For Titian, nature speaks of God's presence

A double thrill awaited visitors walking through the main floor gallery of the Titian exhibit at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale, the former papal stables turned into one of Italy’s finest art exhibition spaces, which recently offered a promenade of the Renaissance master’s largest altarpieces. First, the high vaults of the room suggested the church settings for which these works were made, enhancing the solemnity of the Mass.

Second, many of these panels will return to their original settings more visible than ever. As the curator Giovanni Villa told Our Sunday Visitor, “Once the exhibit is over, these altarpieces will go back to their churches with a new LED lighting and the best possible security environment.”

Titian was born Tiziano Vecellio around 1490 in Pieve di Cadore, near the border of modern Austria in the Italian Alps. Apprenticed in Venice at age 9 to a mosaicist, he learned to paint under Giovanni Bellini, emerging in 1509-10 as a full-fledged artist.

In 1518, his “Assumption of the Virgin” for the Franciscan basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice made Titian the premier painter of Venice and launched a six-decade career of international fame. He worked for popes and emperors, became one of history’s best portraitists and set the course of painting for centuries to come. Without Titian, Velazquez, Rembrandt and Rubens are unthinkable, and the exhibit proved once again why the French Romantic artist Delacroix said, “We are all Titian’s flesh and blood.“

God’s presence in nature

“All of Titian’s images for public devotion are set in nature,” writes Marcia B. Hall, a scholar who has studied sacred images in the Renaissance. Natural beauty inspires the hope of resurrection and engages the viewer’s empathy with the sufferings of Christ and the saints.

“Madonna in Glory with Saints and Donor,” also known as the “Gozzi Altarpiece,” 1520. Courtesy of Scuderie del Quirinale

The never-before-loaned “Madonna in Glory Adored by Saints Francis and Blaise” from Ancona (1520), Titian’s first dated altarpiece, embodies his revolution in style. The composition, typically for the High Renaissance, is a stable pyramid, but Titian breathed his unique naturalism into the figures, landscape and a color so celebrated that “titian” has entered the vernacular as a synonym for reddish-gold.

This picture is called the Gozzi Altarpiece, in honor of Italianized name of the donor, Alvise Gozzi. He kneels in the foreground, presented by St. Blaise, the patron saint of his hometown of Ragusa in Croatia (today’s Dubrovnik), to the Madonna, who looks tenderly down. Twisting away from Mary, the Christ Child raises his hand in blessing over St. Francis of Assisi, standing in mystical rapture at the left. Titian set the vision against a golden sunset much like the one in his Frari “Assumption.”

The painting has a political dimension. St. Francis stands for Ancona, where the altarpiece hung in the Franciscan church; Blaise for Dubrovnik; Mary is the patroness of the Venetian Republic, which ruled the Adriatic trade routes of the other two cities. Titian depicted Venice in the landscape below.

While looking very natural, the celestial figures convey two crucial Christian mysteries: the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Baby Jesus has a pose that comes straight out of Titian’s paintings of the Christ rising from the tomb, while the grown-up angel between Francis and Jesus alludes to Gabriel.

The colorful “Resurrection of Christ” of 1542-44 originally was intended as a processional banner for the Company of Corpus Domini in Urbino. The subject presented artists with a puzzle, as Scripture does not describe the Resurrection. And for a long time painters depicted the miracle either by Christ’s later appearances to his followers or the scene at the empty tomb.

Titian chose to show the heroic Christ striding on the clouds of a dawn-streaked sky, while below, Roman soldiers sleep or fall over dazed, next to the tomb from which the lid has been heaved aside.

Glowing vision of saint

Presented first in the altarpiece hall, out of chronological order but to spectacular effect, is the “Martyrdom of St. Lawrence.” Titian began this painting in 1548 for the charitable Order of Crociferi but it was only completed after 1557. The picture, which is more than 16 feet tall, coincides with the Catholic Church’s reaffirmation of the veneration of saints, so strongly opposed by Protestants.

After the suppression of the Crociferi in 1656, the altarpiece went to the Jesuits. After many clumsy restorations, it was carried off to Paris by Napoleon’s troops in 1797. It returned to the Jesuit church in Venice in 1815, but darkened pigments and poor light made the picture almost illegible.

A recent conservation campaign has revived the glow that made it famous in the Renaissance. As of June 16, it had been returned to a fully restored and newly lit chapel.

Titan’s nocturnal scene portrays the deacon St. Lawrence, who was burnt alive on a gridiron by the Roman emperor for refusing to worship the goddess Vesta. Her idol stands on a column at the left, holding a statuette of Victory. Titian evoked early Christian Rome with a colonnaded temple. The recent cleaning reveals that it looks like the Roman-inspired Venetian palaces of Titian’s time, with their typical chimneys and torch-lit windows. Lawrence, who told his executioners “My night has no darkness,” reaches up from his fiery bed toward the beams of light breaking through the dark sky, presaging the victory of Christianity over paganism.

Born-again faith?

The stunning “Entombment of Christ” of 1559 was loaned by the Prado Museum of Madrid. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, a secret Christian who had visited Jesus by night, carry the Savior’s body to a classical sarcophagus carved with reliefs of the Sacrifice of Isaac and Cain and Abel — Old Testament stories that prefigured the Passion and Resurrection.

According to art historian Miguel Falomir, Titian tells the story exactly as in a book by his close friend Pietro Aretino about the humanity of Christ. Aretino specified that Nicodemus carried the head and Joseph the feet, with the Virgin Mary, St. John and Mary Magdalene between them. Aretino also described how the grief-stricken mother held the inert arm of her son, as in Titian’s picture.

Titian portrayed his own face as Nicodemus, who was, according to legend, the only artist who actually knew Jesus and carved a miraculous image of Christ’s face. In the 1500s, persons who secretly held religious beliefs that diverged from those of their state were sometimes accused of “Nicodemism.” If Titian could be thought of as a Nicodemite, it means that he was an intense, lifelong follower of Christ whose emotional sense of the divine supersedes all creeds with an intimate and profound faith.

The poetic “Christ Crucified” (c. 1555) is normally kept in the sacristy of the Escorial in Spain, and is only on view on the last Sunday of September. Professor Villa told OSV, “It is an exceptional privilege to have it for our show, also because we were able to place it next to two other Crucifixions by Titian. Even the sky responds emotionally to what is happening on the cross. The Escorial painting leaves one speechless in seeing this solitary Christ, silhouetted against a sky split between a bolt of lightning and the rising moon, while his face is lost in shadow.” 

Nora Hammerman writes from Virginia.