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, November 26, 2019

Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert


                      
For over 60 years the Frick Museum in New York City has been my favorite museum. It is a small, easily navigated site quite unlike the Metropolitan only a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. Its magnificent collection of paintings, acquired for the most part during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by steel baron, Henry Clay Frick, spans the gamut of Western art from late Medieval to the Impressionists.*

                      

You cannot visit the Frick and fail to notice that patrons invariably stop in the great central living room to stare and wonder at Giovanni Bellini’s depiction of St. Francis.  On one occasion a museum employee confirmed my guess that this painting, despite the presence of works by the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, and Renoir, is the most popular in the whole collection.

Born in 1430 Giovanni Bellini is arguably the first great master of the Venetian Renaissance. The Venetian version of the Renaissance has long taken a back seat to the Florentine but in the last few decades it has come into its own and today most scholars would agree that Bellini and his younger successors, Giorgione, and Titian, can hold their own as painters with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Indeed, the Bellini family studio is now seen as one of the great sources of the Renaissance. Giovanni and his brother, Gentile, who at one point went to Constantinople to paint the Sultan, inherited the studio from their father, Jacopo. Andrea Mantegna, a great painter in his own right, married one of the Bellini sisters and exerted a powerful influence on the studio. Scholars also suspect that both Giorgione and Titian were apprentices at the Bellini studio before they broke out on their own.

Although he painted the St. Francis around 1480, Bellini continued to paint well into the next century. Until his death he was sought after and courted by public, religious, and private patrons. He is best known as a painter of Madonnas and groups of figures ranged around the Madonna and Child often called “sacra conversazione.” Nevertheless, the St. Francis is a unique work in the history of Renaissance art.

What is going on in the painting? St. Francis stands in the foreground a little off center wearing his familiar robe.  Behind him is a kind of wooden structure that seems to lead into a cave. The mid-ground is largely made up of a barren landscape whose primary occupant is a small horse or ass. Prominent in the upper left is an oddly shaped tree that appears to be leaning toward St. Francis. In the distant background we see a majestic towered city.

In one interpretation of the painting Francis is receiving the stigmata, the actual wounds of Christ on his own body.  His hands are outstretched and close examination indicates barely visible wounds on his hands but traditional elements usually employed in depictions of the stigmata episode are absent. His companion, Brother Leo, is not shown and neither are Christ or an angel.

I prefer the interpretation of John V. Fleming in From Bonaventure to Bellinian Essay in Franciscan ExegesisIn this often overlooked but extraordinary 1982 monograph Fleming argued that Marcantonio Michiel’s original description of the painting, when he saw it in the home of Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini, “St. Francis in the Desert,” was indeed correct.  Fleming saw the subject of the painting and every detail in it grounded in Franciscan spirituality.

The landscape in the painting is not La Verna, the site of the stigmata episode, but the desert of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. In particular, it is the Egyptian desert. The prominent animal in mid-ground is the Onager or wild ass of the desert while the heron standing before it is a bird of the Nile delta.


Franciscans often associated their founder with Moses and Elijah and their life in the desert. In the background beneath the city there is a shepherd tending his flock just as Moses did before his encounter with the Lord. Indeed, the leaning tree so prominent in the upper left refers to the famous burning bush in which the Lord appeared to Moses. It is a laurel which at the time was believed to be impervious to fire. We also notice that Francis has removed his sandals and stands barefoot in the same manner as Moses in the presence of the Lord.

The wooden structure behind Francis is a Sukkoth, variously translated as tent, hut, booth, or tabernacle, a kind of portable structure used by the Israelites in their wanderings in the desert. The Sukkoth also recalls the scene of the Transfiguration when Christ was revealed in His glory accompanied by Moses and Elijah to the three apostles, Peter, James, and John. Dumfounded, Peter offered to build three booths or Sukkoth for Jesus and his guests.



If we look closely, we will see beneath the right hand of Francis a rabbit in a hole in the rock, and beneath his left hand a jug. The rabbit was a symbolic reference to Moses who hid his face from the Lord and the jug is a reference to Elijah. Indeed, the abundant vegetation sprouting around Francis is a garden or carmel, another reference to Elijah who was believed to have been the founder of the Carmelite order. Francis stands between Moses and Elijah in the same way as Christ stood between them at the Transfiguration. In Franciscan spirituality and imagery, Francis was the new Christ.

Just as Moses came to lead his people out of the slavery of Egypt, so too did Francis come to lead his followers out of the slavery of sin. The city in the background then is a place of danger and peril, both physical and spiritual. The desert is symbolic of the life of poverty and humility preached by the famous founder of the Franciscan order.

Most of the paintings acquired by Henry Clay Frick had a special meaning for him. A committed Mason, Frick admired Francis because of his love of Nature. Others who have viewed the painting since Frick added it to his collection perhaps have had their own reasons for admiring it. Even if we know nothing of Franciscan spirituality, Bellini’s painting is still an image of a human being standing open and receptive to the divine light and transforming the world because of it. **

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* This review essay originally appeared as a guest post on Hasan Niyazi's popular Art history blog, "Three Pipe Problem." It was subsequently published on this site in September 2014, a year after Hasan's death. It has become one of the most popular posts on Giorgione et al...

** The Frick and Metropolitan Museum collaborated on a cleaning and restoration of the painting about five years ago. The effort resulted in an exhaustive study of the painting that I believe did not give as much attention to Fleming's interpretation as it deserved. See, Susannah Rutherglen and Charlotte Hale: In a New LightGiovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. The Frick Collection. New York, 2015. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Raphael: Vision of Ezekiel



Scholars still question Vasari's attribution to Raphael of a small painting called, The Vision of Ezekiel.   I will leave the question of attribution to others but I do think that the subject of the painting has been misunderstood ever since Vasari mentioned it in his biography of Raphael.

Raphael: Vision of Ezekiel

Here is what Vasari wrote:

At a later period, our artist painted a small picture, which is now at Bologna, in the possession of the Count Vincenzio Ercolani. The subject of this work is Christ enthroned amid the clouds, after the manner in which Jupiter is so frequently depicted. But the Saviour is surrounded by the four Evangelists, as described in the Book of Ezekiel: one in the form of a man, that is to say; another in that of a lion; the third as an eagle; and the fourth as an ox. The earth beneath exhibits a small landscape, and this work, in its minuteness—all the figures being very small—is no less beautiful than are the others in their grandeur of extent.*

Vasari said that the subject of the painting is “Christ enthroned amid the clouds.” He did mention that Christ was surrounded by the four animals that Ezekiel saw in his vision. Even though the painting called to Vasari’s mind the vision of Ezekiel, the artist, whoever he was, must certainly have had a different vision in mind.

The vision in this painting is the vision of St. John from the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse). Let’s just compare the two visions. Here is the account from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel.

As I was among the exiles on the bank of the river Chebar, heaven opened and I saw visions from God… Ezekiel 1:1 A stormy wind blew from the north, a great cloud with light around it, a fire from which flashes of lightning darted, and in the center a sheen like bronze at the heart of the fire. In the center I saw what seemed four animals. They looked like this. They were of human form. Each had four faces, each had four wings. …As to what they looked like, they had human faces, and all four had a lion’s face to the right, and all four had a bull’s face to the left, and all four had an eagle’s face.  Their wings were spread upward; each had two wings that touched, and two wings that covered his body;… Their wings were spread upward; each had two wings that touched, and two wings that covered his body…Ezekiel 1: 4-12
Between these animals something could be seen like flaming brands or torches, darting between the animals; the fire flashed light, and lightning streaked from the fire. And the creatures ran to and fro like thunderbolts.” Ezekiel 1: 13-14.

The animals are in Ezekiel’s vision but there is no God or Christ enthroned among them. Ezekiel’s vision found its way into the Book of Revelation, a book replete with imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures. Here is St. John’s vision (Jerusalem Bible).

My name is John…I was on the island of Patmos for having preached God’s word and witnessed for Jesus; it was the Lord’s day and the Spirit possessed me, and I heard a voice behind me, shouting like a trumpet, “Write down all that you see in a book…" Revelation 1: 9-13. 
Then, in my vision, I saw a door open in heaven and heard the same voice speaking to me, the voice like a trumpet, saying, “Come up here: I will show you what is to come in the future.” With that, the Spirit possessed me and I saw a throne standing in heaven, and the One who was sitting on the throne, and the Person sitting there looked like a diamond and a ruby….In the center, grouped around the throne itself, were four animals with many eyes, in front and behind. The first animal was like a lion, the second like a bull, the third animal had a human face, and the fourth animal was like a flying eagle. Each of the four animals had six wings and had eyes all the way around as well as inside;… Revelation 4: 1-8.

In John’s vision God the Creator, “the One” sitting on the throne in the midst of the four creatures, is the most prominent figure. Vasari identified the figure as Christ but the figure more closely resembles Michelangelo’s images of God the Father in the Sistine chapel. Only later in John’s account would the Lamb join the One sitting on the throne.

In the Vision of Ezekiel the small figure on the left receiving the vision must then be identified not as Ezekiel but John, exiled on the isle of Patmos. It is hard to tell, but he seems to be on an island facing a broad expanse of sea rather than in a crowd of people at the bank of the river Chebar.

Some scholars have argued that there is a companion piece to the Vision of Ezekiel that did not find its way back to Italy after the fall of Napoleon. In his study of Raphael Jean-Pierre Cuzin discussed a small oil on panel of the Holy Family.


The kinship in style and execution of the small Holy Family and the Vision of Ezekiel in the Pitti Palace at Florence, which have the same dimensions is striking: the rounded, thick-set bodies, strongly modeled by black shadows and lively touches of light, and the vigorous impasto execution, invite one to see an identical hand in both pictures—that of Penni, for Konrad Oberhuber. Others have more often thought of Giulio Romano. The Vision of Ezekiel, unlike the neglected picture in the Louvre, counts among Raphael’s celebrated works; it is identified with a picture described by Vasari at Bologna in the house of Count Ercolani. **

The small Holy Family is also a misnomer. It is actually a depiction of the encounter of Mary and the infant Jesus on their return from the flight into Egypt with her cousin Elizabeth and the infant John the Baptist. With or without St. Joseph, this legendary meeting was a very popular subject since it marked the initial acceptance of the mission of Christ. Usually the Christ child accepts a small cross from the young Baptist but in this case he accepts the Baptist himself.

If the two paintings are companion pieces, they would then represent the beginning and the end of Christ’s mission. The meeting of the two infants in the Judean desert recalls the words of the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and in the vision from the Book of Revelation, the Lamb who was sacrificed will join “the One seated on the Throne.” 

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*Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, selected, edited and introduced by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, Volume II, New York, 1967. p. 41.

**Jean-Pierre Cuzin: Raphael, His Life and Works, New Jersey, 1985. p. 226.