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".

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Nudes in Michelangelo's Doni Tondo

 



This essay on the nudes in Michelangelo's Doni Tondo was originally posted on this site on July 21, 2015. It was the third and concluding part of my interpretation of the painting. It has been the tenth most viewed post on this site. The first two parts can be found using the search box to the right. The full paper can be found on MyGiorgione, a site devoted to my major interpretive discoveries. Last year I also published the full paper on a site devoted to the publication of academic papers where it can be viewed or downloaded.




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. [i] 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.[ii]
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. A couple of years after the completion of the Doni Tondo Michelangelo featured the Noah story on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

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.[iii]

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: Medici Madonna


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…[iv]

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.[v]
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 Malerbi bible in 1490 in the vernacular. 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.

Why would Michelangelo place the proud giants or Nephilim in the Doni tondo? I can only offer the following guess. 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 to 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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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds

The following post on Giorgione's "Adoration of the Shepherds" is the eighth most popular post on  Giorgione et al... since its inception in 2010. It originally appeared on December 15, 2015.

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds (Allendale Adoration)
National Gallery, Washington
96.8cm x 110.5 cm, 35.7" x 43.5"



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 deal with 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 angels’ 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 known 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 great 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 was not 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.”


Hugo van der Goes: Portinari Altarpiece


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 and on the altar at every Mass. 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. 

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.

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.

Finally, art historian Mario Lucco has suggested that the long hair of the one indicates a Venetian patrician in shepherd’s clothing.* That may be so but I like to think Giorgione indicated that the Savior, whether present on the ground before the shepherds as a newborn King, or on the altar at Mass, is accessible to all. This King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion. 

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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.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Mantegna and Giorgione: Exceptional Painters

I first published this post on Andrea Mantegna on March 26, 2011. It has received over 2000 page views and ranks #7 on my list of most viewed posts. The post was derived from a study by Henk van Os, "The Art of Devotion."

Andrea Mantegna: Madonna and Child
Berlin

In “The Art of Devotion” Henk van Os argued that Andrea Mantegna deliberately sought to be an “exceptional painter.” As court painter of Mantua, Mantegna worked for an exclusive and well-to-do clientele. Even when his patrons wanted common subjects like a Madonna and Child for their homes, they would not be satisfied with a stock or second-rate work. 

"There are quite a few extant pictures showing devotional scenes in bedrooms and they make it clear that such small paintings on a wall had a different function from the diptychs or triptychs which were opened when one wanted to pray. A Virgin and Child on the wall was more remote. It sanctified the room as a whole, as well as serving if necessary as a focal point for prayer. It had become one of the norms for interior decoration. A second-rate Madonna would have been out of place in a sumptuous room…." 

Mantegna used not only his technical virtuosity but also his uncommon knowledge of antiquity to become an “exceptional” painter. "As an authority on antiquity, and mixing as he did with princes, he regarded each new commission as a new artistic challenge. Whatever he painted…the result was always something entirely and unmistakably his own." 

Everything that van Os said about Mantegna can be applied to Giorgione. If Mantegna, working in Mantua, had a difficult and demanding clientele, what can we say about the young Giorgione working in Venice in the first decade of the sixteenth century? I like to compare the big three of Renaissance Italian cities to three current day American cities. Florence is Boston, Rome is Washington but Venice is New York, the cultural and financial capital of the world. 



Since 2005 I have been working on my interpretation of Giorgione’s Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” I have concentrated on explaining what Giorgione did in this painting. So far I have not paid too much attention to the “why” of this painting. Why did Giorgione choose to depict this familiar subject in such an unusual and seemingly mysterious manner? There has been much speculation about the “why” of the Tempest in the scholarly literature. Some have argued that Giorgione deliberately chose to “hide” the subject so that only his patron would be in on the secret. More than just enjoying the painting, his patron would also be able to show off in front of his wealthy and influential friends. Even though the small size of the Tempest indicates that it was designed to be hung in a private study or bedroom, some have argued that Giorgione deliberately tried to create a feeling of ambiguity and even discomfort in the mind of the viewer.


I cannot agree with the advocates of “hidden subject” or ambiguity. Where is the ambiguity in the “lost” Giorgione mistakenly called the “Discovery of Paris?” In my paper on the Tempest I demonstrate that this painting was an almost literal depiction of an episode on the flight into Egypt taken from the apocryphal “Arabic Gospel of the Infancy.” A Venetian patrician, Marcantonio Michiel, simply mis-identified it in 1525 and scholars have fallen in line ever since. 

I would like to speculate that it was the desire to become an “exceptional” painter that motivated Giorgione. All commentators have agreed that his technical skills were exceptional. If you look at the “Three Ages of Man” in the Pitti Palace, you can literally count the hairs in the beard of the elderly man in red. But Giorgione was also exceptional in what contemporaries called “invention.” To possess a Giorgione was to possess a work entirely his own. In my paper on the Tempest I wrote that Giorgione was “stretching the envelope” with his depiction of a nude Madonna. Giorgione stretched the envelope in practically all of his paintings. He used traditional sacred subjects and took them to a new and daring level, not to hide their subject but to enhance its artistic quality as well as its devotional power. I agree with those who see the so-called “Laura” as Mary Magdalene, and the so-called “Boy With an Arrow” as St. Sebastian. I agree with those who see the “Three Philosophers” as the Magi, not at the end of their journey but at its very beginning. 



Even his Nativities depart from the conventional, stock images. He has moved the Madonna and Child out of the center and placed them in the right foreground where they become the focus of the narrative. 



 Giorgione lived in the greatest city of his time. Even if he did not apprentice in the famous Bellini workshop, he must have been familiar with its work and resources. Vasari claimed that he learned much from Leonardo but he must also have been familiar with the work of Mantegna and Antonello da Messina. There is even evidence Indicating an awareness of the work of Raphael, and Luca Signorelli. Giorgione’s patrons must also have been aware of these great painters, but we know the great value that they placed on the work of the young master from Castelfranco. Speaking about patrons, when Isabella d’Este, the Marchesa of Mantua, tried to add to her collection she only contacted the best painters of the day. Even though she expected them to use their “invention,” she usually specified the “subject” she wanted them to depict. No ambiguity for her. She never wanted the “subject” to be hidden. The quotes in italics above are taken from Henk van Os, "The Art of Devotion, 1300-1500." Princeton, 1994, pp. 132-135. Below are additional notes from this study which could apply to Giorgione as well as to Mantegna. Van Os is discussing Mantegna's Madonna and Child (Berlin) 

"One of the most beautiful ‘paintings on a wall’ for private devotion is Andrea Mantegna’s Virgin and Child of ca. 1465/70 in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. Mantegna was the greatest Early Renaissance painter of northern Italy. As an authority on antiquity, and mixing as he did with princes, he regarded each new commission as a new artistic challenge. Whatever he painted…the result was always something entirely and unmistakably his own. That conscious, erudite communion with the past in order to achieve new creations is one of the most remarkable aspects of his career…." 

"The innovative nature of the work is immediately apparent from the technique employed. It is not on panel, but canvas, and the medium used was not egg or oil, but glue. Mantegna painted directly on to the canvas, with no intermediate ground. …So even with the technique Mantegna was proclaiming his originality. He wanted to be different, exceptional, although that desire should not be associated with romantic notions of artistry. Mantegna broke with accepted craft practice because he served patrons who sought exceptional artists partly in order to enhance their social status…." 

"Renaissance artists who wanted to display their exceptional qualities often did so by a radical individualization of stereotypes, in this case the Virgin. She does not follow the fixed type, nor does she present her Child in accordance with the rules developed in Byzantine art. There was a programme for the Virgin cheek to cheek with the Child, the so-called eleousa Madonna, but Mantegna leaves it so far behind that it becomes almost irrelevant. The spatial conception gives both figures a new presence. The rectangular format is turned into a window at which Mary displays her baby, but without making a point of presenting it to the viewer. Her relationship with Jesus brings them very close to us. The Mother of God is an ordinary girl who has no need of a halo to idealise her. She gazes pensively ahead, caressing her sleeping Child…." 

"With his Virgin and Child, Mantegna brought the veneration of the famous Padua Madonna into the home. By an artifice he removes the costly cloth, revealing Mary displaying her sleeping baby wrapped in swaddling bands. Art exposes Salvation. The essential feature is still the proximity of the sacred, but the ingenuity of the artist has taken on a different dimension. From craftsmanlike fabricator he has manifestly become a creator."

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