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".

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.

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*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. 

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 * 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