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, December 22, 2020

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds


Scholars have expended more time dealing with the controversy that has surrounded the attribution to Giorgione of the so-called Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds than they have in trying to understand what is actually going on in the painting. Here I would like to reproduce my essay on the subject and meaning of this famous Nativity scene that is now in Washington’s National Gallery.


The subject of the painting seems so obvious. It is a depiction of the adoration of the shepherds who have left their flocks to seek out the newborn Savior after hearing the angel’s announcement.

Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made know to us..” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 

Luke’s account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds is the traditional gospel at the midnight Mass on Christmas . The actual arrival of the shepherds at the stable in Bethlehem is the passage used for the gospel reading for the Christmas Mass at dawn.

The relatively small size of the painting indicates that it was done not as an altarpiece but for private devotion. Although the subject is clear, there is a deeper meaning.* Why is the infant Jesus lying on the rocky ground and not in a manger or feeding trough? Why is he naked? Where are the swaddling clothes? 

Actually the newborn infant is lying on a white cloth that just happens to be on the ends of Mary’s elaborate blue robe that the artist has taken pains to spread over the rocky ground. Giorgione is here using a theme employed earlier by Giovanni Bellini and later by Titian in their famous Frari altarpieces. The naked Christ is the Eucharist that lies on the stone altar at every Mass. The altar is covered with a white cloth that in Rona Goffen’s words “recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.” In Franciscan spirituality Mary is regarded as the altar. 

Clearly, the viewer-worshipper is meant to identify the Madonna with the altar and the Child with the Eucharist. Bellini's visual assertion of this symbolic equivalence is explained by a common Marian epithet. The Madonna is the "Altar of Heaven." the Ara Coeli, that contains the eucharistic body of Christ” Ave verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine.**

The Adoration of the Shepherds represents the first Mass. This is not such an unusual concept. Many years ago I attended a talk on the famous Portinari altarpiece that now hangs in the Uffizi. The speaker was Fr. Maurice McNamee, a Jesuit scholar, who argued that Hugo van der Goes had also illustrated a Mass in that Netherlandish altarpiece around the year 1475. His argument centered on the spectacular garments of the kneeling angels that he identified as altar servers wearing vestments of the time. He called them “vested angels,” and they are the subject of his 1998 study, “Vested Angels, Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish Painting.”


His Eucharistic interpretation explained the naked infant on the hard, rocky ground. The infant Christ is the same as the sacrificial Christ on the Cross. In a study of Mary in Botticelli’s art Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel referred to this connection.

it needs to be pointed out first of all that the Renaissance era saw the spread of practices of individual devotion to be carried out primarily in the home…From the theological perspective attention should then be drawn to the emergence of a new trend that…tended to identify the mystery of the Incarnation with the Redemption itself, focusing on the Passion with much less fervour than in the past: whence the growing popularity of  ‘incarnational’ iconographies celebrating the word made flesh, such as pictures of the Infant Jesus in his mother’s arms…while the demand for images with Christ on the Cross, very common in the fourteenth century was drastically reduced.***

It would appear that Giorgione has used the same motif although his angels have become little putti who hover around the scene. The shepherds represent participants in the Mass who kneel in adoration. Mario Lucco has suggested that the long hair of the one indicates a patrician in shepherd’s clothing.

There are many other iconographical details in this painting that could be discussed. Joseph’s gold robe indicates royal descent from the House of David. The ox and ass in the cave are symbols of the old order that has been renewed with the coming of Christ. So too would be the tree trunk next to the flourishing laurel bush in the left foreground. The laurel is a traditional symbol of joy, triumph, and resurrection.

Finally, it has been noticed that Giorgione has moved the main characters off to the right away from their traditional place in the center. Rather than diminishing their importance this narrative device serves to make all the action flow from left to right and culminate in the Holy Family.  Giovanni Bellini had done the same thing in his St. Francis in the Desert, and later Titian would use this device in his Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari. 

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*Two recent catalogs have offered interpretations. See Mario Lucco’s entry in Brown, David Alan, and Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006. Also see the very strange interpretation of Wolfgang Eller in Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.

**Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986. P. 53.

***Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel, “The Figure of Mary in Botticelli’s Art.” Botticelli: from Lorenzo the Magnificent to Savonarola, 2003. (ex. cat), p. 56.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The Madonna in Art


 


In my interpretation of the Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” I argued that the nudity of the Woman was Giorgione’s attempt to portray Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Although theologians had debated the dogma for centuries, it was only its resurgence in the fifteenth century that led artists to finally attempt to treat the subject.


Emile Male’s classic three volume study of Medieval iconography included a brilliant discussion of the evolution of the Madonna’s depiction in Medieval art. Princeton University published the three volume set in 1986. Below are excerpts from the second and third volumes that trace the evolution from Virgin Queen in the thirteenth century to Virgin Mother and Mater Dolorosa in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and to Immaculate Conception in the sixteenth century.

Emile Male: Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1986. Pp. 234-240. This volume has been printed in paperback as “The Gothic Image.”


The cult of the Virgin that grew up in the twelfth century spread during the thirteenth. The bells of Christendom began to ring the Angelus. The Office of the Virgin was recited daily. Our most beautiful cathedrals were dedicated to her. The idea of the Immaculate Conception began to take form in the minds of Christians who for centuries had meditated on the mystery of a Virgin chosen by God. …New religious orders—the Franciscans and the Dominicans—were true knights of the Virgin and spread her cult among the people…. (234-5)

In all the books written to glorify the Virgin, perhaps the idea that recurs most often is that Mary is Queen…. (235)


Among the many ideas and feelings that clustered around the Virgin in this period, the idea of royalty was the one best understood and most strongly expressed by artists. The Virgin of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries is a queen…. Mary is a queen who holds the King of the world. At no other period were artists able to confer such majesty upon the image of the mother of God. (235-6)


Toward the end of the thirteenth century, the Virgin of the theologians, as majestic as pure idea, seemed too remote from man. All the miracles attributed to her in the thirteenth century, all the times she appeared to sinners, merciful and smiling, had brought her closer to mankind. It was then that the artists, faithfully interpreting the feelings of the people, conceived the Virgin of the north portal of Notre-dame of Paris as a mother radiating maternal pride…the virgin had grown to womanhood; she is a mother.

In the fourteenth century, the Virgin and Child group, represented with such solemnity a century before, has only intimacy left. The theological ideas represented by the Virgin, became less and less accessible to artists. They did not comprehend…’that it was the desire of the Infinite god to unite with a Virgin’… they could no longer recreate the superhuman Virgins of the past. They were satisfied to represent a mother smiling at her child.

Soon they would bring the Virgin even closer to humanity through her grief. But the Mater Dolorosa that inspired so many masterpieces in fifteenth-century art, the Virgin old before her time who wept over the bleeding forehead of her son, does not belong to the century under study. [13th]…artists did not yet dare to express her grief….

If the artists liberated themselves fairly early from the ideas of theologians, they remained on the contrary faithful to the legends. They borrowed almost all the episodes in the life of Mary from the apocryphal Gospels….

It did not occur to thirteenth-century artists, as it would to those of the late Middle Ages, to represent the Virgin before her birth. The thirteenth century left this to the sixteenth. It was shortly after 1500 that the young girl with long hair, surrounded by the rose, the star, the mirror, the fountain, and the closed garden appeared in stained glass windows, tapestries, and Books of Hours. This Virgin—a pure concept, anterior to time, an eternal thought of god—did not yet exist. Such a lofty idea, and one imminently suited to serve as inspiration to artists contemporary with St. Bonaventura and Dante, was however unknown to them…. (239-240)


Neither did thirteenth-century artists go back to the father and mother of St. Anne in the genealogy of the virgin….the artists dealt only with the story of St. Anne and St. Joachim, her first husband…. 

The meeting at the golden Gate is the subject most frequently depicted. The artists of the late Middle Ages had a marked predilection for it. In fact, it was the only way that had been devised to represent the Immaculate Conception. Although the error had been condemned by the Church Doctors, it was repeated that Mary had been conceived at the moment when Anna and Joachim kissed.

The following excerpts are from the third volume in the series, Religious Art in France, the later Middle Ages, Princeton, 1986.

toward the end of the fifteenth century, a mysterious idea that had been secretly germinating in man’s soul for more than five hundred years, suddenly blossomed. It now seemed clear to theologians that the Virgin could not have partaken of original sin, being especially exempted from the law by divine decree. Mary, the perfect model of newly created humanity, like Eve at the time she was created by the hands of God, had come into the world free of the burden of sin. (197)

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was an ancient idea that already had its followers in England and Normandy as early as the eleventh century.

This doctrine, supported by the Synod of Basel in 1439, approved by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476, and accepted as dogma by the Sorbonne in 1496, would inevitably have found its expression in art…. (198)

The task was difficult. How was one to represent the Virgin as a pure concept? How convey her creation without sin, by God’s decree, her existence in his thought before the creation of time? (199)


From the fifteenth century on, artists tried to resolve the problem. They first thought of the woman spoken of so mysteriously in the Apocalypse. She has the moon beneath her feet, stars on her head, and the sun envelops her; she seems older than time, no doubt conceived before the universe….

In the fifteenth century, in fact, we find manuscripts containing a half-length figure of the Virgin, who seems to rise out of a crescent moon and to shine like the sun….there can be no doubt that the Virgin of the crescent moon was the first symbolic representation of the Immaculate Conception.

In the early years of the sixteenth century, a most poetic figure of the Virgin appeared in France. She is a young girl, almost a child; her long hair covers her shoulders…The young virgin seems to be suspended between heaven and earth. She floats like an unexpressed thought, for she is only an idea in the divine mind. God appears above her, and seeing her so pure, pronounces the words of the song of songs: Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te (Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in the). And to express the beauty and purity of the betrothed chosen by God, the artist chose the most pleasing metaphors of the Bible: around her he placed the closed garden, the tower of David, the fountain, the lily of the valleys, the star, the rose, the spotless mirror. (200)

Such an image no doubt answered the innermost feelings of Christians, for it was soon repeated ad infinitum…. (202)

Images of the Immaculate Conception usually appeared alone. Their numbers increased due to the confraternities of the Virgin which celebrated her Conception,… (204)

Thus, the Tree of Jesse was considered a sort of symbol of the Immaculate Conception….the true reason for the presence of the Tree of Jesse in so many churches lies, I believe, in the cult of the Virgin, and, especially, in the cult of her Conception. (205)

Thus the era of the Middle Ages ended. For more than a thousand years it had worked to fashion the image of the Virgin; this was its ever-abiding thought, its secret and profound poetry. And it might be said that the Middle Ages came to an end at the exact moment when it had made this cherished image as perfect as its dream. (209) *


Of course, Male’s work centered around France and its cathedrals but the cult of the Immaculate Conception was certainly not limited to France. In Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Rona Goffen argued that Venice itself became identified with the Immaculate Conception by the end of the Quattrocento. 

Below is an image of the Immaculate Conception from my own parish church in Fairfield, CT built in 1939. It is done in the art deco style of the time but still represents the Woman clothed with the sun, with the stars in her crown, and with the moon at her feet. 


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*Emile Male believed that the Middle Ages  came to an end only in 1517, the date of the posting of Martin Luther's 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg.