Since 2010 I have been using this site to discuss my interpretations of famous Renaissance paintings including 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"; Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione", and Michelangelo's"Doni Tondo." The full papers can now be found at

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.