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, 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)
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* 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.

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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.