How can artists creatively respond to a health crisis? Many are pondering this question right now amid a coronavirus pandemic, though it’s one that’s been asked for centuries. Titian, one of the High Renaissance’s greatest masters, was among the artists to mull it, and he did so as he made his final work, Pietà (ca. 1576), while Venice was ravaged by a bubonic plague outbreak.
“The picture becomes an artistic testament of sorts in that sense, something that he intended to be associated with his afterlife,” said Matthias Wivel, a curator of 16th-century Italian paintings at the National Gallery in London who organized the museum’s “Titian: Love, Desire, Death” exhibition, now closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s unclear when Titian began on the painting, though it probably predated the plague reaching Venice in 1575. Well into his 80s, Titian would have likely had death on his mind, but the plague seems to have brought new meaning to the work for him—no doubt because of the personal stakes. Wivel said that a small scene in the lower right corner may depict Titian and his son, Orazio, who would die days after his father, most likely of causes related to the plague. (It is unknown if Titian died from old age or the plague.)
A scene like that typically wouldn’t appear in paintings where the Virgin Mary holds a dead Christ, and in an otherwise naturalistic composition, it is done in the style of an ex-voto, a crudely painted small-scale artwork used in prayer by everyday people. “Titian may have seen the writing on the wall at the time,” Wivel said. “The fact that he inserts the ex-voto could be an indication that he’s anticipating that he’s not going to survive the plague. You could even imagine—and this is complete speculation—that he inserted that while sick.”
The massive painting was left unfinished in the artist’s studio at the time of his death in 1576 from a fever. Unlike many of Titian’s most well-known paintings, his Pietà was a personal painting meant for his tomb at the Frari basilica in Venice, where he had contributed two of his most renowned altarpieces some 60 years prior and was done in a similar scale. (The work is now in the collection Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, and Wivel said that he based the custom-made frames for his show on that of the Pietà.)
Michelangelo may have created the most famous pietà scene of all time, but Titian’s is certainly the most emotionally charged one. Even Titian’s treatment of the paint itself evidences the artist’s interest in spirituality and death. The brushstrokes, Wivel said, are “very freely painted. It’s almost as if he’s dissolving into these rays of light.”
But the audacious formalism doesn’t end there, according to Wivel. Though portions of the Pietà were left unfinished by Titian, Wivel said he believes that this seemingly unfinished quality of Christ’s body is indeed intentional. “That’s part of his aesthetic at that time,” Wivel said, comparing it to other late works like The Crowning with Thorns, which was also left in Titian’s studio at his death. “It’s hard to see how that body could have more fully modeled because that would have been contradictory to the brushstrokes that are laid down already.”
Titian sets the scene in a half-dome funerary chapel that includes a carving of a pelican piercing its chest, a symbol of Christ. To the Virgin’s left is a visibly grief-stricken Mary Magdalene and to Christ’s right, holding his hand, is St. Jerome, which some scholars believe is a stand-in for the artist. On either side of the structure are two statues, Moses on the left and an ancient Greek sybil, who is said to have predicted the coming of a savior who would die on a cross. “It’s about precursors before Christ,” Wivel said. “It’s the ancient world and the Old Testament. It’s that continuity of history.”
Because Titian did not complete the painting prior to his death, it was finished by Palma il Giovane, another Renaissance artist who was not a pupil of Titian’s but had access to the master’s studio toward the end of Titian’s life. An inscription on the painting confirms Palma’s contributions, as do technical analysis of the painting, according to Wivel, that confirm that certain passages were done by a different hand than Titian’s.
Among the passages in the painting believed to be finished by Palma are the angel flying about Christ, though Wivel said it is likely that Titian had left some sort of sketch of the angel. And there has been some speculation that Palma added the ex-voto painting of Titian and his son.