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, May 8, 2024

Review: David Rosand, Presentation of the Virgin

 Today I republish my review article on David Rosand's magisterial interpretation of Titian's  Presentation of the Virgin. Despite the depth and comprehensiveness of Rosand's interpretation, I did disagree with him on one point. Back in 2012, I argued that the old woman featured prominently in the foreground was Anna, the prophetess, who appeared in the biblical account of the Presentation of Mary's infant son. I include my opinion at the end of this review.  

David Rosand’s essay, “Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Scuola della Carita” appeared in the Art Bulletin in March, 1976. * It would be hard to imagine a more thorough and better researched paper than this one by the late Columbia professor who during his long career became one of the leaders in the field of the Venetian Renaissance.

In his essay Rosand proposed to “take a new look at Titian’s painting, to consider it on its own terms, the details of the composition as well as its broader contexts….” He examined the patronage, the social function of the picture, the position of the image within the history of its type, the relationship of the picture to its physical site, as well as the conditions under which it was to be seen. 

He stressed that he was departing from the traditional nineteenth and early twentieth century view of the painting as an example of Renaissance naturalism with little attention to its iconography. Rosand’s study is primarily iconographical. He demonstrated that practically every detail in the painting is important, and that all the details fit together to form a unified whole. 

In this brief review I would like to highlight some of the most significant iconographic details that Rosand explored as a guide to viewing the painting. I would also like to disagree with his analysis on one significant point.  

Titian’s painting is still in the place in which it was originally meant to be seen although the nature of the site has changed around it. Venice’s Accademia, its famous art museum, was originally the church of S. Maria della Carita, the home of the Confraternity della Carita, one of the leading social and charitable organizations in sixteenth century Venice. 

Around 1534 the confraternity commissioned Titian to do a painting of the Presentation of the Virgin for a particular wall in one of its rooms. The Presentation was a very popular subject in Renaissance Venice both before and after the Reformation. The subject was based on the legendary story of Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary. Giotto had immortalized the story back in the thirteenth century on the walls of the Scrovegni or Arena chapel in nearby Padua.

According to the legend Joachim was a prosperous sheep raiser whose offering was rejected by the priests of the Temple because he and his wife were childless, a sign of divine disfavor. Banned from the Temple, Joachim left his wife and went to live in the fields with his shepherds and flocks. However, he made an offering in the wilderness and not only was it accepted by God, but he was also told to return home to his wife, Anne, who had also been given a sign that they will be blessed with a child.  
They met at the Golden Gate of the city, exchanged a kiss, and Anne conceived and bore a daughter Mary. In thanksgiving the joyous couple resolved to offer their child to service in the Temple.

The offering of the child is the focal point of Titian’s painting although Titian depicts her ascending the steps seemingly on her own volition in much the same way that she appears to rise on her own in his earlier Assunta. Rosand noted that Titian surrounded the young Mary with “a full mandorla of golden light”, something unprecedented and full of meaning.

the Virgin does indeed rival and outshine the natural light entering through the windows of the room; she is the light beyond the light of nature, a radiance more brilliant than the sun….The wisdom texts, the basis of the Marian celebration, afford then a means of reading Titian’s Presentation, allowing us to determine the significance of many of its supposedly merely picturesque details within the context of a controlling thematic structure. [68]

Instead of mere naturalistic, pictorial details, the sunlight, the clouds, and the mountains in the background all relate to the theme of the painting: “the diffusion of … divine light into the world." 

Rising behind the pyramid is a great cumulus cloud, its luminous shape dominating the left side of the canvas….one ought to expect this form, moving so majestically over the landscape, to assume a meaning beyond its obvious naturalistic function. And I would suggest that this meaning derives from the same wisdom texts with which Titian was so evidently familiar. {Ecclesiasticus 24: 5-7} “as a cloud I covered all the earth: I dwell in the highest places, and my throne is a pillar of cloud.” In this form the divinity presides over Titian’s landscape, becoming with the pyramid a monumental hieroglyph of the divine immanence, while on the opposite side of the picture the Virgin’s radiance speaks of its ultimate incarnation for the salvation of mankind. [70]

In a section entitled “Dramatis Personae”, Rosand identified the various onlookers to the Virgin’s ascent up the steps of the Temple. He rejected the opinion of Vasari and others that these were merely portraits of contemporaries including Titian himself. The main characters relate to the theme of the painting and derive from scriptural sources.

Oddly enough Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary, while centrally placed, are somewhat obscured. Joachim stands with his back to the viewer with his hand on his wife’s shoulder. Anne wears a little cap and certainly does not stand out as do other women in the painting.

Rosand followed the lead of Leo Steinberg in identifying the young woman dressed in gold and white at the foot of the steps as Mary’s elder cousin, Elizabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist.  


The beautiful young woman at the foot of the stairs, so often carelessly identified as Anna, acquires by her prominence within the composition a rather distinctive significance…. care has been taken to distinguish her from the rest of the procession. Dressed in gold and white, stately yet modest, seen in pure profile, she seems to reflect in her larger person the figure of the Virgin herself, and this connection is made explicit by the indication of her companion. [73-4]

Again following Steinberg’s suggestion, Rosand identified the younger priest at the top of the stairs as another major figure in the Infancy narrative, Zacharias, the future husband of Elizabeth. 

At the top of the stairs stands the second priest, receiving special focus by the upturned glance of the young acolyte; he too is in profile, but facing left. These two figures…are isolated as a couple within the composition, formally responding to one another across the distance of the staircase. 

Rosand departed from earlier guesses and argued that the figures at the left of the painting, dressed mainly in black, must be the patrons. “The eight obvious portraits in Titian’s picture must surely represent the chief officers of the Carita…” In particular, the one in red must be the Guardino Grande who for solemn feasts would be dressed in “crimson robes and ducal sleeves.” [74]

The woman at the left holding a baby and stretching out her hand is a mendicant, a personification of Charity, the primary work of the confraternity. “Titian elevates her, or rather the entire action to the status of a personification, or enactment, of Caritas…”

Finally, at the outset of his paper Rosand admitted that the old woman looking on besides the steps has perhaps been the greatest single mystery of the painting. 

The old egg-seller in front of the stairs has inspired more comment than any other single figure in the composition. [56]

 He noted that most interpreters see her as a mere “pictorial detail” but argued that she represented much more. Panofsky had seen her as a personification of Judaism but Rosand was more specific. 

Instead of a representatives of the Jews as such, we have here, then, a personification of Synagogue. And it is to this tradition that Titian’s old egg-seller, as the unreconstructed Synagogue, belongs. [72]

However, his description of the traditional appearance of Synagogue does not fit his explanation.

an old woman dressed in tattered black garments. In her right hand she holds, inverted, the Tablets of the Law; in her left is the broken Roman vexillum, a red banner emblazoned with the gold letters S.P.Q.R [73]

Actually, the figure in black behind the two priests at the top of the stairs fits the description better. 

The egg-seller is old but her clothing indicates an elevated, even exalted status. Her gown is the same blue as the young Virgin’s and her head is covered with a white shawl that Titian had sometimes used in depictions of the Madonna. Rosand had argued that the gold and white of Elizabeth’s garments indicated her status but why ignore the garments of the old woman. Cima da Conegliano in an earlier version of the Presentation, that is often compared with Titian’s, also clothed the egg seller in blue and white. 

I believe that the old woman could very well be Anna the Prophetess, who appeared in the gospel account of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Scripture records that she had been a Temple denizen for years and it is not hard to imagine that Venetian artists would have wanted to also depict her attendance at the Presentation of Mary. 

It is true that she does not look at the young Mary ascending the steps. But her back is turned to the Temple and she looks toward or perhaps past the assembled figures who are also illuminated by the divine light that comes from the left. 


*David Rosand: Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Scuola della Carita. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 58. No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 55-84.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Review: Salvatore Settis: The Tempest

Here is another in a series of review articles of studies that have helped me in my work on Giorgione and the Venetian Renaissance. In the case of Professor Settis I feel like the proverbial dwarf sitting on the shoulders of a giant.

In researching my interpretation of the Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” no book has been of greater assistance than Giorgione’s Tempest, written by Salvatore Settis in 1990. In addition to providing an in depth analysis of practically every previous interpretation, Professor Settis also laid down a series of iconographical ground rules that should be used in any interpretation. 

For example, in his introduction he noted:

“Interpreting the Tempest means providing “a well documented explanation for each feature, and fitting all together into one persuasive framework.” (2)

Indeed, he came very close to identifying the subject of Giorgione’s most famous painting. At least he did see that the painting had a “sacred subject” but instead of seeing the Woman as Mary, the new or second Eve, he identified her as the original Eve nursing her first-born son, Cain. The Man in the painting is Adam in the guise of a Venetian aristocrat accompanying his wife after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Even though his book is a must for anyone interested in Giorgione, his ingenious and painstaking interpretation came under serious criticism and was accepted by virtually no one. He argued that the famous painting must be treated like a puzzle and that in any interpretation all the pieces must fit, and fit easily without being squeezed into position. 

Unfortunately, he sometimes violated his own maxim. The major pieces of the puzzle are the Man, the Woman and Child, the broken columns, the plant in the foreground, and the storm and city in the background. 

For Settis, the Man is Adam after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The nude Woman is Eve nursing her newborn son, Cain. The broken columns are a symbol of death which has entered the world as a result of sin. The plant is there to cover Eve’s nakedness, although obviously doing a very poor job. The city in the background is the lost Paradise forever barred to the Man and Woman who are doomed to a life of toil and hardship. The storm and lightning represent the wrath of God not only on the erring couple but also on what he called a serpent slithering into the rock beneath the heel of the woman. 

Here are his words concerning the Man and the Woman:

 “Adam leans, not on the short-handled spade of his Bergamo counterpart, but on a singularly long staff: various interpreters have agreed that this could be a soldier’s lance, a traveler’s wand or simply a generic tool. The allusion to the manual labor prescribed in the biblical text is underplayed, almost fleeting, for this Adam is an elegant Venetian…The medieval tradition portraying Adam at work…has evolved to show Adam at rest, with Eve as mother at his side….” (113)

 “The handsome clothes belong to a Venetian gentleman, not to a peasant or a fisherman, and are appropriate with the attenuated image of the tool:  in the hands of this meditative, or resting, figure the staff must allude to manual labour. Neither spade nor hoe, it has a point at one end but so hidden in the grass that it is only visible on a close and careful examination.” (114)

 “Eve is seated opposite him a white wrap that barely covers her. (sic) The baby in her lap and her own nakedness indicate recent childbirth, a familiar schema in earlier art. The slender bush that grows out in front of her cannot be a simple decoration in this painting of such deliberate construction: its compositional importance has already been noted by other interpreters…who have tried in vain to establish its meaning.” (115)

In chapter 4 Settis provided a number of images of Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It was an impressive feat but in every image the Man and the Woman do not exhibit the disparity of clothed and unclothed figures found in the Tempest

For example, in Amadeo’s, Bergamo bas-relief, both Adam and Eve are nude, just as they are in Jacopo della Quercia’s relief in St Petronio in Bologna. In all the other images it is the same. Either Adam and Eve are both nude, or both clothed. 

The Adam in these images is always a rustic laborer, and not the poised Venetian aristocrat of Giorgione’s painting. This development is one of the main props for the “hidden subject” thesis proposed by Settis. Moreover, the Adam in these images is usually the central or focal point, but in the Tempest the Man directs the viewer’s attention to the Woman and Child.

The Woman’s nudity is only explained as a sign of “recent childbirth,” but the child in the Tempest is obviously almost a year old. He holds himself up nicely while nursing. Settis did not identify the plant in the Tempest, but he did argue that it is there to cover the Woman’s nakedness. He also argued that the dead root beneath the woman’s heel was not part of the plant but the “serpent” slithering into the rock fleeing God’s wrath.

Settis, like some others, argued that the lightning bolt in the background was a symbolic representation of God, and that it and the storm were hovering over the couple forever banished from Paradise. The gates of Paradise have forever been closed to them and the broken columns are symbolic of death. Yet according to the rules of perspective the storm and lightning bolt are miles in the distance. Moreover, in the foreground the couple is bathed in sunlight. They show no trace of fear, anxiety, or loss.

Speaking of Paradise, why would one of the buildings show an emblematic representation of Padua’s Carrara family? 

Salvatore Settis, Giorgione’s Tempest, Interpreting the Hidden Subject, Chicago, 1990.

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

Note: This post originally appeared on this site on 5/6/2011.

Note: Below are some relevant notes from Settis' text.

Chapter 1. Subject and Non-Subject.

p.2. “If we can perceive the beauty of an object within its meaning and not outside it, within its history and not outside it, and if we can comprehend and not simply admire, attribute and acquire, perhaps then we can really slaughter the ‘art’ which we have invented and free it from a contrived immortality.”

p.2. “In the study of art…the history of form has gradually parted company from the history of content: ‘art criticism’ elaborates lists of attributions and comments on aesthetic value and is thus de facto opposed to iconology, which attempts to decipher the meaning of inherited images.”

p.3. “The great, regal, public museum,…the bourgeois drawing-room…In both of them statues and pictures are snatched from their original context, in which co-ordinates of meaning were mapped our around them, and are offered to the visitor for their aesthetic value only.”

p.4. “Art criticism has thus produced pages of exquisitely artistic prose which deliberately competes in stylistic effect with the picture it describes, as well as pages of awkwardly-phrased enthusiasm. But in both cases the cost has been a high one: by favoring form, the function of a statue or painting as bearer of a message…has been completely overshadowed.”

p.10. “A complete understanding of a statue or a painting should place the question of style within the framework of careful research on its meaning as a vehicle of communication, and on its ways of expressing that meaning. For form and content…are born at the same time…”

p.13. “Vasari’s words bear witness to the difficulties of understanding Giorgione’s subjects, even a few decades after his death….Bur Vasari must have momentarily lost his concentration when he looked at the four facades of the Fondaco….The few things we do know about the decoration of the Fondaco indicate a precise iconographical Programme, however disjointed its features may seem to be.”

C. 4.  Interpreting the Tempest,

p.82. “it is usually the case that we instantly recognize a picture  of a woman and child as Mary and Jesus….We recognize Virgin and Child above all by means of the many different images in our memory and form, as it were, a single type. It is visual experience itself, repeated over and over again, but always receptive, that tells us the title of the picture.” …

p.82. “But that memory can be lost; and when this happens an image that was created for a public that could understand it becomes incomprehensible to observers who are alien to that particular figurative culture. This can give rise to absurd and fantastic interpretations.”

c. 5. The Hidden Subject

p. 129. “In choosing a painting as a vehicle for expressing personal feelings, ‘inventiveness’ must have been severely hampered by the inescapable weight of authority represented by previous iconographic tradition. The transformation of an ‘interior subject’ into something less comprehensible entailed searching out an unusual iconography, and also perhaps attenuating its meaning by eliminating or toning down its essential features.”

p. 129/130. “Even more complex and difficult was the task of fitting a religious theme into this ‘closed’ and private use of art….But to a painter in the time of Palma il Vecchio and Giorgione, a Christian subject would have had a different weight….The codification of iconography for religious subjects must have been that much more forceful for being accepted as serving the true Christian faith. Equally, it was that more difficult to dare to choose a Christian theme as a way of expressing personal thoughts.”


Thursday, April 11, 2024

Review: Rona Goffen: Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice


The late Rona Goffen passed away on September 8, 2004 at the age of 60. By that time she had become one of the leading scholars in the field of the Venetian Renaissance. She was one of the few art historians who saw the importance of understanding the religious and cultural background of Venetian artists and their patrons.

Goffen wrote many books and articles on the Italian Renaissance but, in my opinion, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice remains as the single best introduction to the art of the Venetian Renaissance. Subtitled “Bellini, Titian and the Franciscans,” she discussed the theological and devotional background of the magnificent paintings by Bellini and Titian in the Frari, the Franciscan center in Venice. *

As a prelude to viewing the paintings she discussed the writings of prominent clerics like St. Bernardino of Siena, a patron saint of Venice, and Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, especially when it came to depictions of the Madonna. She pointed out the importance, but also the difficulty, of seeing things through their eyes.

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. Nevertheless, 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. (79)

Seeing through Venetian eyes means understanding first of all the great importance of religion to the ordinary Venetian. Because of its many disputes with the Papacy, Venice is sometimes regarded as a proto-Protestant state when in reality it was usually more Catholic than the Pope. Goffen understood that the Republic identified itself with the Madonna and her Immaculate Conception.

No Venetian--and no Venetian Franciscan--could have been unaware of the rich associations, both political and spiritual, of the Madonna in Venice, and indeed of the identification of the one with the other. After all, Venice, too, was apostrophized as a Virgin, always safe in the embrace of her beloved Evangelist St. Mark... (145).

This confluence of the sacred and the secular found its way into Venetian art.

And both Pesaro altarpieces embody that singular combination of sacred and civic elements that characterizes Venetian art, Venetian history, and Venetian piety, together with the very personal concerns and ambitions of the donors, concerns in themselves both spiritual and secular. In Venice the image of the Immaculate Conception combines the sacred and the secular in a very particular way. (136)

Goffen concentrated her attention on the Frari, itself dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and on its incomparable altarpieces. The dust jacket of her book gives a good summary.

The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice encapsulates the history of Venetian Renaissance art as well as the histories of a patrician family, a religious order, and a city. The decoration of the Frari—notably commissioned by members of the Pesaro family—not only reflects their piety but their rivalry; in addition, it represents the particular concerns and the character of the Franciscan order and alludes to the relationship between church and state in Renaissance Venice. All this is embodied in the altarpieces painted for the Frari by two of the greatest masters of Venetian art—Giovanni Bellini and Titian.

In chapter 2 Goffen described the influence of Franciscan spirituality on Bellini’s famous triptych where every detail is important.

The Frari triptych was his fourth (and last) great commission of works painted for the Franciscan order or with a specifically Franciscan theme,... Bellini learned much about Franciscan sensibility and Franciscan spirituality. (54)

Chapter 3 deals with the Assunta, the painting that established Titian’s reputation. Although called the Assunta, the “theological and spiritual context is the triumph of the Immaculate Conception.” (74)

For Titian and his Franciscan patrons, there can be no doubt that "S. Maria Gloriosa" implied "S. Maria Immacolata"... Given the liturgical and theological assimilation of the Virgin's Immaculate Conception with her Assumption, it comes as no surprise that the visual imagery of the former was frequently based upon representations of the latter. (93)

Goffen found the source of Titian’s work in a sermon by Lorenzo Giustiniani, whose collected sermons had been printed in Venice in 1506.

There is another text, however, that can almost be read as the libretto for Titian's "opera," and that is the sermon for the feast of the Assumption by Lorenzo Giustiniani... it seems that the artist or his Franciscan patrons must indeed have been referring to Giustiniani's text, or something very like it.

Chapter 4 is devoted to Titian’s famed Pesaro altarpiece. Looking at that painting with its "dual sacred and secular imagery, combining the representation of the Immaculate Conception with references to the Serenissima" through Goffen’s eyes is a revelation.

In her last chapter, “The Cult of the Madonna in Venice,” Goffen claimed the Bellini triptych, as well as Titian’s Assunta, Pesaro altarpiece, and Pieta were representations of the Immaculate Conception.
Titian's Pieta must be considered, therefore, together with Bellini's triptych and Titian's own earlier works for the Frari. The four altarpieces (or the three alone, in situ) represent the dedication of the Frari to the Immaculate Conception in visual imagery that suggests the similarities of the Madonna, and hence her church, with the Most serene republic of Venice. (154)

In the year 1500 Venice was not only the greatest city on the Italian peninsula but it was also the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Europe. England, France and Spain were just emerging from a century of civil wars. Germany was hopelessly divided and the Emperor was little more than a penniless figurehead. The Papacy was still contending with threats to its authority from Roman warlords and conciliarist bishops. Only Venice seemed to have the will and wherewithal to deal with the Ottoman Empire.

To read Rona Goffen’s book is to understand that in the age of Bellini, Giorgione and Titian,  practically every Venetian would have believed that they owed it all to the Immaculata. Yet in history things can sometimes turn on a dime. In the year after Titian painted the Assunta, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg. In the next few years radical Protestant reformers would be destroying images of the Madonna all over Europe.

It is hard for moderns, even Catholics, to understand or sympathize with the beliefs of Venetian painters and patrons. Interestingly, in the nineteenth century as hordes of Catholic immigrants were pouring into the United States, the Catholic hierarchy dedicated the country to the Immaculate Conception. Today, most of the descendants of those immigrants have no idea of the meaning of the doctrine.

I owe a great debt to the late Rona Goffen. When I originally saw the nudity of the woman in the Tempest as Giorgione’s way of depicting the Immaculate Conception of Mary, I just assumed that the doctrine was important in Catholic Italy. However, it was only after a chance encounter with Goffen’s Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice that I came to realize just how important the Immaculate Conception was in the Age of Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian.


*Rona Goffen: Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice. Yale, 1986.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Review: Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper

The following review of Leo Steinberg's, Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper originally appeared on this site  on 9/18/2014. I reprise it here today as part of a series of review articles on books that have been of great help in my own work on Giorgione, Titian, and the Venetian Renaissance. 

The damage to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper is well known. Even after the most recent restoration the huge fresco that measures over 29 by 15 feet is in such perilous condition that viewing access is strictly controlled and limited. 

We know from early copies that much of Leonardo’s work has been irretrievably lost or covered. Early on, the feet of Christ and the Apostles had so disappeared that the monks had no reluctance to put a door in the wall under the figure of Christ. We know of this from copies but even the earliest copies are often unreliable.  They either omit or alter certain important details. Finally, although the painting is still in its original venue, it is impossible to replicate the monk’s dining room or cenacolo and see the painting as its original viewers would have seen it.

Compared to the physical damage that Leonardo’s work has suffered, the interpretive damage has been even greater. It was this damage that Leo Steinberg set out to repair in an extended essay, “Leonardo’s Last Supper,” that appeared in the Art Quarterly in 1973. Almost thirty years later in 2001 he published his definitive revised update, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.

I am not familiar with the critical reaction to either study except to the extent that Steinberg referred to it in the 2001 book. Nevertheless, anyone reading Steinberg's book today would have to acknowledge that it a revolutionary masterpiece by one of the greatest art historians of the twentieth century.

In the introduction to his book Steinberg recalled two questions that he had raised in the 1973 study. “Is there anything left to see? And, Is there anything left to say?” 

Of course his answer was positive. 
What remains to be told about Leonardo’s Last Supper is not some residual matter previously overlooked; the novelty of the subject is the whole of the work responding to different questions. In the present study, the picture emerges as both less secular and less simple; contrary to inherited notions, it is nowhere “unambiguous and clear,” but consistently layered, double functioning, polysemantic.[i]
Steinberg took on an academic tradition that had been entrenched ever since the time of the Enlightenment, especially after Goethe’s famous essay claimed that Leonardo had depicted the psychological shock on the faces of the Apostles at the moment immediately following the announcement of the betrayal. Goethe’s interpretation had seemingly settled the matter for all future observers. Steinberg, however, blamed nineteenth secularism for a profound mis-reading.
In the art of the Renaissance, the obscurantism imputed to religious preoccupations seemed happily superseded. Ideal art was believed to reveal humane truths which the service of religion could only divert and distort. And it was again in Leonardo in whom these highest artistic goals, originally embodied in ancient Greece, seemed reaffirmed. In this projection of nineteenth-century values upon Renaissance art, the masterworks of the Renaissance were reduced to intelligible simplicity, and Leonardo’s Last Supper became (nothing but) a behavioral study of twelve individuals responding to psychic shock. [ii]
By 2001, almost 30 years after his original study had been published, he could remark that his interpretation was “no longer news,” and that the “common view” was “no longer pandemic.” But I wonder if he was too sanguine. A quick web search found that the lead Wikipedia article began with the following pronouncement.
The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him. 
 I suspect that his thesis is still only known by a small coterie of Art historians. I even think that most Art history graduate students are not required to read it.

Reading Steinberg’s Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper not only brings one deeper and deeper into a great masterpiece, but also deeper and deeper into the mind and culture of the genius who was Leonardo. However, since the common view holds that the painting depicts the psychological reaction to the announcement of the betrayal, I would like to concentrate on Steinberg’s analysis of Leonardo’s portrayal of the Apostles.

Beginning with the general principle “that nothing in Leonardo’s Last Supper is trivial,” Steinberg asserted that the subject of the picture was not merely the betrayal announcement but the whole story of the Last Supper; the Institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, and the significance of it all to the viewer. 

Leonardo’s task,
never before attempted, was to collect in “conjoint presence” a super dozen male sitters strung across nearly 29 feet of wall, to convert the drag of enumeration into what he called a “harmonic total effect.”[iii]
Leonardo’s solution of the problem is “an untiring marvel” but first we must identify the Apostles. In their places from left to right there are Bartholomew, James (the eventual head of the Church in Jerusalem), Andrew, Peter, Judas, and John. On the other side there are James (the son of Zebedee), Thomas (who has thrust himself ahead of James), Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus (sometimes called Jude), and Simon.

anonymous copy, c. 1550

Much of the detail of the original has been lost but an anonymous copy c. 1550, gives a very good look at the hands and feet of the 13 men in the picture. Steinberg stressed the significance not only of the feet of Christ but of the Apostles. Christ’s feet are central and larger and they announce his impending crucifixion. The feet of the Apostles are there to be washed but also represent their role and future destiny
this very night, each of these feet is washed and wiped dry by the Master. In view of the gospel…how negligible can these feet be; surely, this is their hour! [iv]
While he stressed the importance of viewing Christ and the Apostles as a whole, Steinberg also broke them down into groups of six, three and two, and discussed the various relationships in these groups. Here are some examples.

 Let’s start with the triad of Simon, Thaddeus, and Matthew on our right at the end of the table.  
A flotilla of six open hands in formation strains toward Christ, as if in immediate response to the word “take!” ….the Communion of the Apostles is imminent.[v]
Hands take on special significance. The “affinity” of the left hand of Thaddeus to the left hand of Christ “leaps to the eye.”
Thaddeus’ hand toward Christ; Christ’s toward us. It is missing a lot to dismiss the correspondence as accidental.
Feet, hands, even fingers are important. In the triad at Christ’s left hand (Philip, Thomas, James) the finger of Thomas, who has thrust himself forward toward Jesus, is a veritable sign marker, “the finger destined to verify the Resurrection, the Christian hope…"
this upright finger occurs in Leonardo’s rare paintings no less than four times, invariably pointing to heaven…The steeple finger is Leonardo’s trusted sign of transcendence…[vi]

The triad closest to Christ’s right hand includes Peter who denies, Judas who betrays, and John who remains to the end at the foot of the Cross.
The inner triad refers to imminent Crucifixion. It contains the dark force that sets the Passion in motion, then, behind Judas, St. Peter. Peter’s right hand points the knife he will ply a few hours hence at the arrest. And the interlocking hands of the beloved disciple are pre-positioned for their grieving on Calvary.
The figure of Judas who recoils from the plate is given special attention. Steinberg’s interpretation is buttressed by an analysis of a Leonardo drawing that depicts “the wretchedness of a man who had once been chosen by Jesus.”

Leonardo: study of Judas

Leonardo brought a tragic vision far in advance of what his contemporaries could fathom. The subjective experience of abjection never received more humane understanding.
The triad on the left furthest from Jesus includes Andrew, the brother of Peter, James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and Bartholomew. They are all interconnected. Andrew sits next to his brother and James places the hand of ordination on each of them. Peter’s knife points to Bartholomew and prefigures the form of his martyrdom. The pose of Andrew is particularly interesting.
For those who have seen a priest at the altar, who recall the corresponding pose of St. Francis stigmatized and, finally, Andrew’s own story, he is the Apostle whose lodestar is crucifixion….
At the end of the table Bartholomew has risen with his feet awkwardly crossed, an inexplicable oddity that has even led some copiers to correct Leonardo’s “mistake.” However, Steinberg noted one tradition that had Bartholomew crucified, a martyrdom he yearned for in order to emulate the Master. 
Speaking of Jesus, no review can do justice to Steinberg’s discussion of the figure of Christ, no longer seen as a passive figure sitting back while the Apostles react to the betrayal announcement. 
as the person of Christ unites man and God, so his right hand summons the agent of his human death even as it offers the means of salvation….the Christ figure as agent—both hands actively molding his speech, and both directed at bread and wine…[vii]
Unfortunately, Goethe only saw the painting briefly in Milan. In his analysis he relied on a copy that left out the bread and wine of the Eucharist. For Steinberg, the institution of the Eucharist is central to the painting.
Christ becomes the capstone of a great central pyramid…And midway between the…slopes of Christ arms and the floor lines that transmit their momentum, exactly halfway, there lies the bread, and there lies the wine.[viii]

I have only dealt with chapters 3 and 4 of “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.” Steinberg went on to show how the painting must be understood in terms of the whole room in which it was viewed, and even in terms of the whole complex of which S. Maria della Grazie was a part. The painting was a “willed visual metaphor.”
Within the geometry of the picture, the elements of the eucharist, placed in extension of Christ’s earthly presence, serve as conveyors: from the centrality of the Incarnate toward the faithful this side of the picture.
Steinberg backed up his interpretation with a virtuoso display of all the tools available to a modern art historian. He displayed a magisterial familiarity with the interpretive history; the texts; the traditional legends; the related paintings; and with the whole oeuvre of Leonardo. More than anything else, however, was his ability to immerse himself in the whole culture and devotion of Medieval and Renaissance Christianity.  He was born a Russian Jew and emigrated to America right after World War II. He somehow managed to graduate from Harvard and land a position at New York University where his original field was “Modern Art.” But he eventually gravitated to the Renaissance, and his integrity and great learning allowed him to see the “Last Supper” through the believing eyes of Leonardo’s contemporaries.


[i] Leo Steinberg, “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper,” 2001, pp. 12-13.
[ii] Ibid. p. 13.
[iii] Ibid. p. 77.
[iv] Ibid. p. 61.
[v] Except where otherwise noted this quotation and all the following can be found in the relevant sections of chapter IV, “the Twelve.”
[vi] Ibid. p. 70.
[vii] Ibid. p. 57.
[viii] Ibid,. p. 58.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Review. John Fleming: From Bonaventura to Bellini


This year I plan to re-post some review essays that have appeared on Giorgione wt al... since its inception in 2010. Today, I repost an 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 one of the most popular posts 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. 

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Renaissance Exhibition

At age 84 I know that I will be dead before the museums, galleries, and collections that house the mysterious paintings that I have interpreted since 2005 will ever change their labels despite anything I have written. Attempts to correspond over the years with these institutions, and with scholars in the field have elicited few replies. This lack of response led me to create Giorgione et al...  in 2010 and now I have decided to mount my own online exhibition of these masterpieces from the Renaissance. 

Last year I re-posted brief versions of these interpretative discoveries on this site. Full papers on the major discoveries can be found at under Francis DeStefano. For the other paintings see the posts on this site for 2023. Today, I bring them together with new labels. Enjoy the exhibition.


                    Giorgione: The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. 

This painting is usually called The Tempest because of the storm in the background. Now we can see that it is Mary who nurses her Child while a young looking St. Joseph stands guard with his traditional staff. The ruins behind him are common in depictions of the Flight into Egypt and the storm in the background can indicate the Massacre of the Infants. Oil on canvas, dated 1509-1510.  Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice. measures 83 by 72 cm,

                    Titian: The Conversion of Mary Magdalen.

This famous painting is usually called Sacred and Profane Love, a title attached to it only in 1694. Scholars have disputed the title and now we can see that the two women are Mary Magdalen as a courtesan, and as a penitent discarding her finery after her conversion. The fictive relief in the center represents, from right to left, St. Paul falling from his horse, Cain and Abel, and Adam and Eve. Oil on canvas. 1514. Borghese Gallery, Rome. 118 cm x 273 cm (46” x 110 “).

       Giorgione: The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man.

This painting is usually called The Three Ages of Man from the obvious disparity in age of the three men, but the disparity, as well as the clothing, helps to identify Jesus on the right, wearing a green liturgical vestment, instructing the finely dressed rich young man in the center. St. Peter, typically depicted as a balding older man, is dressed in martyr’s red. He looks out and invites the viewer to participate. C. 1500-1501. Pitti Palace, Florence. 62 cm x 77.5 cm (24” x 30.5”). 

                            Titian: Homage to Giorgione.

This small painting, usually known as The Pastoral Concert and variously attributed to either Giorgione or Titian, can now be seen as Titian’s Homage to Giorgione, his recently deceased mentor and friend. Giorgione is depicted in red finery in the center, but important details indicate that he has died: his face is in shadow; the absence of strings on his lute indicates he will play no more; and the dark sky in the background is ominous. Titian’s portrayal of himself as a young rustic recalls the biblical story of David and Jonathan. The two nude females are the muse Euterpe in different roles. On the left she pours Giorgione’s soul out like a libation, and in the center she hands her musical instrument to Titian. Oil on canvas. c. 1510. Louvre, Paris. 110 cm x 138 cm.

This painting is always called the Doni Tondo after Michelangelo’s patron, but scholars disagree about who is handing the infant Jesus to whom, and also about the nudes in the background. Now we can see that Mary elevates her Son as a priest elevates the Host at the consecration of the Mass. Joseph kneels as a communicant would do when receiving the Host. In the midground the young John the Baptist looks at the elevated Jesus and proclaims: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” The nudes in the background are the Nephilim or the Giants in the Earth those sinners who could only be destroyed by the Flood in the time of Noah. Uffizi gallery, Florence. c. 1507. Oil and tempera on panel. 120 cm diameter (47.5 ").

                    Titian: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine.

Usually called The Madonna of the Rabbit because of the conspicuous white rabbit in the center, the subject of this painting is the mystical marriage of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Mary hands her Son to the saint as if she were giving the Eucharistic Host to a communicant. In her other hand she holds the white rabbit, which can now be seen as a symbol of the Eucharistic Host. St. Joseph, in rustic garb, sits off to the side stroking a black sheep that is symbolic of sacrifice. Oil on canvas. c. 1530. Louvre, Paris. 71 cm x 85 cm (28” x 33”).

                                             Giorgione: Judith

This painting obviously depicts the Hebrew heroine Judith calmly standing over the decapitated Holofernes. However, her often discussed bared leg can now be recognized as a device used by Giorgione to indicate a woman in danger of sexual assault. Oil on canvas transferred from the original panel.  c. 1504. Hermitage, St. Petersburg. 144 cm x 66.5 cm (57” x 26.2").

                                Giorgione: St. Sebastian

 This painting is usually called The Boy with an Arrow, but the comparison with depictions of St. Sebastian by Raphael and others is obvious. Giorgione characteristically omits the halo but the young man’s angelic face as well as his red garment indicate the famous martyr. Oil on panel. c. 1505. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. 48 cm x 41.8 cm.


                          Giorgione: Conversion of Mary Magdalen. 

The traditional labels, Laura, or Portrait of a Woman, do not fit. Scholars find no evidence for Petrarch’s lover, and no respectable woman would have sat for such a portrait. Details in this painting suggesting both a married woman, and a courtesan can only point to Mary Magdalen. Here, she sees the light and sheds her courtesan’s robe to become a bride of Christ. Oil on canvas mounted on panel. 1506. Kunsthstorisches   Museum, Vienna. 41cm x 34 cm. 

 Conversion of Mary Magdalen.

Labelled Head of a Venetian Girl, this early painting by Titian resembles Giorgione’s Laura. Both can now be seen as Mary Magdalen in the process of removing her courtesan’s finery after seeing the light. Later Titian would paint many versions of Mary Magdalen, most of which featured the bared breast, disheveled clothing, and red hair. One even showed the saint with the same multi-colored shawl. Oil on panel transferred to canvas. c. 1509. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena. 31.8 cm x 23.8 cm (12.5” x 9 .375 “).

                         Titian: Conversion of Mary Magdalen. 

Scholars have questioned the traditional label of this painting as the Roman nymph Flora. Titian painted many images of Mary Magdalen in the process of discarding her courtesan’s garments after her conversion. Her partially bared breast, flowing red hair, and even the flowers in her hand that have sacred symbolism, all point to the great saint. Oil on canvas. c. 1517. Uffizi gallery, Florence. 79.7 cm x 63.5 cm (31.4” x 25”). 

          Giorgione: The Encounter with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.

This mid-seventeenth centuty copy by David Teniers of a lost Giorgione painting was originally called the Finding of Paris after the legendary account of the discovery of the infant Trojan prince. Scholars attach great importance to this small painting because they think it shows Giorgione's early interest in the Trojan War cycle. However, every detail in the painting fits one of the legends about the biblical Flight into Egypt. The two men on the right are robbers and their cohorts can be seen sleeping in the mid-ground. Mary’s bared leg indicates her danger. The infant Jesus lies on a white cloth on the stony ground and the elderly Joseph sits off to the left. Oil on panel. 1656. Museum of Fine Art, Belgium. 21 cm x 30.5 cm. (8.2” x 12”).

                   Giorgione: The Three Magi behold the Star.

 This painting was initially called Three Philosophers when seen in 1525 in the home of a Venetian patrician fifteen years after the death of Giorgione. Since that time scholars have not been able to agree on which philosophers are depicted. However, there is evidence that Giorgione has depicted the three Magi when they first behold the star of Bethlehem. The sun is setting in the background but the men are lit by another source of light. The colors of their garments are seen in other depictions of the Magi, and represent the gifts they will bring. Oil on canvas. c. 1506-1509. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. 123 cm x 144 cm (48” x 57”).

Palma Vecchio: The Meeting with John the Baptist on the Return from Egypt. 

This large painting, currently in storage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is labeled “Allegory” for no good reason. In the center the infant Jesus embraces his older cousin, who according to legend also escaped Herod’s wrath. This very common scene depicts the acceptance by Jesus of his mission. Mary sits and watches on the left and Joseph stands guard on the right. The Lamb in the background helps to recall John’s words: “Behold the Lamb of God.” Oil on panel transferred to canvas. c. 1510-15. Philadelphia Museum of Art.