Artibus et Historiae no. 66 (XXXIII)

2012, ISSN 0391-9064

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ALMUTH LUCKOW - Charity in Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin (pp. 133–152)

Titian’s painting, commissioned in 1534 by the oldest confraternity of Venice, the Scuola di S. Maria della Carità, is commonly understood as a monumental history painting, following the Venetian narrative tradition.

This view seems to be based on a misunderstanding. Titian did not intend to paint a storia observing the rules of continuity and chronological order, but his objective was to illustrate the role of the brotherhood in Venice in several scenes. The motto of the confraternity was carità and its patroness was the madre della carità. The major theme of the picture deals with this motto, Charity, the biblical Caritas, which encompasses both love for one’s neighbour and love for God. The double sense of the word accounts for the formal division of the picture – the partition between the secular and the religious.

Mingling with the people, the brothers are contributing to general welfare and peace in Venice by their presence and activities. The cardinal dressed in red can be identified with the historic figure of Bessarion, once a member of the brotherhood and here a symbol of religious tolerance. Mary’s elderly parents, integrated in the procession of Titian’s contemporaries, symbolize the timeless unity of the brothers and enhance their spiritual merits. According to the Byzantine tradition, they have just offered their beloved child to God by bringing her to the Temple. The mountains behind them send the smoke of this sacrifice up to heaven, like two immense natural censers. The Virgin herself offers her own life to God. Her voluntary sacrifice is the highest act of Caritas. Her companions, personifications of Faith, Hope and Charity, remain in the lower, “human” area – the Virgin is placed in the divine sphere symbolized by the golden mandorla. The elderly egg-seller outside of the staircase represents the opposite of Charity: she is the incarnation of avarice and egoism.

This realistic painting with its non-realistic details shows Venice as an actual Utopia, a place where both dimensions of Charity are realized – a community without any conflicts at the beginning of the Reformation.

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