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".

Monday, February 28, 2022

Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert

 


                      
Today, I repost a review essay on John Fleming's study of Giovanni Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert, now in the Frick Museum. since its original posting on 9/28/2014, it has become the fourth most popular post on this site.
******************************

For over 60 years the Frick Museum in New York City has been my favorite museum. It is a small, easily navigated site quite unlike the Metropolitan only a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. Its magnificent collection of paintings, acquired for the most part during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by steel baron, Henry Clay Frick, spans the gamut of Western art from late Medieval to the Impressionists.*

                      

You cannot visit the Frick and fail to notice that patrons invariably stop in the great central living room to stare and wonder at Giovanni Bellini’s depiction of St. Francis On one occasion a museum employee confirmed my guess that this painting, despite the presence of works by the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, and Renoir, is the most popular in the whole collection.

Born in 1430 Giovanni Bellini is arguably the first great master of the Venetian Renaissance. The Venetian version of the Renaissance has long taken a back seat to the Florentine but in the last few decades it has come into its own and today most scholars would agree that Bellini and his younger successors, Giorgione, and Titian, can hold their own as painters with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Indeed, the Bellini family studio is now seen as one of the great sources of the Renaissance. Giovanni and his brother, Gentile, who at one point went to Constantinople to paint the Sultan, inherited the studio from their father, Jacopo. Andrea Mantegna, a great painter in his own right, married one of the Bellini sisters and exerted a powerful influence on the studio. Scholars also suspect that both Giorgione and Titian were apprentices at the Bellini studio before they broke out on their own.

Although he painted the St. Francis around 1480, Bellini continued to paint well into the next century. Until his death he was sought after and courted by public, religious, and private patrons. He is best known as a painter of Madonnas and groups of figures ranged around the Madonna and Child often called “sacra conversazione.” Nevertheless, the St. Francis is a unique work in the history of Renaissance art.

What is going on in the painting? St. Francis stands in the foreground a little off center wearing his familiar robe.  Behind him is a kind of wooden structure that seems to lead into a cave. The mid-ground is largely made up of a barren landscape whose primary occupant is a small horse or ass. Prominent in the upper left is an oddly shaped tree that appears to be leaning toward St. Francis. In the distant background we see a majestic towered city.

In one interpretation of the painting Francis is receiving the stigmata, the actual wounds of Christ on his own body.  His hands are outstretched and close examination indicates barely visible wounds on his hands but traditional elements usually employed in depictions of the stigmata episode are absent. His companion, Brother Leo, is not shown and neither are Christ or an angel.

I prefer the interpretation of John V. Fleming in From Bonaventure to Bellinian Essay in Franciscan ExegesisIn this often overlooked but extraordinary 1982 monograph Fleming argued that Marcantonio Michiel’s original description of the painting, when he saw it in the home of Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini, “St. Francis in the Desert,” was indeed correct.  Fleming saw the subject of the painting and every detail in it grounded in Franciscan spirituality.

The landscape in the painting is not La Verna, the site of the stigmata episode, but the desert of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. In particular, it is the Egyptian desert. The prominent animal in mid-ground is the Onager or wild ass of the desert while the heron standing before it is a bird of the Nile delta.


Franciscans often associated their founder with Moses and Elijah and their life in the desert. In the background beneath the city there is a shepherd tending his flock just as Moses did before his encounter with the Lord. Indeed, the leaning tree so prominent in the upper left refers to the famous burning bush in which the Lord appeared to Moses. It is a laurel which at the time was believed to be impervious to fire. We also notice that Francis has removed his sandals and stands barefoot in the same manner as Moses in the presence of the Lord.

The wooden structure behind Francis is a Sukkoth, variously translated as tent, hut, booth, or tabernacle, a kind of portable structure used by the Israelites in their wanderings in the desert. The Sukkoth also recalls the scene of the Transfiguration when Christ was revealed in His glory accompanied by Moses and Elijah to the three apostles, Peter, James, and John. Dumfounded, Peter offered to build three booths or Sukkoth for Jesus and his guests.



If we look closely, we will see beneath the right hand of Francis a rabbit in a hole in the rock, and beneath his left hand a jug. The rabbit was a symbolic reference to Moses who hid his face from the Lord and the jug is a reference to Elijah. Indeed, the abundant vegetation sprouting around Francis is a garden or carmel, another reference to Elijah who was believed to have been the founder of the Carmelite order. Francis stands between Moses and Elijah in the same way as Christ stood between them at the Transfiguration. In Franciscan spirituality and imagery, Francis was the new Christ.

Just as Moses came to lead his people out of the slavery of Egypt, so too did Francis come to lead his followers out of the slavery of sin. The city in the background then is a place of danger and peril, both physical and spiritual. The desert is symbolic of the life of poverty and humility preached by the famous founder of the Franciscan order.

Most of the paintings acquired by Henry Clay Frick had a special meaning for him. A committed Mason, Frick admired Francis because of his love of Nature. Others who have viewed the painting since Frick added it to his collection perhaps have had their own reasons for admiring it. Even if we know nothing of Franciscan spirituality, Bellini’s painting is still an image of a human being standing open and receptive to the divine light and transforming the world because of it. **

###

* This review essay originally appeared as a guest post on Hasan Niyazi's popular Art history blog, "Three Pipe Problem." It was subsequently published on this site in September 2014, a year after Hasan's death. It has become one of the most popular posts on Giorgione et al...

** The Frick and Metropolitan Museum collaborated on a cleaning and restoration of the painting about five years ago. The effort resulted in an exhaustive study of the painting that I believe did not give as much attention to Fleming's interpretation as it deserved. See, Susannah Rutherglen and Charlotte Hale: In a New LightGiovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. The Frick Collection. New York, 2015. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Titian: Pastoral Concert or Homage to Giorgione

 




This year I am reprising the most viewed posts on Giorgione et al... Since its inception in 2010, the site has garnered almost 540,000 page views. An introductory essay on the Pastoral Concert ranks number 3 on the list of views. I have added some notes on my findings since then.
*******

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 products 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, but 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, three 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 is pouring into a well. **

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

### 

* I originally wrote these words in May, 2013. Only in 2020 did I discover that art historian Christiane Joost-Gaugier had seen the painting as Titian's homage to the deceased Giorgione back in 1999. (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.)

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 discussed the areas of agreement and disagreement in a subsequent post.

** For a bibliographical essay on the painting see the post on Giorgione et al... dated 6/17/2013.

*** Since 2013, I have come to recognize that the dark clouds in the background are also a sign of the death of Giorgione.