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February 23, 2008

Tiepolo's Hottie Madonnas

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I wonder how he got away with it.

The Madonna, the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God -- a devotional figure central to the Catholic Church -- traditionally has been depicted as a serene, perhaps somewhat distant, idealized, saintly woman.

There have been countless depictions of her in painting and sculpture over many centuries, so there is no strict uniformity in what we see in museums, cathedrals, parish churches and on household walls of the devout. Still, I cannot recall seeing a intentionally ugly Virgin. My take is that she is usually shown as pretty, but in a restrained way.

But one famous artist, the Venetian Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) painted Mary as a babe.

Um, let me qualify that. He tended to pain her as an attractive women such as he could see daily on the streets, canals and plazas of Venice. Or like women we can see daily in the towns and cities where we live. Unlike stylized women that tended to appear in non-portrait paintings until the late 19th century, Tiepolo's Madonnas and female saints look normal. Plus, they have sex appeal.

One would think that painting Modonnas with sex appeal would have led Tiepolo to the stake or at least a public recantation. But no, he was hugely successful, his paintings and frescoes appearing in churches in many Venetian neighborhoods and elsewhere in northern Italy as well as Spain, where he ended his career. And he's perhaps most famous for ceilings, the most noteworthy of all in the Residenz of the Prince Bishop of Würtzburg.

Here are some examples. The original paintings are so large and full of figures that the Virgin's face can be hard to see on a computer screen; I strongly recommend that you find a book about Tiepolo to get a better idea of what I'm talking about. I notice that English translations or versions of titles can vary considerably, perhaps because some Tiepolo works might not have had formal titles in the first place (I'm speculating). So the titles I use here might not agree with titles shown in Tiepolo books.


Immaculate Conception - 1767-69

Immaculate Conception - 1767-69 (detail)

Out Lady of Carmel - 1721-27

Out Lady of Carmel - 1721-27 (detail)

The Virgin Appearing to St. Philip Neri - 1740

Virgin Appearing to Dominican Saints - 1747-48
Alternative title: The Virgin Mary with Saints Catherine, Rose of Lima and Agnes of Montepulciano.

Apparition of the Virgin to St. Simon Stock - c.1748-49
Alternate title: The Virgin Mary presenting the Scapular to St. Simon Stock.

In all the paintings shown above (aside, perhaps, from the one of St. Philip Neri), Mary has a haughty look. And, with nearly closed eyes, see seems (to me, at least) sensual rather than spiritual. This seems most pronounced in the St. Simon Stock painting, which you will have to find in a book to get the full effect.

In the painting of Mary with Sts. Catherine, Rose and Agnes, her face seems a little too full. But this is compensated by the striking image of the saint in white at the left (Saint Catherine?).

On the other hand, I could be totally wrong about all of this -- simply "objectifying" some sort of personality defect. Regardless, let me know your impressions.



posted by Donald at February 23, 2008


My favorite Tiepolo...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 23, 2008 8:44 PM

A slight tangent— a book I'm rather fond of has a good pastiche of that first image. In the cosmology of the novel, the figure represented is a very reluctant saint, and one who is, by the end of the book, a very sensual woman.

It tickles me to know of the source for that painting, and of how appropriate it is in the circumstances.

Posted by: B. Durbin on February 23, 2008 8:45 PM

A hottie indeed, almost like a sultry fashion model. But the sensuality of some Catholic imagery often really takes me aback, pale-khaki Presbyterian that I am (or was raised). Guilt, punishment, ecstasy -- well, you're certainly left in no doubt about what's at stake!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 23, 2008 11:10 PM

They may not have the earthy sensuality of Tiepolo's, but Botticelli's madonnas are freakin' babes.


You may notice that Gwen Stefani, another of my favourites, looks rather Botticelliesque, which is good enough reason to point out my post on her here:

Posted by: Thursday on February 24, 2008 2:23 AM

This book has all of G. Tiepolo's works...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 24, 2008 9:04 AM

Straying to pictures of Mary Magdalene, I've always loved Ribera's sulky teenager:

Posted by: not securely anchored on February 24, 2008 9:34 AM

Actually, I was thinking of Tiepolo recently when I read another posting on somebody's blog about how, looking at old art, none of the women were really all that hot. I immediately thought of Tiepolo's women, who have a very modern look about them and a very modern style of pouty sexuality as well. The author of the original post took the attitude that women from hundreds of years ago simply weren't that good looking, and that Darwinian selection over the intervening years had produced our current crop of lovely women. Of course, this ignores the possibility that what is considered sexy in visual media is strongly culturally specific, and it's our visual media tastes that have evolved in the interval. (In terms of what seems attractive in the flesh my guess is that things have probably changed fairly little, except that we probably place a much higher premium on good teeth, good skin and hygene than people could have in the past.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 24, 2008 5:32 PM

One painting of Mary in a church in Rome that I visited, Mary doesn't only look attractive.

She literally appears to be having an orgasm when communicated to divinely by God. My cold, conservative professor even pointed out the orgasm in the church.

The Catholic Church, of course, has much less of a problem with this than Protestant denominations.

Posted by: thehova on February 24, 2008 9:48 PM

In Greek and Russian Orthodox art the Virgin at the Crucifixion or later is usually shown as an elderly, care worn woman - not ugly perhaps, but nowhere near being a "babe". Do the Orthodox believe she was conceived without sin? That might have something to do with it - sin ages you I guess.

Posted by: Hybrid on February 24, 2008 10:17 PM

Hey, classical painting as cheesecake art -- this is fun! I vote for Correggio's "Jupiter and Io." Although Delacroix's "Rape of Sardanapulus" always hits me in a special place too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 24, 2008 11:30 PM

If we are straying from Madonnas, I was always partial to Leonardo's Lady with Ermine.


And I do love me some Degas bathers.


Posted by: Thursday on February 25, 2008 2:03 AM

Yer going to hell.

Posted by: annette on February 26, 2008 4:45 PM

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