by Thyra Guenther-Lübbers
At first glance, a cozy picnic in the evening glow in the middle of a wonderfully idyllic landscape. But as so often in art history, the first impression is deceptive. This picture also wants to tell its viewer much more. In order to look behind the romantic veil of Titian's painting, we first clarify the identities of the individual persons, who, by the way, are arranged in a rather unusual composition in the room. In two so-called triangular compositions and from left to right, the artist gathered in his picture Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who can be identified as such by her martyr's attribute, the chariot wheel, none other than Jesus Christ with his mother Mary, who in turn makes herself recognizable to us by the blue cloak typical of her in art, and finally, at the right edge of the picture, the client of the painting, Duke Frederico II Gonzaga of Mantua, disguised as a staffage figure of a shepherd. Mary's cloak is a special feature in this painting. Its so intensely blue glowing hue is due to pigments of lapis lazuli blue. The pigments were extracted in Afghanistan during Titian's time and were so valuable that they were weighed out with gold. The fact that Titian lived and worked in the trading city of Venice made it easier for him to obtain the coveted dye.
The background is filled with stretching green meadows, a mountain landscape and a cloudy evening sky. A church spire hints at a town. With the untouched, rocky nature and the shepherd ensemble Titian alludes to a stretch of land in the heart of the Greek Peloponnese. The Arcadia, the name of the area, was already in classical Greek antiquity as beautiful, rough, wild and populated only by shepherds. In the Renaissance , the time in which Titian created the painting, they became the epitome of a free and easy life and advanced to a place of longing.
The roles in the present work are clearly distributed. The client crouches reverently at the edge of the action. He knows exactly what privilege he is granted to witness a loving and intimate moment of the Holy Mother and her Son. Saint Catherine is also aware of this. Kneeling on the chariot wheel and bending her head submissively towards Mary, she hands her divine son over to her. Titian's extraordinary composition does not provide for a figure filling the center of the work, even though Mary is very close to the center of the picture. Thus, literally, no figure is placed in the center of the viewer's attention. Perhaps Titian thought that this was probably done without any compositional aid. In any case, Mary, in stark contrast to Catherine, is depicted by Titian sitting on a cushion and receiving her son with an open arm. The latter, however, seems to have only one thing on his mind: to stroke the rabbit in his mother's left hand. This fact leads us to the predominant axes of vision in the picture. The connection between Christ and the hare points to his resurrection. For just as a hare is buried in its burrow underground, Christ was buried for three days before he rose from the dead. The connection between Mary and the white rabbit, in turn, represents purity and fertility. The already mentioned submissive look of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Mary does not return. She does not make eye contact with anyone, not even the viewer. She stares absently into the void outside the left edge of the picture. With this, Titian also indicates that Mary is aware of the fate that will befall her son, which obviously makes her thoughtful and sad.
Finally, two small but quite important details thought out by the artist should be mentioned. First, the basket of fruit at Mary's feet. Under a half-opened lid, the viewer sees an apple and grapes. The apple symbolizes the fall of man and the expulsion from paradise, and the grapes are a sign of the Eucharist. In addition, a plant, more precisely a stork's beak, stands out quite prominently on the lower right edge of the picture. It too stands for fertility and motherhood. For this reason, it has been arranged in full size and bloom, of course, very close to Mary in Titian's painting.
Titian has created here a painting strongly charged with symbols, which shows the purity and perfection of the Mother of God and Her Son, but also the incarnation of the latter. Completely down to earth, he shows here a human moment of divine figures.
Titian - Madonna with the rabbit
Oil on canvas, ca. 1530, 71 x 87 cm, Musée du Louvre in Paris