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

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Emile Male: the Gothic Image

Emile Male was a pioneering nineteenth century French historian who almost single-handedly rediscovered the magnificent art of the French cathedrals of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. 

West Rose Window
 “in reaching out to the immaterial through the material man may have fleeting visions of God.” Emile Male.

I first read The Gothic Image, the English paperback version of Male’s study of the thirteenth century cathedrals while teaching Western Civilization at a small college in Connecticut over 50 years ago. Even after I left academe to pursue a career in the world of finance, I continued to read Male and eventually went through his complete three volume set, Religious Art in France, re-published by Princeton from 1984 to 1986.*

Male was a pioneer not only because he was one of the first to see the real  subjects of the Gothic windows and sculptures after years of “Enlightenment” obscurantism, but also because  he employed the tools of modern historiography. It almost seems that he actually visited every church and chapel in France as well as a host of others on the European continent. He also found the long forgotten texts that provided the key to the understanding of the windows, paintings, and sculptures that filled the sacred spaces.

It may seem commonplace now but for Male the art of the Middle Ages was primarily didactic. Its purpose was to teach and instruct.  Although it often achieved great beauty, art was not to give visual pleasure. 
 Through the medium of art the highest conceptions of the theologians and scholars penetrated to some extent the minds of even the humblest of people. 
Every branch of human knowledge found its way into the cathedrals which resembled great ships carrying the faithful to their final destination. All that was needed to be known could be found on board. Male identified the six major areas of knowledge depicted in the cathedrals. 

•1. History of the World
•2. Dogmas of Religion
•3. Example of the saints
•4. Hierarchy of virtues (and vices)
•5. Range of the sciences
•6. Arts and crafts

Iconoclastic revolutionaries attacked and destroyed the statues and windows of the cathedrals because they believed that they were representations of the history of the French monarchy. Male showed that they were mistaken because the medieval theologians and artists were more interested in “sacred” history. History could be divided into six major subject areas. 

•1. Old Testament
•2. Gospels
•3. Apocryphal stories
•4. Saints and the Golden Legend
•5. Antiquity—secular history
•6. Close of History—Apocalypse

In dealing with such important subjects the artists followed the dictates of the scholars and theologians. 
the artistic representation of sacred subjects was a science governed by fixed laws which could not be broken at the dictates of individual imagination. 
Even in the Renaissance when great artists like Giorgione and Titian were stretching the envelope, they still were true to traditional iconography. When I was searching for an explanation of the two broken columns in Giorgione’s Tempest, I had only to turn to Male’s description of the apocryphal legends surrounding the flight into Egypt. 

Many medieval writers told that when Jesus entered the temple of Sotinen, called Hermopolis by others, he caused the idols to fall, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: “Behold the Lord will ascend upon a swift cloud and will enter into Egypt. And the idols of Egypt shall be moved at  his presence”…When the governor of the town, Affodosius, heard of the miracle, he went to the temple; when he saw that all the statues were broken, he worshiped Jesus…. 
The Church adopted the story of the Fall of the Idols, which like many apocryphal legends, grew out of a desire to justify a prophetic text, and it authorized the artists to represent it….The thirteenth century gave an abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend. There are neither town, temple nor priests…two statues falling from their pedestals and breaking in two suffice to recall the miracle. ** 
More than an encyclopedic reference, Male was a true guide for anyone seeking to understand Medieval and Renaissance art. He showed how symbols could be decoded to identify once familiar subjects. The nimbus or halo was a sign of holiness within and was only used to identify Christ, the Madonna, the Apostles, and the saints. Christ is always shown with his unique “cruciform” halo. God the Father, Jesus, and the Apostles are always bare foot, but not the Madonna and the saints. Divine intervention is usually indicated by a hand emerging from above or from clouds. Cherubs indicate the eternal rest of Heaven. 

Well-known Apostles have their identifying characteristics. St. Peter usually is balding with a short stubby beard. St. Paul is bald but with a long straight beard since he belonged to the Jewish sect that did not cut their hair. He is often shown with the sword used in his own execution. St. John, regarded by tradition as the youngest Apostle, is usually beardless.

Even events must follow the rules. At the Last Supper Jesus and the Apostles are ranged opposite Judas who is bereft of halo. At the Crucifixion the Madonna must stand at the right hand of Jesus and St. John at the left. The right hand always indicates the place of honor. At the Annunciation artists could vary the postures and attitudes of the angel and the Virgin, but there must always be a flower between them.

Male explained why the altar must always be oriented toward the East, the direction of the rising sun. Only after the Reformation would the Jesuits discard this ancient practice. The cold, dark North side of the cathedrals would always depict scenes from the Old Testament while the warm and bright South would be used for the New Testament. The West was the direction of the setting sun and therefore used to depict the end of the world and Last Judgment as seen in the great West Rose window of Chartres.

Numerical symbolism was extremely important. The number 3 represented the Trinity and all spiritual things. Four represented all material things, since matter was made up of the four elements of air, earth, fire, and water. Seven was a particularly important number for it represented humanity, the unique sum of spirit and matter. There were the seven ages of man, the seven virtues with their corresponding vices, the seven sacraments, and even the seven planets that played a mysterious role in governing human destiny. The number 12, the product of 3 and 4, represented completeness. It was the number of the Apostles, the tribes of Israel, and of the universal Church.

Rose Window, Assumption Church
Fairfield CT ***

Consider this little Rose window from the back of my own parish church in Connecticut which was modeled on the Norman Gothic style of the twelfth century. The risen Lamb of God from the Book of Revelation reclines on an altar with the Seven Seals. Around this center the twelve petals of the rose each contain a symbol of one of the  Apostles who represent all the elect. This same circular window representing Paradise can be found in all the great French cathedrals, as well as in Dante’s Paradiso.

 For Medieval artists and craftsmen the choice of subject was extremely important. To paraphrase Male, every form clothed a thought, and thought fashioned the matter and assumed plastic form. 

Sadly, most modern scholars seem to have only a token knowledge of his work. I suppose it is regarded as out-dated and old fashioned but, in my opinion, it is impossible to fully understand the art of the Italian Renaissance without poring through his volumes. For Male the Middle Ages ended not with the Renaissance but only in 1517 with the onset of the Protestant Reformation. 


 * A convenient paperback collection of excerpts and essays can be found in Emile Male, Religious Art from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century, Princeton, 1982. 

 **Emile Male: Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1986, pp. 220-1. 

*** Image by Melissa DeStefano 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Titian: Assumption of Mary


Titian’s huge altarpiece of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven is by far the most well-known and spectacular painting of that subject. The painting is more than 22 feet  high and 11 feet wide and was designed to fit behind the main altar of Santa Maria Gloriosa, commonly known as the Frari, in Venice. It still dominates the Frari, then as now the Franciscan center in Venice. It was begun in 1516 and completed in 1518 and was a sign that Titian had become not only the premier painter in Venice but also, one of the greatest in Europe. However, Titian was only one of many Italian masters who turned their attention to this subject in the sixteenth century. To give one example, a few years later Correggio painted a kind of Baroque version in the cathedral of Parma. 

Depictions of the actual Assumption were a relatively new phenomenon in the early sixteenth century. In earlier times artists and patrons seemed to prefer depictions of what is known as the Dormition of Mary. This was a legendary event that supposed that at the end of her stay on earth, Mary fell into her last sleep. Then the Apostles were miraculously transported from their labors all over the world to be at her bedside. They were joined by her Son who took her soul directly to Heaven. Artists like Duccio depicted an infant that represented the soul of Mary in the arms of Christ.*
In the sixteenth century Titian and others would still retain the Apostles in the scene but would show Mary as a full grown beautiful woman rising up on her own to meet the Trinity. Her traditional red dress is a sign of her humanity, but the blue cloak that billows around her is a sign that she has been covered or cloaked by the Almighty. The primitive image of an infant in the arms of her Son would be discarded. 
I believe that the change must have reflected the increased interest in the idea of the Immaculate Conception that had been developing since the beginning of the fifteenth century. If Mary was conceived without original sin, then Mary would not, following the words of St. Paul, be subject to death. It was Sin that ushered Death into the world. Therefore, the  Assumption of Mary is a corollary to the Immaculate Conception.
Significant developments in the 15th century had brought the idea of the Immaculate Conception to prominence by the end of the century. In the first place, the century witnessed a continued increase in devotion to the Madonna, which naturally led to an increased interest on the part of the populace in the "Conception." This interest was fostered by religious orders, most notably the Franciscans. Secondly, controversy about the doctrine between the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the two great preaching orders, contributed to the development of the doctrine.
This controversy brought to a head a debate about the "Conception" which had been going on among theologians during the previous two centuries. The Franciscans based their support not only on the great devotion to Mary on the part of their founder but also on the theological opinion of their great scholar, John Duns Scotus. Although no less devoted to Mary, Dominican theologians argued that since Christ had come to free all from sin, His own Mother should not be excluded. Their position was based on St. Paul, the early Church fathers, and even St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Dominican theologian, who had expressed reservations about the doctrine.[i]
 In 1438 the Council of Basel, no doubt responding to the upsurge of devotion to Mary, affirmed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception but only after Papal legates and others had left the Council. Without Papal support the Council and its decrees could not become binding on the Church. Nevertheless, the concept of the Immaculate Conception had been given tremendous impetus, especially in France and the Iberian peninsula. Nowhere, however, did it receive greater support than in Venice.
Rona Goffen, in Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, argued that Venice itself became identified with the Immaculate Conception by the end of the Quattrocento.[ii] By mid-century there were 20 churches and 300 altars dedicated to the Madonna. By the end of the century, churches like S. Maria dei Miracoli and S. Maria della Carita were dedicated specifically to the "Immaculata." In 1498, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was founded in Venice, and it worshipped at the Frari's famous Pesaro altar, itself dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.
 Two great figures had a tremendous impact on the spiritual life of Venice in the 15th century. St. Bernardino of Siena, a Franciscan Observant, had preached in Venice before his death in 1443. His impact must have been significant since he was made a  patron saint of the Republic in 1470.  Although unwilling to embroil himself in the controversy over the doctrine, he was devoted to Mary and known as an advocate of the Immaculate Conception. Even more importantly, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, Lorenzo Giustiniani, was a staunch advocate of the doctrine. Giustiniani died in 1453 but his sermons, especially on Marian subjects like the Annunciation and the Assumption, were well known and circulated widely after his death. Finally, his collected sermons were published in Venice in 1506 by which time he had come to enjoy almost beatified status. Referring to the sermons of these two giants Rona Goffen noted,

In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nonetheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination.[iii]

The Papacy also played a role. Francesco della Rovere, the Vicar-General of the Franciscan order and a leading Franciscan scholar was elected Pope Sixtus IV in 1471. In the previous year he had written a treatise on the Immaculate Conception in which he had tried to reconcile the differing opinions of supporters and opponents. In 1476 he responded to increased rancor among the contending orders with a Bull calling for an end to the controversy. Subsequently, he added the feast of the Immaculate Conception to the liturgy for the entire Western Church, and ordered new offices to be composed for the Feast. One was even composed especially for Franciscan use. Nevertheless, the controversy continued and both sides intensified their efforts, especially in Venice where the Frari, became a virtual shrine to Mary's Immaculate Conception. 
Even though Marian beliefs like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are little understood and even mis-understood today by both believers and non-believers, students of the Renaissance must try to understand their importance in Italy and elsewhere on the eve of the Protestant reformation. Otherwise, it would be hard to understand the animus of Protestant reformers to Marian shrines and devotions.  ###

* For the Dormition of Mary see the nice discussion at  in the section entitled Life of the Virgin

[i] For a comprehensive discussion of the doctrine and the controversy surrounding it see The Dogma of the Immaculate ConceptionHistory and Significance, ed. Edward Dennis O’Connor, University of Notre Dame Press, 1958, c. VI. See also the article on the Immaculate Conception in “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” 1910.

[ii]Rona Goffen,  Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice,  Yale, 1986, p. 154.

[iii]Goffen, op. cit.  p. 79.