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, July 14, 2020

Michelangelo: Doni Tondo Nudes

I published my interpretation of Michelangelo's Doni Tondo in installments on this site back in 2015. I published the whole paper on my website, MyGiorgione, on 7/7/2016. In my previous post I presented the first part of that paper which argued that in the foreground of the painting Michelangelo depicted the  Madonna offering her Son in the same way that a priest offers the Eucharistic host during the Consecration of the Mass. Today, I reprise the conclusion of that paper that identified the nudes in the background as the Nephilim of the Hebrew scriptures at the time of Noah.


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.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Michelangelo: Doni Tondo

Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo is one of the greatest masterpieces of the High Renaissance. It is his only surviving panel painting and now hangs in the Uffizi in its original frame. Most scholars date it somewhere between Michelangelo’s completion of the David in 1504 and his departure from Florence to Rome in 1506. Like many of the masterpieces of this era, it has elicited many different interpretations. At first glance it appears to be simply a traditional rendering of the Holy Family but, on closer inspection, a number of questions arise.

In the foreground Mary, Joseph, and the Infant Jesus are situated  in a landscape. But what is going on? Is Mary handing the Child to Joseph, or is Joseph handing the Child to Mary? Why does Mary look as she does with muscular arms shockingly uncovered? What is Joseph doing in the painting? Why, despite tradition, has he been brought so prominently into the center to play an apparently key role? What is the young John the Baptist doing behind a parapet or wall in the mid-ground? Finally, who are the five male nudes in the background, and why are they there?

As far as the first question is concerned, I originally agreed with  Giorgio Vasari’s view that Mary “presents” the child to Joseph. In his life of Michelangelo, Vasari wrote:

There came to Angelo Doni, a Florentine citizen and a friend of Michelagnolo. who much delighted to have beautiful things both by ancient and by modern craftsmen, a desire to possess some work by Michelagnolo; wherefore that master began for him a round picture containing a Madonna, who, kneeling on both knees, has an Infant in her arms and presents Him to Joseph, who receives him. Here Michelagnolo expresses in the turn of the head of the Mother of Christ and in the gaze of her eyes, which she keeps fixed on the supreme beauty of her Son, her marvelous contentment and her lovingness in sharing it with that saintly old man, who receives Him with equal affection, tenderness, and reverence, as may be seen very readily in his countenance, without considering it too long.*

Most modern scholars disagree with Vasari’s opinion, and have offered some strange and contradictory interpretations.**  Vasari was often mistaken or ill informed but he was a close friend and confidant of Michelangelo. It would be almost the height of temerity to reject his eyewitness description of the central feature in this painting. Nevertheless, it would appear that he did not take more than a glance at the painting. For example, he saw the Madonna kneeling although she is obviously sitting. 

It is so easy to overlook or ignore important and obvious details in a Renaissance masterpiece, but there are significant elements in the Doni Tondo that call for a new interpretation. Rather than handing off the Child to Joseph, I have argued that Mary is actually elevating the body of her Son in the same way that a priest elevates the Host or Body of Christ at the Consecration of every Mass. The keys to this interpretation are the hands of Mary, and the posture of Joseph. 

The position of Mary’s hands and fingers cannot allow her to either hand the Infant Jesus off to Joseph or take the Child from him. As I pondered the painting, I asked myself where had I seen hands like that before. Eventually, I realized that Mary’s hands and fingers resembled a priest’s at the Consecration of the Mass. After the Second Vatican council liturgical norms in the Catholic church were somewhat relaxed, but I remembered from my childhood that the priest would take the host between the thumb and forefinger of both hands before and during the elevation. Naturally, his other fingers would then close or cup in the shape of Mary’s as he raised the host. Since the priest’s back was to the congregation, he would raise the Host high above his head and look at it intently in the same way Mary does in the Doni Tondo.

In the art of the Renaissance it was common to equate the infant Jesus lying on his mother’s lap, or on the ground surrounded by various worshippers, with the Eucharistic host. The Portinari Altarpiece is one of the best examples. The infant Jesus lies on the ground surrounded by worshippers including angels wearing the vestments of altar servers. In Franciscan theology, for example, even when Mary was holding her infant Son on her lap, she was the altar on which the Eucharist rested. 

Hugo van der Goes: Portinari Altaroiece

In 1974 famed art historian Leo Steinberg published a brief essay on the Doni Tondo in Vogue magazine. Steinberg’s reputation was so great that practically every commentator on the Doni Tondo refers to the Vogue essay. In that essay Steinberg saw deliberate ambiguity in Michelangelo’s famous painting that makes it very difficult to determine who is handing the Child to whom. But he did find four levels of meaning including a Eucharistic one. Here is his ending. 

Christian tradition made the Virgin’s identity interchangeable with Ecclesia; and it made Joseph the typus apostolorum, protector and spouse of the Church, “guardian of the living bread for himself and the whole world” (St. Bernard). And as the maternal function of the Church culminates in the Mass, which engenders the sacramental body of Christ, so in the tondo, the unprecedented pitch of the Child above the Madonna prefigures the Elevation of the Host, of the Corpus Verum, the Eucharist—literally, a “Thanksgiving.”***

Steinberg did note the “furled fingers” of Mary but only concluded that since no woman would ever receive a child in that way, “she must have just let it go.” So, in his opinion, the raising of the Child only “prefigures the Elevation of the Host….”

I would also like to point out that the garments of Mary indicate a priestly role. Michelangelo depicted her in her traditional red dress with her blue cloak or mantle draped over her legs. But there is also a green cloth wrapped around her on which a book, perhaps a Missal, rests. Green is still the color of the priest’s vestments on most of the Sundays of the Church year.

The concept of St. Joseph as protector and spouse of the Church is sufficient to explain his prominent position in the Eucharistic celebration. The man in Michelangelo’s tondo bears all the characteristics of St. Joseph as he was portrayed during the early decades of the sixteenth century. Joseph was increasingly depicted as a virile man quite capable of protecting his family especially on the flight into Egypt. One just has to look at Raphael’s Sposalizio in the Brera. In addition, the purple and gold coloring of his garments also identifies Joseph as from the line of King David.

Even more than these characteristics, the posture of Joseph confirms his identification. He is behind Mary and the Body of Christ. At the consecration of the Mass the sacrifice is offered to the Father above at the heavenly altar. Also, we see that Joseph is not standing since he does not tower over the sitting Madonna. Is he squatting awkwardly? Is he sitting on a hidden stool? We can only see his right leg but it is bent at the knee. It would appear that Joseph is kneeling or genuflecting as all worshippers do as the priest elevates the Body of Christ. At the same time his left hand is placed firmly on the Infant’s chest. Is he actually receiving Communion or just indicating the central  role of the Church in the acceptance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? 

In the mid-ground the young John the Baptist looks at the elevated Christ and implies the  Agnus Dei, an ancient prayer still found in every Mass: "Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world." The five nudes in the background were explained in my full paper and will be discussed in a subsequent post. 


Note; In a 1968 essay Mirella Levi d’Ancona, because of her belief that Michelangelo was supporting a Dominican view of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, saw the Child raising himself out of his mother’s body as if he was actually being born and sanctifying his mother at the moment of his birth. She wrote,

The Christ child—God incarnated in human form—is issuing from the body of the Virgin to take his human form, and at the same time blesses his mother, to bestow on her a special sanctification.

On the other hand, in 2003 Timothy Verdon believed that the source of the Doni Tondo could be found in Marsilio Ficino’s Neoplatonic concept of three kinds of love. As a result, Verdon argued that not only was Mary receiving the Child but that the man in the painting was not even St. Joseph. 

the old man in the Tondo Doni seems to flout the tradition of a passive Joseph, separate from Mary, for the simple reason that he is not Joseph: he does not represent the surrogate father, but the real one, God, from whom the Son proceeds ab aeterno. Vasari was mistaken when he said that the old man “takes” the baby from Mary; it is rather the baby who emerges from the Father, with his left foot on the Father’s thigh and his little hands in Mary’s hair to maintain his balance. The Baby, with his right foot on Mary’s arm, is about to push himself up and over, in order to descend into the Virgin’s womb.

*Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston du C. De Vere, with an introduction and notes by David Ekserdjian, Everyman’s Library, 1996, v. II, p. 656.

** See note below.

*** Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo,” Vogue, December, 1974, pp. 138.

Note: Mirella Levi D’Ancona: The Doni Madonna by Michelangelo: An Iconographic Study. 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. 404. This paper originally appeared in the Art Bulletin in 1968.

 Timothy Verdon, Mary in Florentine Art, Firenze, 2003, pp. 97-98.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Titian: Memorial to Giorgione

This post is designed to draw attention to an interpretation of the Fete Champetre or Pastoral Concert published in 1999 by Dr. Christiane Joost- Gaugier. The article,The mute poetry of the Fete champetre: Titian’s memorial to Giorgione” appeared in the January 1999 issue of the Gazette des Beaux Arts. As the title suggests, Dr. Joost-Gaugier attributed the famous painting to Titian and regarded it as a memorial to the recently deceased Giorgione.

I originally published my interpretation of the painting on the website, MyGiorgione, in May, 2013. I believed then and still do that the famous painting that hangs in the Louvre is indeed a homage by the young Titian to Giorgione. Only last year did I discover that Dr. Joost-Gaugier had seen the same thing back in 1999. *

Initially, this discovery was embarrassing since I should have found Dr. Joost- Gaugier's interpretation earlier. However, it became somewhat comforting to find that I had come independently to a similar conclusion with someone of her stature, knowledge, and experience. I also found that the technical evidence of the underpainting presented in her article also supported my paper. 

Nevertheless, while I agree with much of Dr. Joost-Gaugier's analysis, I do have disagreements with some of the conclusions she drew from her insights. I will explore both the areas of agreement and disagreement in this review article. 

In an abstract to her paper Dr. Joost-Gaugier laid out her thesis.

This paper will attempt to propose a new reading of this most unusual, indeed unique, picture which will suggest that it was initiated by Giorgione as a poesia based on an antique theme but incorporating his views about painting and, after his death completed by the grieving young Titian who, inspired by Virgil, turned the painting into a memorial to his beloved master who is portrayed as the center around which the entire composition and subject revolve. It will also suggest that Titian valued this painting as a private painting. (2)
Dr. Joost-Gaugier observed that the focus of the painting, despite the scholarly interest in the two nude women, was the young man in the center clothed in red. 

Indeed, the brilliance of his presence makes it clear that he, and not the nude women who have so intrigued former viewers is at the center of the painting…. In contrast to the soft beiges, browns, and olive colors which prevail elsewhere in the painting, the glowing reds of his mantle and hat accentuate the centrality and importance of his presence. (5)
She identified the man in red as Giorgione but saw signs, as I did years later, that he has died. 

Contrary to what many observers have assumed, the brilliantly colored young man at the center of the painting is not playing his instrument. Indeed, his instrument has no strings, a fact that has gone unnoticed and which is assured by the evidence of x-rays. Nor does the protagonist of the painting sing. His lips are closed. In fact, his head is averted so as to cause his features to be lost in deep shadow and darkness. From him there is only silence. He is playing but not playing, singing but not singing. He is seen but not seen. 
The other young man, dressed in plain, rustic garb would then possibly be Titian.
The suggested identification of the young lutist as Giorgione leads to another possibility. Perhaps his companion—who focuses his respect as well as his energies on the main actor—is a self-portrait of the younger Titian who expresses his devotion in a moment of quiet reverence. (6)
In regard to the two nude women, Dr. Joost-Gaugier differed from earlier scholars who regarded them as wood nymphs or muses invisible to the men. For her, the four figures in the painting are “distinctly human beings.” Moreover, both women are the same.
The same figure is represented from the front…and from the back, suggesting different modes or tempos for the engagement of the beholder. (4)
She then speculated that the woman was actually Giorgione’s lover who also died of the plague, and that Giorgione had originally begun the painting in her memory. 
The fact that the two women appear to have been painted from the same model suggests that they may refer to the woman with whom Giorgione had fallen in love shortly before his death. (6)
In summing up Dr. Joost Gaugier believed that while the painting has an Arcadian mood based possibly on an eclogue by Virgil, Giorgione had begun the painting shortly before his own death of the plague as a poetic memorial of his recently deceased lover but that Titian then altered it into a memorial of Giorgione himself. 
Taken together, the above observations show that this painting is neither a “Fete Champetre” nor a “Pastoral Concert, nor a (live) concert at all. They suggest rather a funeral motif.
In the paper that I posted on my website I also saw that the elegantly dressed man with the lute is Giorgione, and the other more simply dressed man is Titian. I agree that the painting is Titian’s homage to the recently deceased Giorgione. 
I agree that the absence of strings on the lute is a sign that Giorgione has died and will play no more. I also agree that Giorgione’s face in shadow is another sign of death. Titian would use it later in a crucifixion scene. I went a little further though in seeing another sign of death in the pouring action of the nude on the left. I see her pouring Giorgione’s spirit into the well. 
Moreover, I believe that the dark sky in the background is also a sign of death. I did not mention it in my paper because I could not be certain that the dark sky was original or just the result of aging. Dr. Joost-Gaugier’s examination of the underpainting indicates that the original sky is cloudy and certainly not the appropriate background for a pleasant pastoral idyll.
I agree that the two nude women are one and the same, but I do not believe that they are human. I follow Fehl, Wind, and Egan in this regard but go further and argue that she is Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry. **
I find it difficult to accept the suggestion that the painting was initially begun by Giorgione as a memorial to his deceased lover, or that the unfortunate woman is depicted in the painting. According to Vasari’s sources, Giorgione died of the plague after contact with his lover. Death for both of them would have been rapid and within days of each other.  He would have been in no shape physically or emotionally to commence a tribute to his lover. A recent discovery indicated that Giorgione spent his last days away from his studio in quarantine on an island in the lagoon.
Moreover, if he meant the painting as a tribute to his lover, why would he include Titian in the painting? Why would he have shown the young woman handing her flute to Titian? According to Dr. Joost-Gaugier all the figures in the painting are original. Scientific analysis of the underpainting reveals that only the standing nude was altered.
I can accept the idea that Titian might have kept this painting in his studio for years but that could mean that he revised and retouched it at a later date using paints mixed years later than 1510. Given this fact, I do not believe the scientific evidence firmly establishes a dual authorship.
I do believe that Titian painted in the style of Giorgione as an act of homage to his recently deceased friend. I would also not be surprised if Titian used Giorgione cartoons. I believe that the young Titian acted more as a colorist than a designer on the walls of the Fondaco de Tedeschi with the result that onlookers mistook his work for Giorgione’s. 
Rather than an Arcadian poesia in an antique style, I believe that Titian used the biblical story of David and Jonathan to express the depth of his sorrow at Giorgione’s passing. Jonathan was the son and heir of King Saul, and David was a young shepherd boy. They became the closest of friends during Israel’s struggle with the Philistines. 
Titian dressed Giorgione in the finery befitting a King’s son while he clothed himself in rustic garb. In my interpretation the shepherd in the mid-ground would then be David’s father left behind with his flocks, and not a typical gamboling Arcadian shepherd. 
Renaissance art historians never tire of trying to find sources in ancient literature for paintings whose subjects mystify them. They go to great lengths to show that painters like Giorgione and Titian were familiar with these texts even though there is little evidence that they could even read Latin. For some reason they find it difficult to imagine that the sources of many of these beautiful paintings are in the Bible and the apocryphal legends that embellished the sparse biblical account. ***

Joost-Gaugier, Christiane L. The mute poetry of the Fete Champetre: Titian’s memorial to Giorgione. Gazette des Beaux Arts, January 1999, Issue 1560, pp. 1-14.  After my initial intuition I  discovered that famed art historian S. J. Freedberg had also seen the painting as a homage to Giorgione, and noted that in my paper.  S.J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy, 1500-1600, London, 1990, pp. 139-140.

** Euterpe was also seen by Ethanan Motzkin in "The Meaning of Titians Concert champetre in the Louvre. Gazette des Beaux Arts, 116 (1990), pp. 51-66.

*** The late Ross J. Kilpatrick, a classicist, argued that instead of Virgil, the source of the Pastoral Concert could be found in Horace and Propertius. "Horatian Landscape in the Louvre's "Concert Champetre," Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 21, No. 41 (2000), pp. 123-131. He included a discussion of Dr. Joost-Gaugier's interpretation.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Titian: Pastoral Concert

The Pastoral Concert or Concert Champetre that now hangs in the Louvre is universally recognized as one of the world’s great masterpieces. Usually dated around 1510-1511 it is surrounded, like other famous paintings of the Venetian Renaissance, by an aura of mystery and enigma. Not only has scholarly opinion been divided about whether to attribute the painting to Giorgione or Titian, but also no one has been able to come up with a plausible explanation of the subject or meaning of the painting.

Titian: Pastoral Concert (Louvre)

In this post I present a synopsis of a “working hypothesis” that provides a new interpretation of the subject of the Pastoral Concert and also resolves the question of attribution. I argue that Titian used the famous Biblical story of Jonathan and David to provide a framework for a personal homage to Giorgione, his recently deceased mentor and friend. The full 3500 word interpretation can be found at MyGiorgione, a site devoted to my work on Giorgione, Titian, and the art of the Venetian Renaissance. 

Before going any further it should be noted that my reading is speculative and unorthodox. As far as I know a painterly homage would be unique and unprecedented in the art of the Venetian Renaissance. Nevertheless, there is no settled opinion on the subject of the Pastoral Concert, and a Titian homage to Giorgione answers most of the questions that have surrounded the painting. *

This interpretation explains why Titian put so many Giorgionesque elements in the painting, and also identifies the four main figures in the painting as well as their relationship with one another. The man on the left wearing finery and holding the lute is Giorgione. Many of the features of Giorgione that Vasari mentions in his short biography can be seen in this young man. Moreover,  here-to-fore inexplicable details in the painting indicate that Giorgione is dead: his face is in shadow; the lute has no strings; and the nude on the left  pouring into a well.

In addition, the dark sky in the background, a feature inappropriate for a pastoral idyll, was often used by artists as a sign of danger and death. Titian and others used it in crucifixion scenes, and artists often used it to depict the massacre of the Innocents in the background of depictions of the flight into Egypt. 

This interpretation then identifies the young rustic on the right as Titian. He depicts himself as Giorgione’s social inferior but also as his successor. His closeness to the other man as well as his connection with the flock in the mid ground brings to mind the biblical story of David and Jonathan. Titian identifies himself with David, the soul-mate and successor of Jonathan.

Cima da Conegliano: David and Jonathan
National Gallery, London, c. 1506-10.

My interpretation agrees with those scholars who have observed that the two female nudes in the painting are muses who are invisible to the two men. Although muses are the source of inspiration, the men are oblivious of their presence. Indeed, I argue that the two nudes are the same muse. She is Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry and music. The standing nude is pouring Giorgione’s spirit out, but on the right she is looking directly at Titian.

To express his homage to the deceased Giorgione, Titian incorporated many Giorgionesque elements into the painting. Practically everything that Vasari said about Giorgione can be found in this painting. The most telling evidence is the reference to the story of the paragone where Giorgione claimed supremacy for painting over sculpture since he could portray every aspect of a figure on a flat surface. In one glance the viewer sees the front, the back and the profile of the nude Euterpe.

Many have seen that the relationship between the two young men in the Pastoral Concert is the key to the painting. Some have even seen a strong trace of  “homo-eroticism.” In my opinion the bond between two young warriors, or two young artists is sufficient to explain the painting. Look at the painting and consider David’s lament on hearing the news of the death of Jonathan.

O Jonathan, in your death I am stricken
I am desolate for you, Jonathan my brother.
Very dear to me you were,
Your love to me more wonderful
than the love of a woman. (2 Samuel  1:19-26)

* I originally wrote these words in May, 2013. This blog post is intended to present the interpretation to new readers and also provide some additional information. Only last year did I discover that art historian Christiane Joost-Gaugier had seen the painting as Titian's homage to the deceased Giorgione back in 1999. **

Initially, this discovery was somewhat embarrassing since I should have found Dr. Gaugier's interpretation earlier. However, it became somewhat comforting to find that I had come independently to a similar conclusion with someone of her stature, knowledge, and experience. Nevertheless, while I agree with much of Dr. Gaugier's analysis, I do have disagreements with some of the conclusions she drew from her insights.

I will discuss the areas of agreement and disagreement in a subsequent post.

** Joost-Gaugier, Christiane L. The mute poetry of the Fete Champetre: Titian’s memorial to Giorgione. Gazette des Beaux Arts, January 1999, Issue 1560, pp. 1-14.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Giorgione: Three Ages of Man*

Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man is another one of his paintings that has so far eluded identification. The name of the painting that now hangs in the Pitti Palace is pure guesswork stemming only from the obvious disparity in ages of the three men. One appears to be about 60, another in his early thirties, and the last a young man in his teens.

Giorgione: Three Ages of Man
Pitti Palace, Florence
Oil on wood, 62 cm  x 77.5 cm

Scholars today object to the popular title. Some think it represents a music lesson and that the man on the viewer’s right is pointing to musical notes on the paper held by the young man. Others claim that it represents the education of the young emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Others just throw up their hands and claim that it contains, like other Giorgione works, multiple levels of meaning.

However, the most spectacular element in this mysterious painting has so far received little notice. Venetian painters were known for their coloration. Just look at the garments of the three men. Nothing in a Renaissance painting is there by accident or whim. The colors in this painting provide a real clue to its subject.

As far as I know no one has suggested that the painting has a “sacred” subject, but yet, it appears that Giorgione has depicted a scene from the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is the story of the encounter of Jesus with the young man of great wealth. (See below for full text)

In Matthew’s account the young man asked Jesus what he could do to attain eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the Commandments, and specifically named the most important. The man replied that he had done so but still felt that something was wanting. Jesus then uttered the famous words, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The gospel relates that the young man went away sad for he had many possessions.

How has Giorgione depicted this story and who is the third man? The man in the middle is obviously young and the golden lapels of his garment as well as his fashionable hat indicate that he is well to do. He is holding a piece of paper or parchment that contains some indecipherable writing that under magnification hardly looks like Renaissance musical notation.

On the right most Venetians would have immediately recognized the visage of Jesus. There is no halo or nimbus but Giorgione never employed that device. The pointed finger is certainly characteristic of Jesus. Here he points not at a sheet of music but at the Commandments, which the gospel account has just enumerated.

Jesus wears a green garment or vestment, certainly an unusual color for him. In fact, it looks like the robe or chasuble worn by a priest during Mass. At the hand of Jesus we can also see the white sleeve of the “alb,” a long white robe always worn under the chasuble. Green is the color used by the Catholic Church during Ordinary time, that part of the Church year not identified with any of the great feasts.

The third man is St. Peter. He is the only other person identified in Matthew’s account of this incident. He stands on the left, head turned toward the viewer. Giorgione uses Peter as an interlocutor, a well-known Renaissance artistic device designed to draw the viewer into the painting and encourage emotional participation. The old man’s face is the traditional iconographical rendering of Peter with his baldhead and short stubby beard. As Anna Jameson noted many years ago, Peter is often portrayed as ”a robust old man, with a broad forehead, and rather coarse features.” **

Durer: St. Peter detail
Giovanni Bellini and Albrecht Durer, both Giorgione contemporaries, depicted Peter’s head in this fashion. About a hundred years later Caravaggio still used it in striking fashion in the "Martyrdom of St. Peter" in S. Maria del Popolo in Rome, and in the "Denial of Peter" now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

Caravaggio: Denial of Peter

The color of Peter’s robe is also liturgically significant. Peter is rarely shown wearing red, but Giorgione has chosen to show him wearing the color reserved for the feast days of the martyrs. In the gospel account immediately after the young man went away sad, Peter, speaking for the other disciples as well as for the viewer of Giorgione’s painting, had asked, “Behold we have left all and followed thee: what then shall we have?”

In the first decade of the 16th century Venice was at the apex of its glory. It would suffer a great defeat at the end of the decade during the War of the League of Cambrai but until that time it was arguably the wealthiest and most powerful of all the European nations. It was certainly the only one that dared confront the mighty Ottoman Empire.

Nevertheless, some young Venetian patricians were wondering whether the whole life of politics, commercial rivalry, and warfare was worthwhile. One of them, Tommaso Giustiniani, a scion of one of the greatest families, did actually sell all his possessions, including his art collection, in order to live as a hermit in a Camaldolensian monastery. At one point he wrote to a few friends, who were also considering a similar move, about the futility of their daily lives. He argued that Venetian life was agitated, completely outward, and continually dominated by ambition. It was the reason for all their worry.

“If, then, a Stoic philosopher appeared to free their minds from all these disturbances, his efforts would be in vain, so completely does agitation dominate and enfetter their whole lives. How can anyone not feel disgust for such an empty existence.”? ***

Peter and the other disciples were shocked when Jesus said that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. “Who then can be saved,” they asked? The response of Jesus was full of hope: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Green, the liturgical color used throughout the Church year, is also the color of hope.

“The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man,” the name we can now give to the painting in the Pitti Palace, would certainly appear to have an historical context in Giorgione’s time. Five hundred years after the death of this short-lived genius perhaps we can begin to understand that Giorgione was a unique and original painter of sacred subjects.


Full text of Matthew 19:16-27.

And behold, a certain man came to him and said, “Good Master, what good work shall I do to have eternal life?” He said to him, “Why dost thou ask me about what is good? One there is who is good, and he is God. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said,

Thou shalt not kill,
Thou shalt not commit adultery,
Thou shalt not steal,
Thou shalt not bear false witness,
Honor thy father and mother, and,
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The young man said to him, “All these I have kept; what is yet wanting to me?” Jesus said to him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when the young man heard the saying, he went away sad, for he had great possessions.

But Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen I say to you, with difficulty will a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven. And further I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples hearing this, were exceedingly astonished, and said, “who then can be saved?” And looking upon them, Jesus said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Then Peter addressed him, saying, “Behold we have left all and followed thee: what then shall we have?”

* Note: This article first appeared in Giorgione et al... on Oct. 8, 2011. It followed upon my interpretations of Giorgione's Tempest, and Titian's Sacred and Profane Love as sacred subjects. The full papers can be found on my website, MyGiorgione.

** Anna Jameson, "Sacred and Legendary Art," Boston, 1896, Vol. 1, p. 191.

*** Dom Jean LeClercq, Camaldolese Extraordinary, The Life, Doctrine, and Rule of Blessed Paul Giustiniani, Bloomingdale, Ohio, 2003, pp. 61-62.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Titian: Conversion of St. Paul

The meaning of the figures on the antique relief in the center of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love has eluded scholars for centuries. In this post I would like to discuss the horse so prominently depicted on the left side of the relief. 

In my paper on the Sacred and Profane Love I argued that the subject of the mysterious painting is the “Conversion of Mary Magdalen,” and that the figures on the antique relief must not only refer to the subject of the painting, but also, must be depictions of great sinners. 

In my previous two posts I elaborated on my discussion in the paper and looked at the right side of the relief where we can now identify Adam and Eve as well as Cain and Abel. On the left side of the relief we can see a horse whose rider appears to be falling off. We can also make out two other men in front of and in back of the horse. *

Why has no one ever seen the conversion of St. Paul in this scene? Anytime, we see a riderless horse in a painting from the Renaissance we should suspect that the artist has attempted to depict the famous conversion on the road to Damascus. Here is the account of Paul’s conversion from chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles:

And as he went on his journey, it came to pass that he drew near to Damascus, when suddenly a light from heaven shone round about him; and falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?” And he said, “Who art thou, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom thou art persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goad.” And he, trembling and amazed, said, “Lord, what wilt thou have me do?” And the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and it will be told thee what thou must do.” Now the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing indeed the voice, but seeing no one. And Saul arose from the ground, but when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing. And leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus.

Although there is no mention of a horse in the scriptural account, it had become part and parcel of the story as early as the fourth century despite the objection of St. Augustine who argued that a Pharisee would never ride a horse. By the Renaissance the horse had become part of the common Catholic imagination and was usually included in artistic representations. 

For our purposes other important parts of the account would be the light from heaven that shone round Paul and forced him to fall to the ground. The voice of Jesus is heard but he does not appear. Also, Paul is accompanied by other men who hear the voice but stand by as speechless spectators.

In Titian's relief Paul is actually falling off the horse's hind quarters. One attendant can be seen in front of the horse, and another tries to prevent Paul's fall at the rear. 

Everyone is familiar with Caravaggio’s famous depiction of the event that still remains in its original location in the Cerasi chapel of S. Maria del Popolo in Rome. Paul lies on the ground, arms upraised toward the light and the horse towers over him.
Caravaggio: Conversion of Paul

Other depictions of the event often present a more tumultuous scene but still include the light, the other men, and the horse. These elements must have been commonplace even before the sixteenth century. Here is a famous tapestry made from a Raphael cartoon.

Tapestry from Raphael cartoon

Early in his career Giovanni Bellini also depicted the conversion of Paul.

Giovanni Bellini: Conversion of Paul

I know that Renaissance artists loved to depict horses but when we see a riderless horse in a seemingly inexplicable scene, we should at least consider the possibility of the conversion of Paul.

There is more than one reason why Titian or his patron might have wanted to include St. Paul in a painting representing the conversion of Mary Magdalen. The conversion stories of both saints were equally famous. At the same time, they were both symbols of sinners converted by divine love.

In researching this piece I turned to the always reliable Emile Male. In his magisterial study of later Medieval art Male re-discovered two extremely popular books of the fifteenth century that have subsequently slipped back into oblivion. The first was the Ars moriendi (the Art of dying):** 
The text was often striking, but it is 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...
The success of the Ars moriendi was even more extraordinary than the success of the Danse Macabre. Printed editions began to appear after the woodcut editions. Each country had its own… It appeared in turn in French, German, English, Italian, and Spanish….Even Italy, where Gothic barbarity was so scorned, was influenced by the crude woodcuts of the Ars moriendi, although it is true it robbed them of most of their original character. 
The other book was a commentary on the Ars moriendi in an edition published by Verard entitled "L’Art de Bien Vivre et de Bien mourir (The Art of Good Living and Good dying)."  Male noted that a "book that edified all Europe is worth some study."

Verard's commentary includes a number of episodes with corresponding woodcuts where devils and angels compete for the soul of the dying man. In one episode Mary Magdalen and St. Paul appear with St. Peter and the Good Thief to console the dying man.
When the devil cannot shake the dying man’s faith, he changes tactics. He no longer denies God, but represents him as inexorable... 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.”…
The angel again descends from heaven, accompanied by four saints. 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….
The woodcut shows Mary Magdalene with her jar of ointment and St. Paul is shown atop the fallen horse. the woodcut is dated 1492. In the same year (1514) that Titian painted the Sacred and Profane Love Raphael painted his depiction of St. Cecilia surrounded by four saints. In front, flanking St. Cecilia, are St. Paul with his sword of truth, and Mary Magdalen with her jar of ointment. 

Raphael: St. Cecilia with St. Paul and  Mary Magdalen

*This series of posts first appeared on Giorgione et al... in the Spring of 2013.  The original paper was first published in 2011.

**Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Late Middle Ages, Princeton, 1986, pp. 348-351.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Adam and Eve on Titian's Relief

In my interpretation of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” I identified the subject of the mysterious painting as the “Conversion of Mary Magdalen.” Seeing the painting as a “sacred subject” opened the way to an explanation of the figures on the equally mysterious relief, a feature that even the greatest scholars have been unable to interpret. Some have even declined to deal with the figures on the relief. 

In my paper I discussed the two figures immediately to the right of center and identified them as Cain and Abel. It was not difficult to show that the image of a man in the act of delivering a blow to another man lying prone on the ground was the common way of depicting Cain’s murder of his brother. Titian himself used the same template years later.

In this post I will turn to the two nude figures to the right of Cain and Abel. How is it possible that scholars and others have never been able to identify the nude man and woman standing around a tree as Adam and Eve? What other woman is ever portrayed in full frontal nudity standing by a tree other than Eve. It is a little more difficult to see Adam but if we look closely we see him there on the other side of the tree.

The image of Adam and Eve standing around the tree at the moment of the Fall was probably ubiquitous during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was sculpted on exterior walls and on the interiors of churches and baptistries. Here is an example from the exterior of the Doge’s palace in Venice. 

A quick search of the web will also reveal Adam and Eve around the tree on some famous paintings. In the Brancacci chapel Masaccio painted the  expulsion from the garden but Masolino, his associate, portrayed the first couple completely nude by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil right before the Fall.

Later Raphael used the same motif in the Stanze.

Finally, here is a Titian depiction of Adam and Eve around the tree from around 1550. (Prado)

How have scholars not been able to see Adam and Eve on the relief of the “Sacred and Profane Love”?  In his classic study of the art and iconography of the Middle Ages Emile Male noted a similar problem in his own time. He raised the issue in a discussion of carved calendars on famous Medieval cathedrals.
The most beautiful carved calendars are at Chartres, Paris, Amiens, and Reims. They are works of true poetry. In these small scenes, man appears in eternal attitudes. The artist probably intended to represent the peasant of France, but it is also a man of all time, bent toward the earth, the immortal Adam. In their universality, these thirteenth-century reliefs avoid banality. The artists, who themselves did not live far from nature, had experienced this life in all its detail, for just beyond the walls of small medieval towns lay the real country with its tilled fields, its meadows, the beautiful rhythm of its Virgilian labors…when sculptors were imagining scenes of rustic life, they had only to look around them for models….
It is hard to believe that the obvious meaning of these scenes escaped early nineteenth-century archeologists. In 1806, Lenoir interpreted the twelve scenes illustrating the calendar of the cathedral of Cambrai as the twelve labors of Hercules. Dupuis, author of L’Origine de tous les cultes, did identify the signs of the zodiac on the fa├žade of Notre-Dame of Paris, but from this he concluded that the cult of the sun or of Mithra had survived into the thirteenth century. *
Even today scholars and students expend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to find the equivalents of Hercules and Mithra in some of the most beautiful paintings of the High Renaissance. I believe that they are often looking in the wrong place, and often fail to see what would have been obvious to any Venetian artist, patron and even man in the street.


* Emile Male: Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1986, p. 69. Male's great study is available in paperback under the title, The Gothic Image.