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

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

In her excellent but unfortunately unpublished 1975 doctoral dissertation Sheila Schwartz noted the popularity of the subject of the Rest.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