Since 2010 I have been using this site to discuss my interpretations of famous Renaissance paintings including Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione", and Michelangelo's"Doni Tondo." The full papers can now be found at

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Raphael: St. Cecilia

Today, I reprise a slightly revised version of a post on Raphael's St. Cecilia Altarpiece that originally appeared on this site almost six years ago. The article is primarily a review of Oskar's Fischel's explanation of the reasons for the inclusion of the four saints who surround St. Cecilia. 
Raphael: St. Cecilia
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna
1516-7, 220 x 136 cm

 Raphael’s St. Cecilia was commissioned in 1514 by a patrician lady and mystic from Bologna, Elena Duglioli dall’Oglio, for her family chapel in the church of San Giovanni in Monte. The story of this painting is well known but there is still mystery about the reasons for the selection of the four saints who surround St. Cecilia.
St. Cecilia was one of the four great Virgin saints of the Western church. Mrs. Anna Jameson devoted a chapter to her and her legend in “Sacred and Legendary Art”. *
The veneration paid to her can be traced back to the third century, in which she is supposed to have lived; and there can be little doubt that the main incidents of her life are founded in fact, though mixed up with the usual amount of marvels, parables and precepts, poetry and allegory… [571]
She was a chaste virgin who even after her marriage was reputed to have converted her new husband to a life of virginity. They both eventually suffered martyrdom. Somehow she also became the patron saint of music and the creator of the organ.
As she excelled in music, she turned her good gift to the glory of God, and composed hymns, which she sang herself with such ravishing sweetness that even the angels descended from heaven to listen to her, or to join their voices to hers. She played on all instruments, but none sufficed to breathe forth that flood of harmony with which her whole soul was filled: therefore, she invented the organ, consecrating it to the service of God. [572]
Nevertheless, Mrs. Jameson believed that only in the fifteenth century did artists begin to depict Cecilia with musical instruments. She rightly pointed out that the most famous version was Raphael’s now in Bologna’s Pinacoteca Nazionale. In Raphael’s painting St. Cecilia stands in ecstasy among her cast-down instruments whose music bears no comparison with that of heaven. Despite her uplifted eyes, her sandals indicate that she is still of this world. Her heavenly onlookers are barefoot, a sign of their superior status.

It is easy to understand why the visionary Elena Duglioli dall’Oglio would want to feature St. Cecilia in the altarpiece of her chapel. Although a married woman, she too lived a life of celibacy. But the presence of the other saints has been difficult to explain. In his magisterial 1948 study of Raphael, Oskar Fischel wrote: 
The reasons that may have existed for the choice of the saints surrounding Cecilia have remained hitherto completely in the dark; and yet their relationships to the person of the lady who gave the commission and to the place of its destination were not unfamiliar to Raphael. At that time nothing of the content of a devotional picture can have been left to the artist; only in Raphael did every commission work itself out as a self-chosen theme, thanks to his free and dominating imagination and to the profound culture by virtue of which he adopted everything and caused it to become part of his own vital experience. [246] **

The four figures surrounding St. Cecilia are easily recognized by traditional iconographical symbols. St. John the Evangelist with the eagle and St. Augustine with his bishop’s crozier are in the background. In the foreground St. Paul leans on his sword of truth, and Mary Magdalen holds her familiar jar of ointment. For Fischel, they all are representations of love.
the significance of these saints precisely to the donors of the picture can scarcely be surmised. Only St John is adequately explained as patron of the church of San Giovanni in Monte—the “disciple whom Jesus loved” … He exchanges a glance of tearful radiance with the Doctor of the Church, St Augustine, …” How often have I wept at thy hymns of praise and chants, filling thy Church with soft strains, and have been stirred by its voices to the very depths.” …He too is a confessor of love: …” our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” … [247]
In addition to the sword St. Paul holds a letter in his hand, an allusion to the famous passage from I Corinthians, xiii.
The Apostle mighty in speech acknowledges of himself: “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” There at his feet lies the allegory… 
However, Fischel argued that the figure of St. Paul could not just be explained allegorically. Raphael had a special devotion to St. Paul.
It is to him precisely that Raphael acknowledged himself to be indebted, by him attracted...the painter of the figure was no stranger to the character of the great preacher of Conversion. Raphael at that time lived with the words of St. Paul. When, in the course of his work on the Disputa, the pages of his sketchbook were being filled with ideas for the figures, a hasty sketch was made for St Paul with his sword… And then, on a drawing at Oxford, for the Disputa, line after line is set down for a sonnet out of an overflowing sense of bliss, occasioned by an incident by night which must remain for the world in obscurity, Raphael discovers that his tongue is bound in a sudden kinship with the Apostle … [247-8]

Next Fischel turned to Mary Magdalen who looks out and invites the worshipper to enter the scene.  
Thus by the moving power of the back view of this figure, who has with sweeping cloak just entered the circle of the elect, the worshipper is, as it were, carried along with it into the region of other-worldly happenings—seized, with St Paul, by a sense of the vanity of all action “that has not charity”; and a bridge is thrown across to link him with her who “loved much” and therefore, her sins forgiven, may enter in before many. [248]
There was a text that also linked St. Paul and Mary Magdalen in the popular imagination of the time. In the third volume of his classic work on Medieval iconography, Emile Male discussed a small book whose fame spread all over Europe during the fifteenth century. The book was the Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying).
The text was often striking, but it was the astonishing woodcuts above all that spread its fame throughout Europe…. death appears not as a farcical dance, but as a serious drama played around the bed of the dying man; angel and devil stand at his side, contending for the soul that will soon depart. [348] ***
Male based his discussion on a 1492 French commentary, the L’Art de bien vivre et de bien mourir (The Art of Good Living and Good Dying), a “book that edified all Europe.” [349-350]. After a series of temptations where the devil is unable to shake the dying man’s faith, the devil tries another approach.
Hideous monsters again rove around the sick man’s bed. One presents him with a large parchment document: this is the list “of all the evils that the poor creature has committed during his sojourn on earth.”…
But the angel intervenes and brings four helpers.
They are St. Peter, who thrice denied his Master; Mary Magdalene, the sinner; St. Paul, the persecutor whom God struck down to convert him; and the good thief, who repented on the cross. These are the great witnesses of divine mercy….”do not despair. Even though you had committed as many crimes as there are drops of water in the sea, one contrite impulse of the heart is enough. God is greater than the greatest crimes.” [351]
Raphael received the commission for the St. Cecilia in 1514. It is hard to imagine today but the ideas of conversion and repentance must have been like a tsunami in Renaissance Europe. We like to think of the Renaissance as the revival of the gods and goddesses of antiquity but figures like St. Paul and Mary Magdalen were of far greater importance in the minds of contemporary believers especially those swayed by reformers like Savonarola. At the same time as Raphael and others were bringing Christian art to a new level, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk in Germany, who had struggled for years with his own sinfulness, finally found conversion and salvation in the epistles of St. Paul. 
*Anna Jameson: Sacred and Legendary Art, Vol. II, Boston, 1885.
**Oskar Fischel, Raphael, London, 1948.
***Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Late Middle Ages, Princeton,1986, pp. 348-351.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Titian: Woman in White

Titian: The Woman in White

In February on our annual winter visit to California, we visited the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena to view its current exhibition of Titian’s magnificent portrait, The Woman in White, on loan from its home in Dresden. The painting was given pride of place in a large room filled with other Old Masters from the Norton Simon’s permanent collection

The Museum’s notes indicated that in a 1561 letter Titian claimed that the young woman depicted was “the mistress of his soul.” Later, commentators took these words to mean that the young woman was Titian’s mistress even though the artist would have been in his seventies at the time. Others speculate that the woman could be one of Titian’s daughters, Emilia or Lavinia.

Whoever is depicted, the painting remains a striking portrait of a young woman in a beautiful white gown with elegant jewelry that includes a ring that could be a wedding band. She also holds a fan that is attached to a kind of chain around her waist. More than the clothing and accessories, it was the eyes and face of the woman that held my attention as I stood in front of the painting.

The young woman was looking directly at me. When I moved to the left, her eyes continued to look at me. The look on her face even seemed to change. The same thing happened when I moved to the right. She continued to look at me. If you’re reading this on a desktop, just move your chair and look at the image from left and right. If you’re using a handheld device, just hold it away from you first with your left hand, and then with your right to observe the effect.

Actually, I even walked a semi-circle from one side of the large room to the other, and the woman’s eyes followed me all the way. In traditional paintings, the viewer observes the subject but in this painting the woman observes the viewer. The tables have been turned.

I am not a student of female portraiture and I can’t imagine that I am the only one to observe this phenomenon. I do recall that while on a tour of the Renaissance collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum a few years ago, a docent pointed out that it was considered indecent in the early days of the Renaissance to portray a living woman in a painting. The earliest portraits only dared to portray them in profile. Eventually, the face might be turned in a 45- degree angle with the woman still looking off to the side. Even when the full face would be exposed the eyes would still be averted from the viewer. She would not make eye contact with the viewer. 

Lorenzo Lotto: Portrait of a Woman

The aversion of the eyes might just represent female modesty but I suspect that male sensitivity might have been at work. Could it be that back then men did not want other men looking at their women? Could that be the reason why a woman’s eyes are averted? I am sure that scholars have studied female portraits of the era extensively, and I could be wrong. But by the middle of the sixteenth century Titian’s woman in white certainly seems to reflect a departure from the typical female portrait. *

Titian employed this technique many years earlier in his famous Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari. In that painting the young boy in the painting looks directly out at the viewer, and while you walk around that painting, the eyes of the boy follow wherever you go. The boy acts as an “interlocutor” inviting the viewer to not only pay attention to what is going on in the painting, but also to participate. 

The Woman in white could also be an interlocutor but she only draws the viewer’s attention to herself, not as a shy object of desire but as a female in charge of all she surveys. The Norton Simon Museum suggests that rather than any individual woman, Titian's painting could represent the "beauty and spirit" of Venetian women." Modern feminists should love this painting.


* I am a big fan of the American film genre knows as film noir, those black and white films of the forties and fifties that are enjoying a revival right now. Titian’s painting brought to mind one of the earliest, I Wake Up Screaming, a film starring pin-up queen Betty Grable in a rare dramatic role. Grable played the sister of a famous model who had been murdered. The sister’s press agent, who had made her famous, was the prime suspect. Inevitably, Grable and the press agent, played by Victor Mature, begin to fall in love. At one point Grable asks Mature if he had been in love with her sister. He replies that he had been her press agent and that it was his business to place her image all over town in magazines and posters. “If I had loved her, I would never have done that, I would have wanted her only for myself.”