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 28, 2020

Titian: Madonna of the Rabbit


Titian’s so-called “Madonna of the Rabbit,” currently hangs in the Louvre whose website notes the popular title but more accurately labels the painting as “The Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and a Shepherd, known as the Madonna of the Rabbit.” Actually, a better title would be “The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine,” a common devotional subject during the Renaissance.  Below I reproduce an interpretive essay that takes issue with the Louvre and others about two important details in the painting. 


In the first place, I do not believe that Titian has depicted a shepherd in this painting.  In my interpretation the man dressed in rustic attire in the mid-ground is St. Joseph, the protector of Mary and the infant Jesus. He is often included in versions of the Mystic Marriage by Venetian Renaissance artists. 

Secondly, I disagree with the Louvre’s explanation that the white rabbit is a sign of Mary’s virginal fecundity. X-ray examination has shown that the rabbit was not originally present. Initially, Titian placed Mary’s left arm on her lap. Why, on second thought, did he add the white rabbit?  The following essay argues that the white rabbit is the equivalent of the Eucharistic host.

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Titian’s “Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and a Shepherd” is commonly called the “Madonna of the Rabbit” because of the white rabbit prominently featured in the center. The rabbit is held by the Madonna with a thin white cloth that is hardly visible today. The relatively small painting (71 x 87 cm.) that bears Titian’s own signature is in the Louvre and most scholars date it to 1530 although some believe it could have been laid in as early as 1520. 

The Louvre’s website provides a very comprehensive audio-visual examination of the painting featuring curator Jean Habert. He begins with a discussion of Titian’s naturalism and suggests that these figures in a landscape could almost be a genre painting, something like a picnic in the countryside. Nevertheless, Habert admits that it is obviously a religious painting and a “sacra conversazione” in particular. The Madonna and Child are in conversation with St. Catherine while the shepherd off to the right represents pagan antiquity.

This description echoes what can be found in a number of catalogues beginning with the 1991 “Titian, Prince of Painters” where the essay on the painting was also written by Habert. Subsequently, Filippo Pedrocco discussed the painting in his Titian catalog of 2001, and then two years later David Jaffe wrote the article in another exhibition catalog, entitled simply “Titian”. 

Despite this virtual unanimity the painting is still largely misunderstood. The title, Madonna of the Rabbit, is almost childish and the painting is not a “sacra conversazione.” The painting is a version of the “Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine,” a very popular subject in the early sixteenth century.

It is very difficult for scholars today to understand the importance of St. Catherine in the Renaissance. It would even be difficult for a modern devout Catholic. Writing in the nineteenth century Anna Jameson noted that Saints Catherine, Barbara, Ursula, and Margaret were in a class by themselves.

Other female martyrs were merely women glorified in heaven, for virtues exercised on earth; but these were absolutely, in all but the name, Divinities… with regard to these, all such traces of an individual existence seem to have been completely merged in the abstract ideas they represented. The worship of the others was confined to certain localities, certain occasions; but these were invoked everywhere, and at all seasons; they were powers…and though the Church assumed that theirs was a delegated power, it was never so considered by the people. They were styled intercessors; for when a man addressed his prayers to St. Catherine to obtain a boon, it was with the full conviction that she had power to grant it. * 

In “Sacred and Legendary Art” Mrs. Jameson devoted a long section to St. Catherine, her legend, and her representations in art. Although largely forgotten today, the legend must have been well known during the Renaissance especially given the fact that the famous monastery on Mt. Sinai that bore her name had become a favorite pilgrimage site. Let me just paraphrase Mrs. Jameson’s telling of the story with special attention to elements that might help to explain Titian’s painting. 

According to the legend Catherine was born late in the third century to the pagan King and Queen of Egypt. By the time she was fourteen the young princess had already won renown for her great beauty and intellect. At that point her father died and she acceded to the throne. Despite her breeding and wisdom, her noble subjects insisted that she find a husband who could assist her in governing the Kingdom. She agreed but only if they could find a man whose wisdom and wealth exceeded her own. Of course, no such man could be found.

However, the Madonna, from her place in heaven, intervened and directed an Egyptian hermit to approach Catherine and tell her that Mary’s son is more than worthy of her hand. Then, Catherine has a dream and is taken up into the heavens where she enters into a room filled with beautiful saints and angels. They take her deeper into the sanctuary where she is introduced to Madonna herself, who then escorts her into the presence of her Son. But Jesus turns away and refuses to accept her. At this point, an anguished Catherine wakes from her dream. What had gone wrong? She seeks out the hermit who tells her she was rejected because she was a heathen. Immediately, Catherine takes instruction and is baptized a Christian.

Now Catherine has another dream. Once again she is welcomed into Heaven and ushered into the presence of the Madonna who presents her to her son and vouches for her by saying that she herself has become godmother to Catherine at the baptism. This time the Lord accepts Catherine and places a ring on her finger, a ring that is still there when she wakes from the dream. 

It is only after this “mystical marriage” that Catherine would go on to suffer torture and death at the hands of a cruel Roman tyrant whose offers of marriage she spurns. 

Titian’s painting is not about historical accuracy. It is an account of Catherine’s dream. Painters typically portrayed the mystical marriage as taking place in the Egyptian desert three hundred years before the time of Catherine. The Holy Family is returning from their sojourn in Egypt when Catherine comes upon them.



In Titian’s version of the Mystic marriage Catherine is easily identified by her regal, golden finery although she is somewhat disheveled. Her red robe has fallen around her thighs. She kneels on a wooden box that most commentators have identified as the broken wheel, the famous instrument of her later torture. She has taken the Christ Child in her arms and while he looks away at the rabbit, he strokes her chin with his hand.

Madonna sits on the ground wearing her familiar red dress and blue robe. She has obviously handed the child off to Catherine but still looks intently at him. Scientific investigation of the underpainting has revealed that she was originally looking at the man off to the side. Her right arm is hidden but her left hand holds, with a hardly visible white cloth, a striking white rabbit. 

The man on the right dressed in rustic clothing is usually called a shepherd but he can only be St. Joseph. Who else would be with Mary and the Child in the Egyptian desert? In contemporary paintings of the same subject by Paris Bordone and Lorenzo Lotto he would figure even more prominently. Both Bordone and Lotto portrayed Joseph as quite young and virile and in one Bordone version, now in the Hermitage, Joseph’s garb is also rustic. 

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage
Hermitage

Moreover, even when commentators have called him a shepherd, they note some regal features like the laurel wreath in his hair. Some think it might even be a portrait of Titian’s noble patron. The fact that the underpainting shows that the Madonna was originally looking at him also points to his elevated status. Joseph sits on the ground stroking another animal, either a black sheep or ram. 

Titian’s “Madonna of the Rabbit” is full of Eucharistic significance. In the 1991 catalog entry Jean Habert noted: 

The fruit in the basket…gives the scene, notwithstanding the naturalism of a motif that indicates autumn, a mystical significance of redemption, since these fruits are the symbols of the Passion (original sin redeemed by the wine of the Eucharist). **

There is much more than the fruit in the basket to indicate the Eucharist. The strawberry plant in front of St. Catherine is often associated with an earthly paradise, but can also symbolize the Passion. The prominent plant in the foreground to the viewer’s right appears to be the cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex), with its characteristic five pointed leaf. It was common in Europe and was often used in Medieval architectural decoration. This painting would seem to indicate that its five leaves symbolize the five wounds of Christ.

The Passion of Christ was re-enacted at every Mass and in Franciscan theology Mary was regarded as the altar on which her child is consecrated. Her infant son and the symbolic white rabbit are one and the same. The Infant looks at the rabbit to affirm their identity. Habert claimed that the rabbit is a sign of Mary’s purity or fecundity but why then would she be holding it with a white cloth? In her study of Titian’s famed Pesaro altarpiece Rona Goffen noted the symbolism of the white cloth or corporale. The corporale is always placed on the altar on which the host rests. ***  

Catherine like all her pious admirers has just offered herself to the Lord and now receives Him from Mary. Catherine herself holds the Infant with a white cloth. It’s as if she had just been handed the communion host by a priest. Joseph sits off to the right and strokes a black sheep or ram, itself recalling the Eucharistic symbolism of the scapegoat from Leviticus 16:20-22.

“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.”
Years ago famed art historian Erwin Panofsky noted that it is important to go beyond the naturalism and beauty of these famous and mysterious Renaissance paintings.

In a work of art, “form” cannot be divorced from “content”; the distribution of color and lines, light and shade, volumes and planes, however delightful as a spectacle, must also be understood as carrying a more-than-visual meaning. ****

In the years immediately following the onset of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church responded with renewed devotion to the Eucharist. Artists and their patrons naturally followed suit. Titian, Bordone, and Lotto became increasingly responsive to the devotional needs of their patrons.

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* Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, ed. By Estelle H. Hurrl, II, Boston and New York, 1895, v. II, 458.

**Titian, Prince of Painters, 1991, cat. entry #23.

*** Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, 114.

****Titian’s Allegory of Prudence: a Postscript, in Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Garden City, NY, 1955, p. 168.



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.

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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.

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*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.