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".

Monday, April 30, 2018

Giorgione's Tempest: The Broken Columns

Giorgione: Tempest


The broken columns so prominently displayed in the mid-ground of Giorgione's Tempest are a significant iconographical marker in this famous painting. Practically, every commentator and interpreter has attempted to explain their origin and meaning, as well as their role in the overall subject.

Back in 2005, when I first saw the Tempest in a black and white image in an old travel book, I wondered whether the man and woman in the foreground had left the city in the background, or whether they were on a journey to the city. It was only after I sensed that Giorgione had depicted the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt that I understood that the Man and Woman had fled from the city in the background.

Like many Renaissance narratives the Tempest begins in the left background, proceeds through the mid-ground, and culminates in the figures in the right foreground. The Holy Family has fled from the stormy city in the background; crossed the bridge and river that represents the dividing line between Judea and Egypt; encountered the ruins and broken columns in the mid-ground; and finally found a place of rest and safety in the foreground. In the left foreground the man acts as an interlocutor drawing the viewer’s attention to the woman and child. Although the viewer’s eye is directed toward the woman, her gaze deflects the action back to the viewer.

I knew that my initial intuition had great difficulties. Even though she was nursing, a nude Madonna was unimaginable and a young, virile St. Joseph was certainly unusual. Depictions of the Flight into Egypt are based on a single verse in the gospel of Matthew but over the centuries legends had accumulated around the journey, and artists had delighted in depicting them.*

My first thought was to look into the work of the great nineteenth century art historian Emile Male, still the best source for Medieval iconography. I turned to “Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century”, the second volume of Male’s magisterial study, and found that of all the legends surrounding the arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt, artists “scarcely used any other than the Fall of Idols….” Male gave a brief description of the event.

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. **

Idols falling from a pedestal are the way the incident is depicted in the Biblia Pauperum. The two broken columns, standing right in the middle of Giorgione’s mysterious painting, giving an “abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend,” provided a confirmation of my intuition. Giorgione embellished the scene somewhat by including some nearby ruins.

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries these ruins were often seen in depictions of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. Flemish artists led the way in meeting the devotional demands of their patrons for this subject. One of Joachim Patenir’s most well known versions depicted the entire flight from the storm-shrouded city in the left background to the nursing Madonna in the foreground. Behind the Madonna are the remains of a broken structure. A large, round, stone ball sitting atop a block of stone seems to be all that remains of the ruined idols. 

Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

In Washington’s National Gallery Gerard David’s most famous depiction of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt shows the Madonna resting with her Child who holds a bunch of grapes in his hand. She sits atop what looks like the remains of a building foundation that is now just covered with dirt calling to mind the words of Isaiah: "the lofty city He brings down; He tumbles it to the ground, levels it with the dust." 

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Among Italian artists Cima da Conegliano would also depict the Madonna and her child atop a rocky foundation that would appear to be the remains of a structure. The fallen temple has become an outdoor throne for the Madonna and her Child. 

Cima da Conegliano: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

No Italian, however, liked to depict the ruins as much as Fra Bartolommeo, who became associated with Raphael in 1504 and then traveled to Venice shortly before Giorgione worked on the Tempest. His ruins are really elaborate.

Fra Bartolommeo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Giorgione could have been familiar with the work of any of these artists but I believe that his depiction of the fall of idols came from another source. In my paper on the Tempest I pointed out that Giorgione’s truncated columns are similar to those employed by Luca Signorelli in his 1504 depiction of the “End of the World” in Orvieto’s S. Brisio chapel. Domenico Grimani, the famous Venetian Cardinal and art collector, acted as one of Signorelli’s advisors on the project. Grimani had a summer residence near Orvieto.

Luca Signorelli: detail of "End of the World".

I know that other examples of broken columns have been found in emblem books and interpreted variously. Nevertheless, Giorgione’s columns and adjacent ruins are a piece of the Tempest puzzle that fits quite easily into a “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” interpretation.

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*The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is only recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew. 

After they had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child with his mother with him, he left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:

I called my son out of Egypt

**Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century: A Study of Medieval Iconography and Its Sources, Princeton, 1984. p. 220.

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