Since 2010 I have been using this site to discuss my interpretations of famous Renaissance paintings including 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"; Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione", and Michelangelo's"Doni Tondo." The full papers can now be found at

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Fra Bartolomeo and Giorgione

The following post was originally published in the early days of Giorgione et al... on 4/30/2011. I re-post it here in somewhat more readable form, and add a link to paintings by Paris Bordone and Lorenzo Lotto depicting a young, vigorous St. Joseph.

Baccio della Porta, a noted Florentine artist, had been so moved by the death of Savonarola that he gave up his painting career and entered the Dominican order himself. He was given the name Fra Bartolomeo. In 1504 his superiors convinced him to take up his brushes again and become a kind of official Dominican artist in residence. A little while later the young Raphael began his sojourn in Florence and the two unlikely personalities became friends and associates. It is generally believed that Raphael helped Fra Bartolomeo in developing his craft, but if we look at the latter’s 1499 version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" now in the Borghese Gallery, we can see that Raphael could just as well have learned from the friar. 

Fra Bartolomeo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
1499, Borghese Gallery

In 1508 Fra Bartolomeo was sent to Venice to do some work for the Dominican house on the isle of Murano. It would have been hard for him not to have become acquainted with the work of Giorgione, another young genius. Besides his great reputation, Giorgione had just completed his spectacular frescoes on the fa├žade of the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi. At the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in Venice in 2010, Alessio Assonitis presented a paper entitled “Fra Bartolomeo and San Pietro Martire at Murano.” He noted the following:

 "As a friar-painter…Fra Bartolomeo was exempt from conventional pastoral duties.… His travels to the other two major centers of Italian painting were nothing but artistic sabbaticals which consented the friar to keep up-to-date with recent artistic developments.... Indeed, following his brief sojourn in Venice, Fra Bartolomeo was able to integrate elements of Bellini and Giorgione’s pictorial lexicon soberly and harmoniously….he also showed no reservations about borrowing compositional elements from Venetian artists like Carpaccio, Bellini, Giorgione and Titian." 

If we look again at Fra Bartolomeo’s version of the “Rest” in the Borghese Gallery and compare it with another version done after the visit to Venice we will see a striking change. 

The Borghese painting was done around 1499 and while it is often called an “Adoration” or a “Holy Family,” it is really a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” There are the three figures in a landscape so characteristic of “Rest” images, as well as the monumental ruins representative of the fall of the Egyptian idols as the Infant Christ entered Egypt. Artists sometimes just used rocks and rubble to depict the destruction of the idols, but Fra Bartolomeo liked to emphasize the ruins. I would like to draw attention, however, to the figure of Joseph whose prominent position in the foreground represents his increased importance in Renaissance devotion. He is no longer a small figure off to the side or in the background. He is still portrayed as a very old man with a gray beard. 

Ten years later, after the trip to Venice, Fra Bartolomeo did another version of the Rest that is now at the Getty in Los Angeles. This painting depicts the encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on the return from Egypt. Now there are four figures in the landscape but Fra Bartolomeo still features the ruins. However, Joseph now appears to be much younger. The beard is gone and he is middle-aged. He is certainly physically capable of protecting his Family. 

In my paper on Giorgione’s Tempest I interpreted that famous painting as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”  I argued that the young man in the painting is St. Joseph. In the paper I also discussed an earlier Giorgione painting which has been mistakenly called “The Discovery of Paris.” This lost Giorgione only exists in seventeenth century copies but it is taken almost literally from an apocryphal account of the encounter of the Holy Family with robbers on the Flight into Egypt. In that early work Giorgione depicted Joseph as a very old graybeard. In the Tempest, done at the end of his short career, Giorgione chose to portray Joseph as a youthful, virile Venetian patrician.

What was going on in Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century? Had artists finally caught up with the demands of religious reformers like Jean Gerson? In a study of Gerson, Brian Patrick McGuire noted that in the early fifteenth century the famed Chancellor of the University of Paris had called for a different artistic approach to Joseph. 

"The chancellor imagined Joseph as a young man, full of energy and potency, able to take care of his wife and son by hard work, and not the broken-down, tired figure of popular imagination…." "Gerson wanted a man who was virile and chaste, loving and affectionate, happy and fulfilled in his vocation….Such themes are expressed in greatest detail in Gerson’s Considerations on Saint Joseph, written between August and late September 1413. The text takes up more than thirty pages in the Glorieux edition and provides the basis for his later poem, the Josephina." Brian Patrick McGuire, “Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation,” Penn State, 2005. Pp. 236-7.

Girolamo Savonarola, another reformer interested in naturalistic depictions of sacred art, might have also played a role in this new approach to Joseph. In the paper mentioned above Alessio Assonitis referred to the work of scholars on Savonarolan influence in Venice.

 "Tafuri and Scapecchi have pointed out how certain religious circles in Venice had favorably accepted the Frate’s reformational program; Leathers Kuntz went so far to claim that Savonarola’s sermons had reinvigorated the reformational zeal of the Venetian nobility and popolani….Precisely due to the Serenissima’s relative tolerance, many of Savonarola’s works were published in Venice. Quite frequent were communications between Savonarolans and Venetian presses…." 

Whatever the reason, both Giorgione and Fra Bartolomeo changed their approach to St. Joseph in the first decade of the sixteenthth century. In the next decade Paris Bordone and Lorenzo Lotto would also paint a young, virile Joseph in depictions of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. 


Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Patinier and Giorgione

So far this year I have been re-posting the most viewed posts that have appeared on Giorgione et al...  since its inception in 2010. For the remainder of the year I plan to feature posts that have not gained much attention but may be of interest to today's readers. This post on Joachim Patinier and landscape first appeared on April 2, 2011.

The popularity of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” became an important factor in the development of landscape in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. To incorporate the very popular apocryphal infancy legends into their work artists, especially in the Netherlands, had to deepen and broaden their landscape background. 

Depictions of the Rest by these “northern” artists found their way into the palaces of Venetian patricians. Marcantonio Michiel even noted a depiction of “Our Lady with St. Joseph in the desert,” by John Scorel of Holland in the home of Gabriele Vendramin, the owner of Giorgione's Tempest.

Joachim Patinier: Rest on the flight into Egypt (Prado)

Joachim Patinier painted many versions of the Rest. One of the best is in the Prado. The Madonna, dressed in blue and white, sits on a rocky outcrop nursing her Child. St. Joseph is off to the left gathering food for her to eat although his pilgrim's staff and sack are featured in the foreground. Behind the Madonna is what appears to be rocky rubble but the large stone ball indicates the remains of the Egyptian idols that collapsed on the arrival of the Child into Egypt. According to Emile Male the legendary “Fall of Idols” was a commonplace in depictions of the flight into Egypt.

Northern artists like Patinier usually included episodes from the very popular apocryphal gospels in their paintings. In addition to the “Fall of Idols” Patinier depicted the legend of the “wheat or corn field” in the background.

Here is a version of the legend told by Anna Jameson in her own inimitable way.

“In many representations of the Flight into Egypt, we find in the background men sowing or cutting corn. This is an allusion to the following legend:--

When it was discovered that the Holy Family had fled from Bethlehem, Herod sent his officers in pursuit of them. And it happened that when the Holy Family had traveled some distance, they came to a field where a man was sowing wheat. And the Virgin said to the husbandman, “If any shall ask you whether we have passed this way, ye shall answer, ‘Such persons passed this way when I was sowing this corn.” For the Holy Virgin was too wise and too good to save her Son by instructing the man to tell a falsehood. But behold, a miracle! For by the power of the Infant Saviour, in the space of a single night, the seed sprung up into stalk, blade, and ear, fit for the sickle. And next morning the officers of Herod came up, and inquired of the husbandman, saying, “Have you seen an old man with a woman and a Child traveling this way?” And the man, who was reaping his wheat, in great wonder and admiration, replied “Yes.” And they asked him again, “How long is it since?” And he answered, “When I was sowing this wheat.” Then the officers of Herod turned back, and left off pursuing the Holy Family….”

Mrs. Jameson added a little aside that could serve as a reminder for scholars even today.

“By those unacquainted with the old legend, the introduction of the cornfield and reapers is supposed to be merely a decorative landscape, without any peculiar significance.” 

[Anna Brownell Jameson, “Legends of the Madonna, as Represented in the Fine Arts,” Boston and New York, 1885. Pp. 359-360.]

In his seminal study of Netherlandish art Max Friedlander argued that the need to include these legendary stories had an important role in the development of landscape.

“The lovers and buyers of Patenier’s pictures were not satisfied with the effect as a whole, they wanted to read in the picture, they sought in it the leisure of a walk full of varied interest or a journey of discovery. If at every turn in the road they came upon adventure, discovered figures to interpret, relationships to trace, all the more satisfied did they feel….”

In a 1975 unpublished doctoral dissertation Sheila Schwarz also pointed out that these stories created a new justification for landscape. Patenier had to expand and deepen the landscape in order to accommodate these little stories. “Then Patenir studded his landscapes with vignettes whose presence further authorizes the expansion of the setting.” [Sheila Schwartz, The Iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, New York University, Ph. D., 1975, p. 124.]

In the left background of Patenier’s painting we see the city representing Judea from where the Holy Family has fled. Notice the bridge leading out of the city. Then moving to the right we see the newly grown cornfield and the farmer encountered on the journey. In the foreground Madonna and Child have found safety and rest.

Despite obvious differences, it is not hard to notice the similarity between Patenier’s version of the Rest and Giorgione’s Tempest. In both paintings a woman nurses her child while their protector is off to the left. Patenier used rocks and rubble to depict the Fall of Idols while Giorgione used broken columns and ruins. In both paintings there is a city and a bridge in the background. Dark clouds cover Patinier's city just as in the Tempest. Notice how Patinier causes the sky to lighten and grow blue in the center and right background.

Finally, I have argued in my paper on the Tempest that Giorgione used nudity to depict the Immaculate Conception of the Madonna. Patenier dressed his nursing Madonna not in her traditional red and blue but in blue and white, colors which would later become the standard in depictions of the Immaculate Conception. In addition, Patenier illuminated the Madonna as if to suggest the woman "clothed with the sun" from the Book of Revelation.

Below find comments from Max Friedlander on Patenier and the Prado Rest.

Patenier was a landscape painter, perhaps the first Netherlander to regard himself, and to be regarded, as a landscape painter, like Albrecht Altdorfer in Germany. Therein lies his fame. Durer, who was on friendly terms with him, calls him the ‘gut Landschaftsmaler’ (the good landscape painter). How highly the specialist was valued is made abundantly clear by the fact that two of his greatest contemporaries, Quentin Massys and Joos van Cleve, collaborated with him: they painted the figures and he added the landscape….

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the Prado is a mature masterpiece. From the plants in the foreground, studied with loving insight and botanical accuracy, to the dusky masses of foliage in the middle ground, from the fancifully constructed Romanesque temple buildings to the blue distance, everything is scrupulously worked out, abundant and rich. The principal figure, the Madonna in a light cloak, firmly outlined but with a softly flowing line, seems a little out of keeping with the whole.

A powerful mood is emitted from this panel; though descriptive and didactic, it seems imbued with poetry.

Max Friedlander, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, London, 1956, pp. 79-81.