My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Raphael's Madonnas



In the first decade of the sixteenth century the work of Raphael indicates a strong interest in episodes on the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. During his Florentine period (1504-1508) Raphael did at least two versions of the legendary Riposo or Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Raphael: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

One is a tondo, usually called “Holy Family under a Palm Tree,” dated c. 1506/7 and currently on loan since 1945 to Scotland’s National Gallery.* This painting reflects the naturalism that Italian artists liked to bring to the subject, but also an increased importance for St. Joseph. The prominent palm tree in the background is the only reference that Raphael gives to the popular apocryphal legends surrounding the flight. According to the legend the palm or date tree bent down at the command of the Child so that Joseph could pick its fruit and feed his wife.

The Madonna is dressed in her traditional red dress and blue cloak. Red is the color symbolizing earth and her humanity while blue, the color of the sky or divinity, indicates that she has been cloaked with the grace of God. In the foreground Joseph is not depicted as a little old man off to the side in search of food. He has been given a prominent position front and center. He holds his simple pilgrim’s staff but is dressed in royal purple and gold. He is no longer a doddering old man and seems capable of protecting the Madonna and Child. Surely, his prominence reflects the growing importance of Joseph in the first decade of the century for Raphael’s patron as well as for most believers.


Raphael: Holy Family (Hermitage)

Another Raphael “Rest” is the “Holy Family with the Young St. Joseph” in the Hermitage and dated around 1506. The three figures are in an enclosure that looks out on a landscape. Again Joseph is not depicted as a decrepit old man but as a beardless middle-ager.

These two versions of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” are only a hint of the interest of Raphael and his patrons in the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt. Many of the great Madonnas that Raphael painted during his Florentine period are depictions of the meeting of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt.

In Legends of the Madonna nineteenth century connoiseur  Anna Jameson gave the background for this legendary meeting.**

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. (356)

Mrs. Jameson added that this meeting has led to some confusion in the minds of artists as well as viewers.

It is nowhere recorded, either in Scripture or in the legendary stories, that Mary and Joseph, in their flight were accompanied by Elizabeth and the little St. John; therefore, where either of these are introduced, the subject is not properly a Riposo, whatever the intention of the painter may have been… (366).

Many of Raphael’s most famous Madonnas are versions of this meeting despite their popular appellations. Painted in 1505 the “Terranuova Madonna” shows the Infant Christ perusing the scroll presented by the Baptist. The writing clearly refers to the Lamb of God. Inexplicably, another infant looks on. In the left background is a city that represents Judea, and in the right background are the rocks that formed the hiding place of the Baptist.

Raphael: Terranuova Madonna
Berlin, Staatliche Museu

In 1506 the famous “Belvedere Madonna” depicts the Christ Child accepting the sacrificial cross from the kneeling Baptist. Again they are in a landscape with a city in the background.

Raphael: Belvedere Madonna
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum


In the “La Belle Jardiniere” of 1507 the Christ Child looks up at his mother as John announces the mission. In a study Raphael has Christ looking directly at John.

Raphael: La Belle Jardinaire
Paris, Louvre

Dated about 1507, the “Canigiani Holy Family” is a much more elaborate version of the “Encounter with the Baptist.” With obvious reference to depictions of this scene by Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael adds Elizabeth and a prominent Joseph with his staff and golden robe.

Raphael: Canigiani Holy Family
Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Also in 1507 “The Holy Family with a Lamb” substitutes a lamb for the Baptist. Again in gold Joseph leans on his staff and observes the child riding the lamb.

Raphael: Holy Family with a Lamb
Madrid, Prado
Finally, around the end of the Florentine period Raphael painted the “Esterhazy Madonna”. The Infant Christ points to the scroll.

Raphael: Esterhazy Madonna
Budapest, Museum of Fine Art

What explains the popularity of the “Encounter with the Baptist on the Return from Egypt”? In the first decade of the sixteenth century it was common to transpose the events of Christ’s maturity to his infancy. The meeting with John the Baptist at the river Jordan is reflected in this earlier meeting on the return from Egypt. John's words, "Behold the Lamb of God," marked the beginning of the salvific mission of Jesus.

Raphael’s interest in these desert scenes reflected the devotion of wealthy patrons as well as humble worshippers. Vasari described Giorgione as a painter of Madonnas and portraits. The same description could apply to Raphael in the first decade of the sixteenth century. At the height of what later would be called the High Renaissance both young masters were responding to the great demand for sacred subjects like the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."

Note: This post is dedicated to the memory of Hasan Niyazi who died tragically six years ago this month. His beautiful and well-researched art history blog, Three Pipe Problem, had reached the height of its popularity at the time of his untimely death. Hasan's family migrated from Cyprus to Australia when he was a child, and he somehow developed an avid interest in the Italian Renaissance and his beloved Raphael.


*The source for the attributions and dating of the Raphael paintings in this post is Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Raphael, His Life and Works, 1985.

**Mrs. Anna Jameson:" Legends of the Madonna," Boston, 1885.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Doni Tondo: Nudes and Nephilim


In recent years the five nude young men in the background of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo have received as much, if not more, attention than the Holy Family in the foreground. There would appear to be no agreement as to who they are or what they represent. Among other things, they have been variously interpreted as angels without wings, sinners, penitents awaiting Baptism, figures from pagan antiquity, or figures from the Old Testament.




In a paper, entitled “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo: Holy Family and Family Myth,” Andree Hayum concentrated on the scene in the background. She noted the many different interpretations offered for the five nude men, but found the source in the Old Testament account of the drunkenness of Noah. She saw an obvious connection between the young men and Michelangelo’s famous depiction of the Noah story on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

But if one thinks of them as a constellation of three, the figures they recall are Michelangelo’s sons of Noah in the Sistine fresco of Noah’s Drunkenness. The most notable feature of Michelangelo’s sons of Noah is their nudity.*


Michelangelo: Drunkenness of Noah

In her interpretation the three men on the viewer’s right in the Doni Tondo would be Noah’s sons Ham, Seth, and Japheth before the incident of their father’s humiliating drunkenness. After drinking of the fruit of the vine, Noah had fallen naked into a stupor in his tent. Ham looked upon his father’s nakedness but the other two averted their faces and covered him. When Noah awoke and realized what had happened, he cursed Ham. Hayum argued that the two innocent or sinless sons are therefore depicted after the episode on the viewer’s left.

There is a connection between the young John the Baptist in the midground of the Doni Tondo and the story of Noah. Not only did theologians and artists see the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Hebrew prophets, as a link between the Old and New Covenants, but also they had related the story of Noah to Baptism.

In the First Letter of St. Peter the saving of Noah and his family are seen as prefiguring Baptism. Just as the waters of the Flood wiped away sin, so too do the waters of Baptism. There can be no doubt of the prominence of the Noah story during Michelangelo’s time. Savonarola, his favorite preacher, had given perhaps his most famous series of sermons on Noah and the Flood right before the French invasion of Italy in 1494. Michelangelo featured the Noah story on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel only a few years after the completion of the Doni Tondo.

Nevertheless, I have some questions about Hayum’s hypothesis. In the first place, where is Noah in the Doni Tondo? For Hayum this question was not a problem because she saw Noah in the figure of St. Joseph.

As in the sacrifice of Noah, the Holy Family alludes to Noah and his sibylline daughter-in-law. They have come to rest holding up the future male child. Like the ritual of sacrifice, the thanksgiving and the gift are one, and a sense of celebration prevails. **

Noah’s daughter-in-law was reputed to be a sibyl and given the sibyls in the Sistine chapel, it was easy for Hayum and others to recognize a sibyl in Mary’s posture. Nevertheless, I believe it would be impossible to find another reference to Joseph as Noah. If anything, Noah is a type of Christ, not of St. Joseph. Noah’s salvation of mankind from destruction at the time of the Flood prefigured the salvation effected by Christ on the Cross.

My second question relates to the postures of the nude figures in the Doni Tondo. Rather than participating in the scene of their father’s drunkenness, they lounge about like modern Italian men on a street corner ogling passing young women. A similar posture can be seen in an earlier devotional tondo by Luca Signorelli that is usually called the Medici Madonna. Hayum and others have seen a connection between the five nudes in Michelangelo’s tondo and the four practically nude young men in Signorelli’s painting.

Luca Signorelli: Medice Madonn

In the foreground of Signorelli’s painting the Madonna sits on the ground while her son appears to be taking his first step. St. Joseph and John the Baptist are absent but a bust of the Baptist as a man appears in the fictive frame above the tondo with a banner reading “Ecce Agnius Dei”. However, the four young men in Signorelli’s tondo also appear to be idlers. It is hard to see how they could be the sons of Noah either before or after the incident of his drunkenness.



I would like to suggest that the nudes in both paintings are related to the story of Noah but that they are not his sons. In the Book of Genesis there is a brief reference to giants upon the earth. Here is an English translation of the Vulgate Latin.

Now giants (gigantes) were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. [Genesis 6:4]

The Golden Legend embellished the biblical account of the time of Noah.

This time men began to multiply upon the earth, and the children of God, that is to say of Seth, as religious, saw the daughters of men, that is to say of Cain, and were overcome by concupiscence and took them to their wives. This time was so much sin on earth in the sin of lechery, which was misused against nature, wherefore God was displeased…
A fuller account can be found in the apocryphal legends of the Jews.

Unlike Istehar, the pious maiden, Naamah, the lovely sister of Tubal-cain, led the angels astray with her beauty, and from her union with Shamdon sprang the devil Asmodeus. She was as shameless as all the other descendants of Cain, and as prone to bestial indulgences. Cainite women and Cainite men alike were in the habit of walking abroad naked, and they gave themselves up to every conceivable manner of lewd practices. Of such were the women whose beauty and sensual charms tempted the angels from the path of virtue. The angels, on the other hand, no sooner had they rebelled against God and descended to earth than they lost their transcendental qualities, and were invested with sublunary bodies, so that a union with the daughters of men became possible. The offspring of these alliances between the angels and the Cainite women were the giants, known for their strength and their sinfulness… ***

The legends of the Jews ascribed a number of names to these giants but one was Nephilim, “because bringing the world to its fall, they themselves fell.” The modern Jerusalem bible does use the word Nephilim instead of giants to describe these troublemakers whose sins were so great that it took a flood to wipe them out. In addition to walking about naked, the Nephilim were noted for their arrogance and wantonness.

They knew neither toil nor care, and as a consequence of their extraordinary prosperity they grew insolent. In their arrogance they rose up against God…. It was their care-free life that gave them space and leisure for their infamies. ***


The description of the Nephilim in the Jewish legends fits the depiction of the nude young men in the background of both Signorelli’s Medici Madonna and Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo. The painter of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel certainly had knowledge of the Book of Genesis. Scholars have demonstrated that he could have read the text in Italian because of the publication of the vernacular Malerbi bible in 1490. He obviously used the Malerbi woodcuts in his work in the Sistine chapel.

Could he have been familiar with the folklore and legends of the Jews? Michelangelo grew up in a Florence that was a center of Hebraic studies. Michelangelo trained at the Medici court where Pico della Mirandola was known for his knowledge of the Hebrew lore and traditions that were all lumped together under the heading of Cabala. Most of Savonarola’s sermons were based on the books of the Old Testament. Also, Sante Pagnini, who succeeded Savonarola as Prior of San Marco, was a Dominican specialist in Hebrew language and grammar. He spent practically his entire career translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin.

Finally, another source for the Nephilim was readily available in a book published only a decade before Michelangelo painted the Doni Tondo. David Whitford’s 2009 study, The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era, included a chapter devoted to the Giants or Nephilim. In particular, he discussed the Commentaria of Annius of Viterbo, a Dominican friar, whose book containing alleged writings and fragments of pre-Christian Greek and Latin authors appeared in 1498. Contemporary humanists suspected that the Commentaria and its author were frauds. Annius claimed linguistic knowledge that he did not possess, and even planned a fake archaeological discovery. Nevertheless, the book became very popular and was reprinted in 1515 with only minor corrections.

Here is Whitford’s account of Annius on Noah and the Nephilim.


Book One begins by stating that before the “famous catastrophe of the waters, by which the entire world perished, many ages passed.” In these ages, giants ruled the world from their great city, Enos. The giants were corrupt and prone to tyranny, lechery, and debauchery. They devoted themselves to sexual immorality such that, “they had intercourse with their mothers, their daughters, their sisters, with other men and with wild beasts.” They also despised religion and the gods. Despite warnings and prophecies that the world would be destroyed because of this wickedness, the giants continued their impiety. Only one giant, who was more “reverential to the gods and wiser than the rest,” paid any attention to the prophecies; because of this he survived. His name was Noa “and he had three sons, Samus, Japetus, and Chem.” Noa (or Noah) survived because he could read the stars and foresaw the deluge to come. Thus, beginning 78 years before the Flood, he built an ark. When the floods came, the whole human race was drowned, except for Noa and his family. From this family sprang all the peoples of the earth. #

Despite the spurious nature of the Commentaria, it would appear that the story of the Nephilim was in the air even before its publication in 1498, and that the Commentaria of Annius only added to its popularity.

Why would Michelangelo place the proud giants or Nephilim in the Doni Tondo? I can only offer the following suggestion. The painting is a devotional image. The Madonna elevates her infant Son in the way a priest elevates the Host at Mass. John the Baptist looks at the Host and utters the words of the Agnus Dei: Behold the Lamb of God…. But the full version of the ancient prayer is “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

The Nephilim represent the sins of the world. I suggest that they are the nudes in the background of both the Doni Tondo and Signorelli’s Medici Madonna. In both paintings the Madonna and Child have turned their backs on the nudes in the background. Instead of a Flood, the Lord has sent his only Son to take away the sins of the world.

###


*Andree Hayum, "Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo: Holy Family and Family Myth". Reprinted in Michelangelo, Selected Scholarship in English, edited with Introduction by William E. Wallace, New York and London, 1995, V. 1.Life and Early Works, p. 421-424.

** Hayum, op. cit., p. 427.

*** Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 1909, V. 1, c. 4. Available online.

# David Whitford, The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era. 2009,