My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Titian: Sacred and Profane Love*

Perhaps the most spectacular work of art in the magnificent collection of Rome’s Borghese Gallery is Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love,” one of the great masterpieces of the Venetian Renaissance. Early in the last century a collector offered more for this one painting than the appraised value of the entire Museum. Measuring over 9.5 by 3.5 feet, this beautiful painting seems to dominate almost an entire wall in one of the largest rooms.

Despite its fame there has never been agreement on the subject of Titian’s painting. The title “Sacred and Profane Love” was only attached to it long after Titian’s death in an attempt to describe the two beautiful fair-haired women in the foreground. One is fully clothed in a sumptuous gown, and the other is semi-nude except for garments that billow around her but only cover her privates.

Commentators have always noted the resemblance between the two women. Some call them sisters, even twins. Most scholars have accepted the view, expressed by famed Art historian Erwin Panofsky almost 75 years ago, that the women are versions of a Neoplatonic Venus, one earthly and the other celestial.

More recently, the late Rona Goffen argued that Titian represented one woman in two guises. The woman was an idealized version of a bride, chaste and sexual at the same time. Indeed, the painting appears to commemorate the marriage in 1514 of a young widow, Laura Bagarotto, to a Venetian official, Niccolo Aurelio, whose coat of arms can be seen on the mysterious fountain.

I agree that Titian did depict one woman in two separate guises, but the only person who could be portrayed at the same time as a well- dressed, even sumptuously dressed, woman, and as a semi-nude figure is Mary Magdalen, whose perceived life was the epitome of sexuality and chastity.

During the Renaissance the sinful and fallen women of the gospels were all considered to be Mary Magdalen. Indeed, it was the imputed sinfulness of her life that brought her nearer to her devotees. She was the sinner with the heart of gold who had finally seen the light. In Venice a long established tradition of venerating the penitent Magdalen went hand in hand with the largest concentration of prostitutes in Europe.

Artists often depicted the Magdalen as a richly attired and seductive courtesan contemplating the folly of her life and considering the opportunity that had been opened up to her by the words of Jesus to sin no more. She could, however, also be portrayed as a semi-nude penitent sinner fasting and mortifying herself, according to legend, in a desert. Donatello’s penitent Magdalen; gaunt, haggard, and covered almost entirely by long hair that reaches to her ankles is the most famous fifteenth century version.

Apparently Venetian patrons preferred a beautiful to a gaunt Magdalen. Usually, she would be depicted in the vestiges of her finery but at the same time tearful, sorrowful, and disheveled with breasts fully or partially exposed.

Titian became the most prolific and famous painter of Mary Magdalens. His half-length depictions of a beautiful, full-figured semi-nude show her long red hair around her body but parted to reveal bared breasts. She looks upward with the jar of ointment-- used to anoint Jesus-- beside her.

However, in the “Sacred and Profane Love” Titian separated the Magdalen into both guises. The clothed woman is the courtesan contemplating the error of her ways.  Contemporary preachers often complained that Venetian women in their finery could hardly be distinguished from courtesans. Some scholars believe that the folds of her gown and her spread legs are sensual and erotic but I can’t see it. To me she seems to stare off into the distance rapt in contemplation of a life changing decision. It almost appears that she is about to fall to her knees.

We notice the woman’s beautiful red hair so characteristic of Titian’s later Magdalens. The red color of her sleeve is also a Magdalen attribute as is the sprig of wild rose she holds in her hand. Her left hand rests on a container that could hold her jewels and perfumes. Both hands are gloved. Mary Magdalen was the patroness of all those engaged in producing female luxury items like perfumes and gloves.

On the right the semi-nude woman is the newly converted, penitent Magdalen rejecting her jewels and finery. Legend had it that she spent the last 30 years of her life fasting and mortifying herself in a desert outside of Marseilles. The converted sinner in the “Sacred and Profane Love” has the same flowing red hair as well as the red garment of the courtesan. In her left hand she holds aloft the jar of oil that is the single most recognizable symbol of Mary Magdalen.

Titian joked of his Magdalens that he liked to portray them at the beginning of their fasting rather than as thin, wasted figures. Joking aside, in the “Sacred and Profane Love” Titian could actually be portraying the moment of conversion. 

Both the Magdalens sit on a sarcophagus-like fountain that further serves to connect them. The wild rose bush in front is also a traditional symbol of Mary Magdalen. The fountain is a puzzle in itself and the relief has also eluded identification.

There are three scenes on the relief and we can now see that they depict great sinners. On the far right two nudes stand on each side of a tree. The figure on the left is Eve portrayed in her usual full frontal nudity. Adam is on the other side of the tree. Moving toward the center we see an act of murderous violence that represents the story of Cain and Abel, the first incident of sin after the Fall.

On the other side of the relief a man leads a horse whose rider appears to be falling off. The falling rider can only be St. Paul, one of the few sinners capable of being mentioned in the same breath as Mary Magdalen. In his letter to Timothy, Paul called himself the greatest of sinners.

If there was any woman in Venice who thought of turning to Mary Magdalen as an intercessor, it might have been the wife of the man who commissioned the painting. The arms of Niccolo Aurelio, a Venetian official, can be seen on the fountain. In 1514 he married Laura Bagarotto, a widow from Padua, whose father, as well as her husband, had been accused of treason in 1509 by the Venetian government for collaboration with the enemy during the War of the League of Cambrai. The husband most likely died in the war and the father was publicly hanged in the Piazza di San Marco, an execution that his wife and daughter were forced to witness.

Laura’s goods, including her substantial dowry, were confiscated. Subsequently, she campaigned for the restoration of the family’s good name as well as for the restoration of the dowry. Her marriage to Niccolo Aurelio in 1514 must have been an important step in her rehabilitation since her dowry was only restored the day before the marriage. One would like to think that Niccolo was honoring his new wife, or seeking to aid in her rehabilitation with this painting.

Given the ups and downs of her own life, Laura Bagarotto might have looked to the Magdalen as a patron. On that fateful day in 1509 she lost both her father and her patrimony. If she had not been a woman, she might have lost her own life. Eventually, she would provide the aging Niccolo with a beloved daughter and then a male heir. Who can doubt that she had prayed to the Magdalen, the patron saint of all women hoping for a family? 


* Note. The full annotated version of my interpretation of Titian's painting can be found on my website, MyGiorgione. This shortened version originally appeared in 2012 on the popular art history website Three Pipe Problem whose creator, Hasan Niyazi, died tragically in 2013. I reprise that article here because I want to devote 2017 to my work on Titian that followed upon this interpretation of the "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen."

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Titian: Assunta or Assumption of Mary

Titian’s Assunta, the magnificent, huge altarpiece that dominates the basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the Franciscan center in Venice, established him as the foremost painter in Venice, and set him on his way to international stardom.

The painting is an oil on panel that because of its size required 24 panels in all. It measures 690 cm by 360 cm, or 22 feet, 8 inches by 11 feet, 10 inches. During the nineteenth century it was removed from the Frari and placed in the Accademia, but in 1919 it was returned to its original location over the main altar. It was subsequently restored.

Giorgio Vasari gave a brief description of the painting in his biography of Titian. It is obvious that he saw the painting in person.

He then executed the high-altar in the Church of the Friars Minors, called the Ca Grande, a picture of Our Lady ascending into Heaven, and below her the twelve Apostles, who are gazing upon her as she ascends; but of this work, from its having been painted on cloth, and perhaps not well kept, there is little to be seen. *

Vasari did not give much thought or provide much analysis of the painting. He said that he could not see it very well but I also suspect that he took it for granted that his readers would have in their blood a full understanding of the background and significance of the subject depicted.

Today, we no longer have the theological or spiritual background that even an ordinary Venetian would have had in the time of Titian. We almost have to approach paintings like the Assunta as if we were trying to decipher the religious practices of some lost tribe in the Amazon. Art historians almost have to act like archaeologists or anthropologists in deciphering the art of the Renaissance.

The painting derives from the medieval concept of the Dormition of Mary, the Madonna, the Virgin Mother of God. According to legend, at the time when Mary’s time on earth was coming to an end, she fell into a deep sleep. Miraculously, all the Apostles were brought back from their far-flung missionary activity to be present at the end. Then, her son Jesus would appear on the scene with a baby in his arms that represented the soul of his mother that he was about to take up into Heaven.

Titian brought the Apostles together at the base of his painting. Peter sits in the middle with an open grave before him. A beardless John in red stands at the left clothed in bright red. The other prominent figure dressed in red with his back to us could either be James, the third of the triumvirate that witnessed the Transfiguration, or Thomas, the doubter, shown in the act of reaching for the Virgin’s girdle or sash, another popular legend.

But Titian has departed from the typical Dormition account. Jesus does not appear to take his mother’s soul to heaven. Mary has been raised from the dead by the Father. She has triumphed over death just like her son. Her dress is the traditional red, the color of her humanity, but her cloak is the traditional blue, the color of the divinity. The colors recall the words of St. Paul that are still used in the Catholic liturgy on the Feast of the Assumption.

When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
'Death is swallowed up in victory.
where, O death, is your victory?
where, O death, is your sting?

The best discussion of the sources and meaning of the painting can be found in Rona Goffen’s study, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, still the best introduction to the art of the Venetian Renaissance. Below I include an excerpt of her analysis of the source and meaning of Titian’s masterpiece, a sermon by Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, whose collected sermons were published 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, the venerable first patriarch of Venice. Giustiniani’s language in this sermon is derived from the great biblical canticle of love, the Song of Songs. … 
 If we read Giustiniani’s sermon standing before the Assunta—as, historically and theologically, one ought to do—then a significant equivalence is revealed between the words and the image. The patriarch’s sermon might almost be a description avant la lettre of Titian’s altarpiece; and, for reasons that will become apparent, it seems that the artist or his Franciscan patrons must indeed have been referring to Giustiniani’s text, or something very like it. However,…their use of the text also involved a significant editorial revision, so to speak. Whereas the patriarch described Mary’s funeral, Titian alluded to it only indirectly and perforce by representing the Apostles who had come to bury her. 
 Giustiniani introduced his narrative of the Assumption with images of God’s redemptive love for mankind….Giustiniani’s sermon closes with a reiteration of this theme of salvation and Mary’s role as our benevolent mediatrix. Exalted as the queen of heaven “above the troops of angels,” the Virgin turns her merciful gaze toward us… 
 Titian’s Assunta, “aflame with love,” is enframed by the statue of the Redeemer above and, below, the tabernacle relief of the man of Sorrows. Thus the Assunta, like Giustiniani’s sermon, is surrounded, as it were, by the theme of God’s loving act of redemption and Mary’s role in making this possible. 
 The Assumption is a joyous triumph: “today with great joy the Virgin has triumphed in heaven, and she has seen what she desired to see…And she saw…face to face, the face adorned with the whiteness of immortality,…The patriarch continues…As she was free of every corruption of mind and body, she was thus foreign to the pain of death”. 
 Mary’s assumption into heaven even evoked the wonderment of the angels who witnessed it, as envisioned by Titian and expressed in the question ascribed to them by Lorenzo Giustiniani, again quoting the Song of Songs (3: 6 and 6: 9). The heavenly host exclaim: “Who is this who comes to us with such a great party of angels, almost like the breaking dawn, beautiful like the moon, elect like the sun…? Let us honor her who comes to us like a pillar of smoke of the aromas of myrrh and of incense.” Giustiniani went on to relate, and Titian to anticipate, how Christ greeted his mother in heaven, addressing her in the language of the Canticle as he welcomed her to her throne as Regina Coeli: “Come, my mother of Lebanon, come my dove, my Immaculate one, my lovely one, gentle and dignified as Jerusalem, you will be crowned…Ascend to the throne that I have prepared for you, take the crown set with gems.” 
 In Giustiniani’s sermon, the Virgin responds to this welcome with wonder and humility: “Have I merited this?...What can I render to my Lord in exchange for all these things…? I shall choose the holy words of customary humility that you have taught me. I shall not draw back, nor shall I contradict, but consent to your will, with a reverent acquiescence of mind, and with those same words that I spoke when I conceived you…Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” 
Goffen argued that the Assunta marked the beginning of a new era not only for Titian but also for Venetian and European art. On the other hand, it also marked the end of an era. In 1517, as Titian was working in his studio on the Assunta, Martin Luther was posting his 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg. Within a few years fanatical iconoclasts were destroying paintings and statues of Mary all over Europe.


*Giorgio Vasari: Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston Du C. De Vere, with an Introduction and Notes by David Ekserdjian, V. 2, New York, 1996. Pp. 785-6.

**Rona Goffen: Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Bellini, Titian, and the Franciscans, Yale, 1986. (103-106)