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A Postcolonial Study of Giorgione’s Venetian Renaissance Art: The Three Philosophers

Image Credits: Wikipedia

Venetian Renaissance Art

Marianne Kooks, Julia Bernard, and Lynnette Widder, in their paper Identity, and the Poetics of Desire in Giorgione's Painting, talk about the lack of context an art historian has while studying Giorgione. They say, ‘Giorgione's art gives cause for irritation. Unlike the work of his contemporaries, the subjects of Giorgione's paintings and those of his circle repeatedly elude definitive identification. Neither can his pastoral paintings readily be associated with any specific antique or contemporary story, nor can his idealized portraits of boys or women be securely identified as figures drawn from classical mythology or Christian iconography.’ Accordingly, this elucidation on his painting titled The Three Philosophers, would not make a claim about the identities of the philosophers, but only about what they may represent in the present times.

As is known, Venetian Art, unlike Florentine, focuses more on sense and emotion than postures. The importance given to oil paints, shades, glazing, and different textures and colors, is vital to understanding Giorgione’s art. The technique of sfumato, which became popular with Leonardo’s rise in appeal, appears to have been in use extensively even in Giorgione’s works. This technique of using different shades of light, perspectives, and depths is what contributes to the study of light symbolizing knowledge, that falls on the faces of the Three Philosophers of his painting.

The Consumer of Art as the Subject

It is rather impossible for every consumer of a work of art to know the context in which it was produced. Thus, the viewer, who derives their own meaning out of a work of art just by looking at it, becomes the subject. I understood this complex phenomenon by a very simplistic gesture. 2 years ago, while showing my grandmother a photograph I had clicked of a facsimile of Michelangelo’s Pieta (housed in the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum, Milan, Italy), I was surprised to see a staunch Hindu woman folding her hands in prayer and bowing her head. After having asked, I got to know that she mistook Madonna and Christ for Goddess Parvati and Lord Ganesha, two important figures in the Hindu mythology. It is then that I realized how the consumer of every work of art becomes the subject while consumption. This subject, therefore, understands another’s work of art through the experiences they have gone through. The 20th century, having beheld and battled the harrowing face of colonialism and conquest, looks at works of art through a postcolonial lens. It is imperative to do that for this particular painting because it showcases three philosophers with different poses and differences in the shades of light on their faces since light has been defined in colonial terminology as being analogous to knowledge, purity, and enlightenment.

Moving Away from the Eurocentric: The Three Philosophers by Giorgione

It is said that the depiction of nature in The Three Philosophers was cut down by 17.5 meters. It is not difficult to imagine how the philosophers would have been insignificant figures had the painting been in its original size because the focus would have shifted to the pastoral setting. Some critics remark that the painting is an analogy of ‘The Cave’ in Book 7 of Plato’s Republic. Since these men are philosophers, the mood of the painting is contemplative. The old man, towards the extreme left, appears to be a figure from Greek Antiquity, the middle-aged man is an Islamic (by his attire and turban) representing the preservation of culture, and the young man looking into the darkness is the scientific modern man. The light on their faces increases from old to young, making the man towards the right look the brightest.

From a Eurocentric perspective, it can be said that Giorgione wanted to portray the man towards the right, the West, as the most modern and scientific. Since light represents knowledge, his face was painted to be the brightest (unlike the other two who are shadowed). It can be said that this painting projects the West’s superiority over the East. While the young man is sitting and contemplating, the other two are waiting for the result of his contemplation. The way he dresses is modern: he is wearing a flared shirt, unlike the other two who are heavily garmented. He is the face of the young, the future of the world, the one to show the way ahead for civilization

From the East to the West

But as stated before, the consumer of art can be regarded as the subject while consuming. A postcolonial subject may read this episode through an entirely different lens: After the fall of Constantinople, when the Ottomans took control of the city, a host of intellectuals, poets, and artists had to flee to Europe to seek refuge. They carried along with them the manuscripts of all the ancient texts in Arabic, Persian, and other Middle Eastern languages. It was after the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg that these documents were translated into European and Slavic languages. This migration and availability of manuscripts made it possible for Renaissance humanists to study Antiquity. Moreover, a lot of architecture that we see during and even after the Renaissance, has been inspired and adopted from the East. One famous example is Brunelleschi’s dome which was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence. The dome has a double base for support and a herringbone structure of bricks. Such marvelous domes have always been a symbol of Islamic architecture and there is enough evidence, be it from the architectural design of the dome or from Brunelleschi’s own life and travels, that the dome was influenced by the domes he had seen in the East. Keeping all these developments in mind, along with the growing trade from the ports of Italy to the Eastern world that brought in an influx of goods and culture, it can be said that another way to study Giorgione’s The Three Philosophers is to look at it from the East to the West.

The Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci captures the moment when the emissaries come to bless the Child of the Virgin from the East. It is a moment when the light of a star leads the followers of Zoroaster, whom Plutarch refers to as "Zoroaster the Magus”, towards the Son of God. Anne B. Barriault, in her essay titled Leonardo, Giorgione, Mantegna, and the Magi, writes, ‘Leonardo’s holistic rendering of the Madonna, Christ Child, and Magi emerges out of darkness into light to convey universal truth, currents of time, and tradition, East and West. Three religious traditions—Judaic, Christian, and perhaps Zoroastrian—embodied by Mary, the Child, and the Magi, may converge in Leonardo’s image to quell contention and express the promise of hope. Leonardo’s approach creates order out of chaos, peace out of battle, light out of darkness, and concord out of discord. Leonardo’s image, in turn, helps to illuminate a later painting— Giorgione’s The Three Philosophers.’

If this holistic approach is applied to study Giorgione’s painting, it can be said that the faces of the two philosophers standing towards the left are in darkness and shadowed because they have passed on their light (i.e. knowledge) onto the young philosopher. This young philosopher, sitting towards the right, is gaping into the wilderness in order to find some inspiration to put all the knowledge he has received into perspective. The light on the face of the young philosopher shows the borrowed knowledge, the glow from revelations, and the cultural truths which have been passed on to be adopted into the creation of that glorious past. Since this painting is about light, this isn’t a tall claim to make.

In the painting, it is also worth noticing how the three philosophers are positioned. The two older ones, symbolizing Greek Antiquity and Islamic traditions of the Middle East respectively, face each other. They appear to be in conversation, as if exchanging some sort of a dialogue. On the other hand, the young philosopher, representing the artistic and ‘individualistic’ West, seems to be lost in thought. He is not alerted by the presence of two other people in the vicinity. It would be interesting to think of it as Giorgione’s unconscious portrayal of the individualistic future of the capitalist world which had its roots in the flourishing trade routes and demands raised by Renaissance merchants and patrons. Whether or not it is a contemplation of what the future holds, or what the knowledge of the past can teach, it certainly is a depiction of the youthful years of one’s life. It can also be said that these youthful years of contemplation bring about the possibility of dialogue and discussion in the later years of one’s life which make a person wiser. Renaissance brought about the possibility of such dialogues through the medium of art, architecture, and literature. The revival of the past and of Antiquity came through with sporadic changes in trade and commerce, religious dogmatism, communications throughout the world, and discussions about a possible future for humanity.


By Ananya Bhardwaj (Columnist)

Ananya Bhardwaj is a final year student pursuing Literature in English at St Stephens College, Delhi University. Having published in national and international journals, her research interests include South Asian studies, post colonialism, partition studies, literatures and feminism.