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

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Giorgione: Laura or Mary Magdalen?


I have argued on this site that Giorgione’s Portrait of a Young Woman, commonly called “Laura” could actually be his version of “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen.” I believe that I am not the first to suggest Mary Magdalen but a number of distinguished catalogs in the past two decades do not even consider the possibility. 

Giorgione: Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)
Oil on canvas, mounted on panel, 51 x 33.6 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

While scholars are unanimous in attributing the Laura to Giorgione, they have not been able to agree on the subject of this painting of a partially nude young woman. Most agree that Laura is a misnomer and that the painting has nothing to do with Petrarch's lover. All do point out the paradoxical iconographic symbols. On one hand, there are the robe and bared breast of a Venetian courtesan, but on the other, there are symbols of chastity and conjugal love such as the laurel leaves and head scarf.

Only one person fits this description and that is Mary Magdalen. This most famous female saint of the Middle Ages was generally regarded in the Renaissance as a prostitute who after her encounter with Jesus became a true and virtuous bride of Christ. After her conversion she is often portrayed with breasts bared.

After I first interpreted Giorgione's Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” back in 2005, I began to suspect that some of his other inexplicable or mysterious paintings might actually be sacred subjects. Shortly after I began Giorgione et al… in the fall of 2010, I put up a brief post on the Laura that explored the Magdalen interpretation. Three years later I put up a more expansive post that discussed its similarity with other mysterious paintings of beautiful women by Titian. [Giorgione’s Laura,Titian’s Flora, and Mary Magdalen. 8/19/2013.]

Giorgione’s Laura has been recognized as a revolutionary turning point in the development of the art of the Venetian Renaissance. In his magnificent 2009 Giorgione catalog, Enrico dal Pozzolo devoted nine pages to the Laura in a section entitled, “a sense of beauty.” He described the little painting in almost poetic terms.*

Imagined up against an impenetrable, dark background…, the painting has the power to suddenly brighten up the room where it hangs through a light that would appear to shine forth from her snow-white skin. She turns to her viewer sideways, and bares her right breast; her eyes trained on something or someone outside,…[291]

He called the Laura “one of the most astonishing paintings of the European Renaissance,” and claimed that it had a profound impact on artists who followed Giorgione. [291] He drew comparisons between the Laura and Giovanni Cariani’s Judith, Boccaccio Boccacino’s Portrait of a Girl, and even Albrecht Durer’s Portrait of a Young Woman that also hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. He argued that Giorgione’s painting was a revolutionary departure.

There is no question that a work of this kind broke completely with previous Venetian portraiture. It was a turning point, if not a breaking point, which described a manner of conceiving the pictorial medium that was not just unprecedented, but actually elevated the descriptive datum to a metaphorical level. [297]

Nevertheless, the painting could also mark a revolutionary departure in depictions of Mary Magdalen. After Giorgione, painters such as Titian and Correggio would paint versions of an emotionally charged Magdalen with symbols representing both sinner and saint. Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, painted shortly after Giorgione’s death, should be seen as one example.

In earlier posts I have also agreed with those who interpret Giorgione’s Three Philosophers as the Three Magi when they first see the Star of Bethlehem. I have also agreed with those who see his Boy with an Arrow as St. Sebastian. Coincidentally, an English friend back from a visit to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum sent me an image (taken I suspect while the guards were looking the other way) of the three paintings hanging side by side. In the few years left to me I don’t expect the famed Museum to change the labels but what would we think of Giorgione and the Venetian Renaissance if we could stand before these paintings and see Mary Magdalen and St. Sebastian flanking the Three Magi at the first sign of the Incarnation?

Giorgione wall, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Image courtesy of D.O.

* Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo: Giorgione,  Milan, 2009. Page numbers in brackets.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow


This year I have been re-posting my various interpretive essays that followed upon my discovery back in 2005 that Giorgione's Tempest, the most famous painting by the Venetian Renaissance master,  has a "sacred" subject, "The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt," Below find an essay on "The Boy with an Arrow" that originally appeared here in 2011 but has been augmented since then.
As far as I know the most important iconographical detail in Giorgione’s Boy with an Arrow has largely been ignored. I must confess that in an earlier post on the painting, I also failed to see it. It is the color of the young man’s tunic. Why did Giorgione deliberately choose to clothe him in red? In that earlier post I agreed with those who identified the subject of Giorgione’s painting as the Christian martyr St. Sebastian. I was struck especially by the resemblance of Giorgione’s painting to an earlier St. Sebastian by Raphael. 
Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow
Poplar, 48x42 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Boy with and Arrow is another of Giorgione’s mysterious paintings, that has elicited a number of different interpretations. The exhibition catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition jointly held in Venice and Vienna provided a full discussion of the interpretive history of the painting. Marianne Koos, the author of the catalog entry, noted that the painting was not always attributed to Giorgione and that his authorship was only generally accepted after 1955. She also noted that “it is usually dated to his mature period, between 1506 and 1508.” *
Koos, whose essay derived from her own doctoral dissertation, did a very nice job of summarizing and analyzing the different views. She indicated that Bernard Berenson accepted the St. Sebastian identification in 1957, but noted that most scholars since have supported a mythological reading such as Apollo or Eros. However, after pointing out the shortcomings of each interpretation, she offered one of her own to which she devoted most of her catalog entry.
Giorgione’s youth remains primarily a subject in the discourse of love, an ideal male figure, with whom the male observer may also form an alliance in thought. The ideal-boy picture is not only a painting of…desire, but also of narcissistic identification and a homosocial avowal of brotherhood. [186]
Her interpretation is what one might expect from a modern art historian but I do not believe that her argument against the St. Sebastian interpretation is very strong. It is certainly true that most depictions of the martyr show a full-length nude figure riddled with arrows. Yet it is also true that a fully clothed, half-length figure of a doleful young man holding an arrow was popular at the time. 
As mentioned above, there is a great similarity between Giorgione’s painting and an earlier depiction of St. Sebastian by Raphael. Both depicted a soulful looking young man with head tilted to one side and holding one arrow in his hand. Raphael also departed from the traditional version of a partially nude man tied to a tree or column and riddled with arrows symbolic of the plague. **

Raphael: St. Sebastian
Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, also produced a number of half-length versions of St. Sebastian in which he depicted a soulful fully clothed young man holding an arrow in his hand. Like Raphael, Boltraffio included the traditional halo.

Boltraffio: St. Sebastian

The similarities between Raphael’s and Boltraffio’s versions of St. Sebastian and Giorgione’s Boy with an Arrow greatly outweigh the dissimilarities. Typically, Giorgione removes an obvious iconographical sign like the halo and replaces it with something that I have come to believe characterizes much of his work. He uses color to identify the subject.

Red is the symbol of martyrdom. It is the color of the vestment of the priest at every Mass that commemorates a martyr. In an essay on Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man I have argued that the color of the garments of the three figures in that mysterious painting identifies them as Jesus, Peter, and the rich young man of the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s robe is bold red, a symbol of his eventual martyrdom. Christ is shown in green, in what looks like the vestment that a priest commonly wears on most Sundays of the liturgical year. The gold lapels of the young man indicate his wealth.
I have also argued that the colors of the garments worn by the three men in Giorgione’s Three Philosophers support those who interpret that mysterious painting as the Three Magi. The color of their garments refers to their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 
Anyone looking at Giorgione’s painting side-by side with Raphael’s and Boltraffio’s would be hard pressed not to see the saint in the young man. The small size of the three paintings would indicate that they were all made for private devotion. There was a real market for St. Sebastian in the days of recurring plague.
Scholars do not like to recognize Giorgione’s boy with an arrow as the martyr, St. Sebastian. I have come to believe that in addition to the color of his garment, the face of the young man has an angelic quality that can also be observed in the paintings by Raphael and Boltraffio. This face would be appropriate for a martyr. In the account of the persecution and death of St. Stephen, the first martyr, we are told that his face appeared to his accusers as the face of an angel.
And all that sat in the council, looking at him, saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel.
Giorgione dressed the young man in the Boy with an Arrow in the color of a martyr. There is perhaps an insight contained in the metaphorical interpretation of Marianne Koos. Neoplatonic discussions of love and desire were not regarded as antithetical to Christian belief. On the contrary, in many respects they brought, if only for a brief moment, Christian beliefs to a new level on the eve of the Reformation. 
Where it had been common to invoke St. Sebastian as a protector against the plague, now it would appear that Giorgione and others were seeing him again in his original guise; as one who gave his life for his fellow man. In this respect, he was truly a symbol of Christ-like love. No wonder his story inspired Christians throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and even beyond.

Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004.

** The following description of Raphael's St. Sebastian could easily fit Giorgione's Boy with an Arrow.
“the St. Sebastian in the Accademia Carrara at Bergamo, so Peruginesque at first glance, reveals on further analysis the distance that exists between Raphael and his master from his very earliest paintings. Perugino painted many such studies of young men and women, their heads tilted, viewed full-face. However several subtle differences—a firmer chin, a more finely modeled mouth, the very well structured nose whose bridge appears to join the arch of the eyebrow, a greater sense of volume—show this painting to be far removed from him….
The highly embroidered robe, the pattern on the shirt like notes of music, the slashed velvet of the jerkin…point to a love of ornamentation which comes from Pinturicchio but the saint’s neck-chain, clearly copied from a real example…is close to northern painting and has no equivalent in the work of Perugino or Pinturicchio. The saint grasps the fragile arrow of his martyrdom like a scepter; it is a marvelous image, a tour de force. The subtle treatment of the head, slightly tilted away from the spectator, is close in style to the Madonna with St. Jerome and St. Francis in spite of the difference in scale and like that painting, striking in its icon-like character and lack of three-dimensionality, it can be dated a little later in the same year, 1501."*

* Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Raphael, His Life and Works, 1985, p.20.