30 December 2013

Art for Christmas (6): ‘The Holy
Family with a Shepherd,’ by Titian

‘The Holy Family with a Shepherd,’ by Titian

Patrick Comerford

The year is drawing to a close and a new year approaches. But this is still the season of Christmas, and my choice of a work of Art for Christmas this morning [30 December 2013] is ‘The Holy Family with a Shepherd’ (ca 1510), by the great Venetian Renaissance painter, Titian.

This early work by Titian in the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, and is part of the Holwell Carr Bequest (1831). It is in oil on canvas, and measures 99.1 cm x 139.1 cm.

Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio, known generally as Titian (ca 1488/1490-1576), was the greatest painter in 16th-century Venice, and the first painter to have a mainly international clientele. During his long career, he experimented with many different styles of painting that reflect the development of art at that time.

Titian was born ca 1488/1490 in Pieve di Cadore, a small town near Belluno at the foot of the Dolomites on the Venetian side of the Alps. The Vecellio family had lived in Cadore since the 14th century. His older brother Francesco was also a painter.

When he was about 10 years old, Titian arrived in Venice, then one of the wealthiest and most prosperous cities in the world. His training as an artist began in the mosaic workshop of Sebastiano Zuccato’s. Later, he worked briefly with Gentile Bellini in his workshop. When Gentile died in 1507, Titian joined the workshop of his brother, Giovanni Bellini, then the most important workshop in Venice.

In 1508-1509, he worked with Giorgione on the decoration of the external walls of the ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi’ in Venice. After Giorgione’s death in 1510, and Sebastiano del Piombo’s departure for Rome in 1511, Titian began an independent career in Venice, and found himself without rivals.

In 1511 Titian painted his celebrated frescoes in the ‘Scuola del Santo’ in Padua. He then became famous as a portrait painted and as the painter of many secular subjects.

His skills drew the attention of Italy’s intellectually ambitious political, church and aristocratic leaders, who commissioned him to paint public and religious works. His success in Venice came with his altarpiece for Franciscan Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. His ‘Assunta,’ depicting the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is almost seven metres high and first went on show in 1518. The dynamic, three-tier composition and colour scheme established Titian as the pre-eminent painter north of Rome.

He continued to work in this church until 1526, painting his celebrated Pala Pesaro, an asymmetrical composition that strongly influenced the painting of altarpieces in Venice well into the 18th century.

Meanwhile, in 1516 Titian began his professional relationship with Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and spent time in his castle. The duke wanted Titian to create a private room, the camerino d’alabastro (the alabaster room), decorated with mythological scenes from classical poetry.

The other painters commissioned for this project included Raphael, Fra Bartolomeo and Dosso Dossi. After Raphael and Fra Bartolomeo died, Titian became increasingly involved in the project. Some of the scenes he executed are now in the Prado, Madrid, and the National Gallery, London.

Titian also worked for the court of Mantua. In 1523, he began painting for the future Duke of Mantua, Federico II Gonzaga, a nephew of Alfonso d’Este.

In 1525, he married Cecilia and they had three children, Pompeo, Orazio and Lavinia, before her tragic death in 1530.

That year in Bologna, he met the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and painted full-length, life-size portraits of the Emperor and his son, King Philip II of Spain. He became the principal painter in the imperial court, and was in demand in courts throughout Europe. From 1531, he painted celebrated mythological series of paintings or poesie for Philip. His portrait of Philip II was sent to England and helped secure Philip’s marriage to Queen Mary I.

In 1532, Titian started to work for the Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere, and his successor, Guidobaldo II. In the 1530s, he was also working for Pope Paul III, but his only visit to Rome was in 1545-1546, when met Michelangelo and was made a citizen of Rome.

Starting from the late 1550s, Titian developed a much freer use of the brush and a less descriptive representation of reality.

In the late 1560s and early 1570s, in his old, age he moved towards abstraction in a style that has been defined as “magic impressionism.” His work at this time included his Pietà, originally designed for his own tomb in the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari but now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

He died of the plague on 27 August 1576. He was the only victim of the Venice plague to be given a church burial, and was buried in the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. His contemporaries referred to him as “The Sun Amidst Small Stars,” recalling the final line of Dante’s Paradiso.

Last year, the National Gallery in London celebrated the recent acquisition of Titian’s Diana and Callisto by hosting an exhibition of this influential work (Titian’s Diana and Callisto, 1 March to 1 July 2012) and a second exhibition of Titian’s The Flight into Egypt (4 April to 19 August 2012).

My choice of painting this morning, The Holy Family with a Shepherd, is an early work by Titian. By the 1520s, gatherings of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and saints in a landscape had become one of the most popular themes in Venetian paintings. But Titian had completed this painting a decade earlier when he was in his early 20s, and it shows the influence of Giovanni Bellini and of Giorgione on the work of Titian.

In this painting, Titian shows only one shepherd in adoration. But the other shepherds can be seen to the right in the distance, hearing the Good News of the Incarnation as they tend their sheep in the fields, by daylight.

In one way, Titian is telling us that the Good News of the Incarnation comes to us both individually and collectively. But as I look at this painting, I also think of those people who have been on their own, or have felt lonely and abandoned at Christmas this year.

How does the Good News of the Incarnation come to you afresh this year? And how do you share it with others?

If you have felt lonely this Christmas or have felt an outsider, Christ comes to you in particular this Christmas and tells you that you are no longer on the margins. If you have felt unloved this Christmas, the coming of Christ tells you that you are truly loved and that you are worth loving.

Tomorrow: ‘Carols’ by Nikiphoros Lytras.

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