altarpieces; it is a love-prompted improvisation on the most charming of themes—the innocence and womanly dignity of a young Roman woman of the people. The colour echoes this harmony of character…. (123)
Raphael: La Donna Velata

We know that the master found the purity of her young features, with the dark, beaming charm of her look, worthy of the otherworldly revelation of the Sistine Madonna. Years ago it was supposed that her still dazzling features, although quickly coarsened, might be recognized in the picture in the Czartoryski Gallery at Cracow. Once there was a much-disputed idea that it might be a self-portrait of Raphael, also that it perhaps represented the Duke of Urbino, or, finally, the Fornarina. Sebastiano del Piombo was mentioned as its painter, as so were as many other artists as there were experts who stood in front of the picture when it was at Dresden during the last war. 
Fischel must have been among those experts who saw the painting in person while it was in Dresden. He saw a young woman.
the hair with its locks reluctantly breaking loose on the temples, and the deep-cut thumbs, warrant the conclusion that it is a woman who is here represented; also the secret of the bosom is rather betrayed than guarded by the fur cloak, not put on, but thrown as if on the spur of the moment over the shirt. This negligee has a poetic significance only if it is a woman who is in question. The right forearm seems to rest on the bottom of a lute. The white of the chemise, the gold and brown of the gown with its fur collar, the greenish-golden cover on the table, form with the gleaming flesh-tones, a boldly conceived harmony, gorgeous to a degree, which is gathered together within the grand, free form of the silhouette. The painting can be compared for triumphant power with the group of the Pope in the Attila; like this fresco, it is of inestimable value as the last evidence quite incontestably from Raphael’s own hand of his most personal chromatic expression. (125)
Raphael: Portrait of a Young Woman


Hasan Niyazi’s post on “Three Pipe Problem” also provided some inadvertent information that supports a “young woman” reading.  Two early engravings taken from the painting or copies emphasized female characteristics especially the exaggerated curl of the lips. Also, Hasan presented a striking detail from the School of Athens that would seem to indicate a juxtaposition of Raphael and his lover, the only two figures in the famous fresco looking out at the viewer.

Although Hasan lived in Australia and was more than 40 years younger than me, we had become friends and frequent correspondents after our initial contact in the blogosphere. We proof-read, edited, and corrected each other. Despite differing opinions, we both reveled in the give and take. I even thought that Hasan might be the one to preserve my work on Giorgione and Titian but it was not to be.

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*Oskar Fischel, Raphael, translated from the German by Bernard Rackham, Volume I, Text, London, 1948, V. I.