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 21, 2021

The Madonna in Art

 


In my interpretation of Giorgione's 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 re-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 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. (239)

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. (197)

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 demonstrated that Venice itself became identified with the Immaculate Conception by the end of the Quattrocento. 

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Note: Below is an image of the Immaculate Conception as the Woman from the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) in a stained glass window of Our Lady of the Assumption church in Fairfield, Connecticut. The church was built in 1939 and Mary has an "art deco" look. Notice that her dress is not the traditional red, a sign of her humanity, but white, a symbol not only of her purity but also of her conception in the mind of God. The putti and the colored arcs behind her are traditional symbols indicating a heavenly scene. 









Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Edward Hutton on Giorgione

 


I first discovered Giorgione and the Tempest in Edward Hutton's, Venice and Venetia, originally published in 1911.* The book was one of many that Hutton came to write on Italy, its regions, cities, culture and history. I had first encountered Hutton in his enchanting book on Lombardy and soon began to collect as many of his books as I could. In preparation for a trip to Venice in 2005 I opened Venice and Venetia and found this passage in his account of the Palazzo Giovanelli, at that time the home of the Tempest. 



In 1560 Jacopo Sansovino restored the Palace, which, however, did not remain in the hands of the Urbino Dukes but passed to the Dona family by purchase; they in the seventeenth century passed it on to the Giovanelli, who still hold it and its treasures, undoubtedly the greatest of these is the picture by Giorgione, which has passed under various names—the family of Giorgione, or simply the Gipsy and the Soldier—which in itself sums up all that we mean by the Giorgionesque in painting. There we see, in a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towered country town, a woman nude but for a cape about her shoulders giving her breast to her child in the shadow of the trees by a quiet stream. On the other side of this jeweled brook a young man like a soldier—or is it a shepherd?—stands resting on a great lance or crook and seems to converse with her. Close by are ruins of some classical building overgrown by moss and lichen, and half hidden in the trees, and not far off up the stream in the sunset we see the towers and walls and roofs and domes of a little town with its bridge across the stream leading to the great old fortified gate of the place. But what chiefly attracts us in the work is something dreamlike too, though wholly of this our world, an air of music which seems to come to us from the noise of the brook or the summer wind in the trees, or the evening bells that from far off we seem to hear ring Ave Maria. One of the golden moments of life has been caught here for ever and perfectly expressed. Heaven, it seems, the kingdom of Heaven, is really to be found in our midst, and Giorgione has contrived a miracle the direct opposite of that of Angelico; for he found all the flowers of Tuscany and the byways of the world in far-off Paradise, but Giorgione has found Paradise itself here in our world. And we must remember that such a work as this was the true invention of Giorgione. [121]

Hutton understood Giorgione's significance.

For with Giorgione (1478-1510), the pupil of Giovanni Bellini…we have a new creation in Art; he is the first painter of the true “easel picture,” the picture which is neither painted for church not to adorn a great public hall, but to hang on the wall of a room in a private house for the delight of the owner. For Giorgione the individual exists, and it is for him, for the most part, he works, and thus stands on the threshold of the modern world….In these short thirty-two years, however, he found time to re-create Venetian painting, to return it to its origins, and to make the career of his great fellow-pupil, Titian, whom he may be said to have formed, possible.[160]

For the truth is that Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto are each an absolutely new impulse in painting. Fundamentally they owe nothing, accidentally even very little, to their predecessors; and if, as we have said, Titian and Tintoretto were able to find full expression because of the work of Giorgione, it is only in the way that Shakespeare and Milton may be said to owe something…to Spencer;…the work of Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto are absolutely new things in the world, the result of a new impulse and a new vision, individual and personal to the last degree, owing little to any school and making little of tradition. [149]

Hutton was a student of Roman and Italian history and art but he also made it a point to see everything he wrote about. He used every means of conveyance to get about and often covered the ground on foot. His descriptions of his walking tours in both town and country are charming and informative. Here is his description of Giorgione's home town of Castelfranco, and its most prized possession.**


This little city…is the happy possessor of what will ever remain, I suppose, the work that is most certainly his very own—I mean the altarpiece of the Madonna enthroned with her little Son between S. Francis and S. Liberale. This glorious picture…is one of the very few Venetian pictures…which possess that serenity and peace, something in truth spellbound, that is necessary to and helps to make what I may call a religious picture. For something must be added to beauty, something must be added to art, to achieve that end which Perugino seems to have reached so easily, and which almost every Sienese painter knew by instinct how to attain. That quality is serenity, the something spellbound we find here. And Giorgione is the last Venetian master to possess that secret. [233-4]
Although a British subject, Hutton seems to have spent most of his life in Italy. During World War II he was with the British army as it made its way up the Italian peninsula. He was an artistic advisor whose role was to point out important cultural sites that should not be bombed. As the armies approached his beloved Florence, he warned that the whole city should be considered a museum and not be bombed at all. Fortunately, the Germans evacuated and the city was spared.

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*Edward Hutton, Venice and Venetia,  London, third edition, 1929, first published 1911. 

**Note: In 2020 I began to reproduce passages from Hutton's various works on my blog, "Edward Hutton's Italy."