Re-examining Titian's Sacred and Profane Love

November 16, 2011

The Conversion of Mary Magdalen

Perhaps the most spectacular work of art in the magnificent collection of Rome’s Borghese Gallery is Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, one of the great masterpieces of the Venetian Renaissance. Early in the last century a collector offered more for this one painting than the appraised value of the entire Museum. This enormous painting measures over nine feet long and seems to take up almost an entire wall in one of the largest rooms.

The title Sacred and Profane Love was only attached to the mysterious painting long after Titian’s death in an attempt to describe the two beautiful fair-haired women in the foreground. One is fully clothed in a sumptuous gown, and the other is semi-nude except for garments that billow around her but only cover her privates. The sarcophagus-like fountain and the figures on the relief have also eluded identification.

Commentators have always noted the resemblance between the two women. Some call them sisters, even twins. Despite the resemblance of the two women, there has never been agreement about the subject of Titian’s famous painting. Most scholars have accepted the view, expressed by famed art historian Erwin Panofsky almost 75 years ago, that the women are versions of a Neoplatonic Venus, one earthly and the other celestial. 1

In 1978 David Rosand elaborated on the two Venuses:
The sister deities, each dominating one half of the composition, represent two levels of love, the human and the divine,... The more exalted Venus is nude--heavenly beauty needs no material adornment--and stands higher in the field, framed against the background sky... in contrast, her more earthly sister is solidly seated and hence actually on a lower level, more immediately enclosed by nature. She is sumptuously dressed in the material splendor of this world, and her attributes pertain to sanctioned human love: the myrtle she holds symbolizes the lasting happiness of marriage... 2

However, a 2003 exhibition catalog called this interpretation “untenable” since Titian “was not versed in such matters,” and there was “no precedent for the representation of such ideas in Venetian painting.” 3

Perhaps it was the absence of representations of twin Venuses that led the late Rona Goffen to argue that the two women might be the same person in two guises. Goffen, who wrote more about the Sacred and Profane Love than anyone else, noted that “in the visual tradition, when two figures look alike, they in fact represent the same person, usually in different moments of a narrative, sometimes in different conditions or states of being…” 4 For Goffen the woman was a version of an ideal bride, chaste and sexual at the same time. She also believed that the painting commemorated the marriage of a widow, Laura Bagarotto, to a Venetian official, Niccolo Aurelio, whose coat of arms can be seen on the fountain.

I agree that in the Sacred and Profane Love Titian depicted one woman in two separate guises. However, the only person who could be portrayed at the same time as a well dressed, even sumptuously dressed, woman, and as a semi-nude figure is Mary Magdalen, whose perceived life was the epitome of sexuality and chastity. Once we can see the two women as the Magdalen, all the other features of the painting fall into place.

It is difficult today to realize how popular Mary Magdalen was during the Renaissance. In the words of 19th century connoisseur Anna Jameson, the Magdalen aroused “passionate admiration and devotion” among all ranks of people and “the imputed sinfulness of her life only brought her nearer to them.” 5 Among other things she was the patron saint of virgins and mothers, and was especially called upon to intercede in cases of conception, gestation, labor and delivery.

In Venice a long established tradition of venerating the penitent Magdalen went hand in hand with the largest concentration of prostitutes in Europe. Churches, monasteries of nuns, and hospices for repentant prostitutes were commonly dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalen.6

Bernardino Luini. c.1525. The Magdalen. National Gallery of Art Washington

Artists often depicted Mary Magdalen as a richly attired and seductive courtesan contemplating the folly of her life and considering the opportunity that had been opened up to her by the words of Jesus to sin no more. Often, as in versions by Titian’s contemporary, Bernardino Luini, she would be painted both individually and paired with her plainly dressed sister, Martha. Later, both Caravaggio and Georges de La Tour would also depict contemplative well-dressed Magdalens.

Caravaggio's Martha and Mary Magdalene. c.1598. Detroit Institute of the Arts

She could, however, also be portrayed as a semi-nude penitent sinner fasting and mortifying herself in a desert. Donatello’s statue is the most famous 15th century version of the penitent Magdalen. She is gaunt and haggard, covered almost entirely by the long hair that reaches to her ankles. Apparently Venetian patrons disliked the gaunt Magdalen and demanded more beautiful versions. Often, both types of the Magdalen would be merged together. She would still be seen with the vestiges of her finery but at the same time tearful, sorrowful, and disheveled with breasts fully or partially exposed.

Titian became the most prolific and famous painter of Mary Magdalens. His half-length depictions of a beautiful, full-figured semi-nude show her long red hair around her body but parted to reveal bared breasts. She looks upward with her jar of ointment beside her.

 Titian's St. Mary Magdalene. c.1531-35. Palatine Gallery, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Titian’s famous Magdalens were all completed years after the Sacred and Profane Love. In this early rendition he separated the Magdalen into two guises. The clothed woman is the courtesan contemplating the error of her ways. The semi-nude woman is the newly converted Magdalen who, according to the apocryphal legends, would spend the last 30 years of her life fasting and mortifying herself in the desert outside of Marseilles.

Some have seen the clothed woman in the Sacred and Profane Love attired in a wedding gown, but she certainly could be a splendidly dressed seductress. Rona Goffen noted that while the woman’s attire is appropriate for a wedding, “the folds and fabric of the gown are exploited to emphasize the sensuality of the figure. Such sartorial eroticism may have been an innovation for bridal imagery, one perhaps more commonly associated with pictures of the “other woman…” 7

We notice the woman’s beautiful red hair so characteristic of Titian’s other Magdalens. The red color of her sleeve is also a Magdalen attribute as is the sprig of wild rose she holds in her hand. Her left hand rests on a container that could hold her jewels and perfumes. Both hands are gloved. Mary Magdalen was the patroness of all those engaged in producing female luxury items like perfumes and gloves.

Finally, there is her pose and posture. Some believe that she is looking at the viewer but to me she seems to stare off into the distance rapt in contemplation of a life changing decision. Most likely, this large painting would have been hung at shoulder height making it difficult for the viewer to establish eye contact. Some observers also believe that the seated woman’s spread legs are sensual and erotic--something that would also fit this most famous seducer of men. Personally, I can’t see it and it appears to me that she is about to fall to her knees.

On the right we see the semi-nude Magdalen of the apocryphal legends whose sole drapery is her long flowing hair. Much later in his life Titian joked of his Magdalens that he liked to portray them at the beginning of their fasting rather than as thin, wasted figures. Joking aside, in the Sacred and Profane Love Titian could actually be portraying the moment of conversion.

The converted sinner in the Sacred and Profane Love has the same flowing red hair as well as the red garment of the courtesan. Moreover, scholars have wondered why the clothing of this figure seems so much like the Magdalen of the Noli Me Tangere. The empty plate beside her could mean that she has discarded all of her jewelry. Finally, in her left hand she holds aloft the jar of oil that is the single most recognizable symbol of Mary Magdalen. Practically every depiction of her includes this element.

 Noli Me Tangere. c.1511-12. National Gallery London

Both the Magdalens sit on a sarcophagus-like fountain that further serves to connect them. The wild rose bush in front is also a traditional symbol of Mary Magdalen. The fountain is a puzzle in itself but the relief has also eluded identification. Guesses have been made but the 2003 exhibition catalog noted that the significance of the figures on the relief “remains elusive.” 8

There are three scenes on the relief and although they are somewhat obscured, we can now see that they depict great sinners. On the far right two nudes stand on each side of a tree. The figure on the left is Eve portrayed in her usual full frontal nudity. Adam is on the other side of the tree. To the left we see an act of murderous violence that represents the story of Cain and Abel, the first incident of sin after the Fall.

On the other side of the relief there is a horse led by one man but the rider appears to be falling off. The fallen rider can only be St. Paul, one of the few sinners capable of being mentioned in the same breath as Mary Magdalen. In his letter to Timothy Paul called himself the greatest of sinners.

Why did Titian deliberately choose to use a fountain that looked like a sarcophagus? What kind of a sarcophagus can it be that has a spigot through which water gushes freely? The angel (we can now call it an angel rather than a cupid) stirring the waters reminds us of the Biblical pool of Bethesda but that story only reminds us of Baptism.

In Baptism the converted sinner is immersed in the waters and dies to sin. The waters are living and flowing, a sign of new life and regeneration. In Medieval theology a fountain could be a symbol of the famous tears of Mary Magdalen. One scholar has noted the fountain symbolism and pointed out that the tears of Mary Magdalen “served as baptismal water washing away the stain of sin, and restoring the contrite weeper to the condition of purity and innocence.” 9

Titian has also used the elements in the landscape to tell a story of conversion. Behind the seated courtesan the landscape is dark and surmounted by a city, a place of vice and spiritual danger. The young rider on horseback gallops towards perdition. The two rabbits were also common symbols of lust and sensuality.

However, the white rabbit pursued by a hound in the landscape behind the converted Magdalen is a symbol of chastity and purity.10 The landscape on the right is bright and peaceful. Sheep graze contentedly and there is a church in the background. No other interpretation of this painting has been able to explain the presence of this church.

Although Rona Goffen did not see Mary Magdalen in Sacred and Profane Love, practically every argument she made about Titian’s later Magdalens could easily be applied to that painting. Writing about the Magdalen in the Noli Me Tangere she pointed to her unbound hair, her exposed forearms, and the style of her red gown which violated contemporary sumptuary laws. The pudica pose that characterized Titian’s later Magdalens, and indicates both a courtesan and a bride of Christ, is also the pose of the nude in the Sacred and Profane Love.

Goffen absolved Titian of any intent to create a “lubricious” image in his later Magdalens. She pointed out that even though he and his patrons wanted beautiful images, their devotion to her as an intercessor was sincere.11

If there was any woman in Venice who thought of turning to Mary Magdalen as an intercessor it might have been the wife of the man who commissioned the painting. The arms of Niccolo Aurelio, a Venetian official, can be seen on the fountain. In 1514 Aurelio married Laura Bagarotto, a widow from Padua. In 1509 her father, Bertuccio Bagarotto, a professor at the famed university of Padua, as well as her husband, Francisco Borromeo, had been accused of treason by the Venetian government for collaboration with the enemy during the War of the League of Cambrai. The husband most likely died in 1509 and the father was publicly hanged in the Piazza di San Marco, an execution that his wife and daughter were forced to witness.

Laura’s goods, including her substantial dowry, were confiscated. Subsequently, she campaigned for the restoration of the family’s good name as well as for the restoration of her dowry, estimated at over 2000 ducats. Her marriage to Niccolo Aurelio in 1514 must have been an important step in her rehabilitation since her dowry was only restored the day before the marriage. One would like to think that Niccolo was honoring his new wife, or seeking to aid in her rehabilitation with this painting.

Given the ups and downs of her own life, Laura Bagarotto might have looked to the Magdalen as a patron. On that fateful day in 1509 she lost both her father and her patrimony. If she had not been a woman, she might have lost her own life. Eventually, she would provide the aging Niccolo with a beloved daughter and then a male heir. Who can doubt that she had prayed to the Magdalen, the patron saint of all women hoping for a family?

Editors note
The above post is a condensed version of Dr. DeStefano's work purposely adapted for 3PP. The complete presentation can be read here.

1. Erwin Panofsky: The Neoplatonic Movement in Florence and Northern Italy (Bandinelli and Titian), Studies in Iconology, Naturalistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, Oxford, 1939, reprinted 1962, p.152

2. David Rosand, Titian, 1978, p.80

3. David Jaffe ed., Titian (ex. cat.), 2003, p.94

4. Rona Goffen, Titian’s Women, 1997, p.115

5. Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, v. 1, p.344

6. Goffen, op. cit., p.185

7. ibid. p.39

8. Jaffe, op. cit., p.94

9. Katherine Ludwig Jansen: The Making of the Magdalen, Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages, Princeton, 2000, p.211

10. Lucia Impelluso, Nature and Its Symbols, Los Angeles, 2003, p.238

11. Goffen, op. cit., pp.172-181

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano is a retired associate professor of history, who now dedicates his time to writing and lecturing independently on history and art history. His key area of interest is Venetian Renaissance art, particularly the works of Giorgione. His ongoing research into historical and sacred themes influencing artists in the Renaissance can be read at Giorgione et al, and its parent site Tempesta News.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Dr. DeStefano and TPP for this interpretation - the topic of the Magdalen in Renaissance art deserves attention beyond academia and iconographic studies. The urns/vessels in particular have never truly fit the twin Venus readings, and sit much better with a Magdalenic interpretation.

Having said this, dismissing the idea of a 'sacred Venus' entirely (as in the quote by Rosand) seems excessive. There seems to be have been a visual tradition, particularly in the earlier part of the 16C to depict Mary Magdalen in this manner. Here we can cite Dürer's "The Elevation of Saint Mary Magdalen" as a particularly potent example. Dated ca.1504/5 it is replete with Putti and more reminiscent of a healthy Venus than the emaciated Magdalen from previous traditions. Dürer's Venetian exposure is well documented, with the rejuvenation of Mary Magdalen promoted by the humanists more than the clergy - I was hoping Dr. DeStefano may have explored this point.

In this direction, Professor Witcombe's landmark article "The Shifting Identity of Mary Magdalen" (1993) is a wondrous starting point, with Marjorie Malvern's "Venus in Sackcloth: The Magdalen's Origins and Metamorphosis" (1975) and Susan Haskins's "Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor" (1993) also worthy of consideration.

I was somewhat awed by the preceding overview by Mr. Niyazi. One does get the sense presentations exploring one reading allow only a keyhole glimpse of something larger and wondrous, where the previous article was advocating that the door be entirely kicked down to allow a complete appreciation.

It is remarkable to see art history being developed like this online. New frontiers are where exciting ideas and new presentations are best fostered. As readers, we are blessed.

Stephanie S

Unknown said...

Thank you for the kind feedback Stephanie. I agree about the jar(s) - a very noticeable attribute of Mary Magdalene that just isnt easily accounted for in a purely neo-Platonic or literary reading.

Also, thanks for the refs! I have read the Witcombe article you mention - he has published quite a few on the topic of Mary Magdalene - all recommended reading on the topic! I must try and find those others too :)

Kind Regards

Dr. F said...

Thank you Stephanie for your very thoughtful and helpful comment. I also appreciate your Magdalen source suggestions. I must confess that I am not familiar with the two articles you mentioned but I have pored through the book by Susan Haskins as well as a later book, “The Making of the Magdalen, Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages" by Katherine Ludwig Jansen.

I hope some of your concern about my interpretation can be alleviated by reading the full paper on my website that can be found by using the link provided by Hasan Niyazi above. (also see the Magdalen slides there) Here I will just say that more than the urns/vessels, I believe that the appearance and clothing of the women as well as the figures on the sarcophagus are the most telling arguments for the Magdalen.

On the website version I did not pay attention to Durer because I believed that there were other more immediate sources. I raised the issue of the influence of Giorgione and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi but did not want to introduce even more controversy in the 3PP piece. Also, it was not Rosand who dismissed the “Sacred Venus” but the editor of the 2003 exhibition catalog.

Finally, this interpretation is the first to see Mary Magdalen in the “Sacred and Profane Love.” To adapt your metaphor, this interpretation is the key that opens the door so that we can enter the room and view its treasures. Certainly, Titian and others might have used antique models in their sacred subjects, but while their paintings can have multiple meanings they have only one subject. The real question is why great scholars like Panofsky, Rosand, and Goffen never saw the Magdalen in this painting.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the clarification Dr. F. I am eager to know if Jaffe offered any further detail for this dismissal?

Titian moved in scholarly circles and had educated patrons and collaborators - there is, for example fascinating debate over his alleged contribution of woodcut illustrations to anatomical studies by Vesalius. He may not have been a scholar himself, but to argue he was ignorant of the great learning happening all around him seems rather brave. Hopefully Jaffe provides further evidence to support his claims?

Stephanie S

Unknown said...

Interesting discussion! The Vesalian controversy is a fascinating one, particualarly to those of us with an interest in the history of the study of anatomy.

There was an amazing text on this topic by Saunders - which I thoroughly recommend. There is a preview at Google books link

Kind Regards

Dr. F said...

I'll take another look at the 2003 exhibition catalog today and try to find the source for Jaffe's view.

However, in recent posts at "Giorgione et al" I've discussed Paul Joannides' study of the early Titian's career. The unmistakeable conclusion is that Titian before the Sacred and Profane Love was almost exclusively a painter of sacred subjects.

Titian's career was so long that we tend to read themes found in his later career back into his formative years. Vesalius was born in 1514 the same year that Titian was working on the SAPL.

Nevertheless, I'm certainly glad that you can entertain a Magdalenic interpretation. Isn't it interesting that no one claims that Titian's many versions of the "Venus and Adonis" can represent more than one subject? No one sees any ambiguity in that painting or claims that the figures can be any other than Venus and Adonis.

Unknown said...

That's an interesting point Frank, though I would invite you to look at it from a contextual perspective. Parallel examples exist across Renaissance art. Young artists starting out, as apprentices are given piece work on the most commonnly ordered items. Sacred themed pieces were the bread and butter of an Renaissance artisan's workshop.

As artists became more prominent, and attracted private patrons with more esoteric interests, these showy mystery pieces became a heavier part of their repertoire. Similar trends can be seen in Raphael. His Umbrian phase is almost entirely populated with sacred pieces.

This being said, even in the workshop, a young Titian would have studied classical models and become familiar with its motifs to an extent. His exposure to Giorgione would also have been formative of course.

Early Titian is one of the great elusive mysteries of Renaissance art, but unfortunately with very little tangible detail to get stuck into. That doesn't stop us - and many other - speculating of course.

Kind Regards

Alberti's Window said...

Nice to much of Frank's post highlighted here. This is a nice balance to your previous post on iconography too, H Niyazi. Of all of the artists out there, I think Titian and Giorgione are some of the most enigmatic!

Dr. F said...


David Jaffe and Amanda Bradley, the co-authors of the piece on the Sacred and Profane Love in the 2003 exhibition catalog offered no evidence for the rejection of the Neoplatonic interpretation. However, David Rosand in “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch,” in Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” ed. Rona Goffen, Cambridge, 1997. Pp. 37-62. referred to "anti Panofsky hysteria" and cited Charles Hope in particular.


Glennis said...

I read this post several weeks ago, and find it sticking in my mind. Whether it's the artist's intended interpretation or not, the Mary Magdalen conversion is possibly the most fun to think about.

Dr. F said...


It is gratifying to see that you can be open to seeing the Magdalen in the SAPL.


K. Bender said...

A late contribution to the discussion concerning the sarcophagus-like fountain in the SAPL. A similar ancient relief is depicted on Titian's painting entitled 'Bishop Jacopo Pesaro presented to Saint Peter by Pope Alexander VI', owned by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. The relief, on which Saint Peter thrones, represents a sacrifice to Cupid with on the right side of Cupid's altar the figure of Aphrodite/Venus. The meaning of this relief, somehow curious on this religious painting, is described at length by Alessandro Ballarin on pp. 316-323 (cat. n°40) of 'Le siècle de Titien' exhibition catalogue, 9 March-14 June 1993, Grand Palais, Paris.
Thus, another example of Titian's inspiration from pagan mythology.

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