Ask Morgana 085: Titian


Tiziano Vecelli, known to anglophones as Titian, was born at an unknown date late in the 15th century, and died in 1576. When he executed the work above he was about 25 years old. It is usually known as Sacred and Profane Love, but in fact if Titian ever gave the painting a title it is lost to us. And if that is anything like the true title, it throws up more questions than answers. For example – and this is the most fundamental one – which of the two figures represents sacred love, and which profane?


The answer, superficially is obvious, isn’t it? The nude figure must represent profane love, and the chastely-dressed figure the sacred. But can we assume that? For a start, the two women are identical, and may well be meant to be one person, at whom the viewer is supposed to look and consider in different ways. Each figure, acknowledging their identical persons, offers a complimentary opposite – seated/perched, clothed/adorned, viewer-facing/companion-facing, white-with-red/red-with-white. The clothed figure’s posture is casual, assured, and she is looking frankly at us. Her dress is worldly, and it is she who is leaning towards the little figure of Cupid. The nude figure is a visitation. By her gaze she is imploring or challenging her companion to consider what she is. In other paintings by Titian, divine love is personified by a naked Venus, as in the Venus of Urbino (bottom picture). Also our sacred nude is holding a censer, an object used in worship, from which a wisp of incense is wafted up towards the sky.

tit4The contrast of white and red clothing is nothing strange in Titian paintings either. I was instantly reminded of the Portrait of a Woman at her Toilet (detail, right), and the way in which the white of her bodice is contrasted by the subtly-lit, red sleeve of her attendant male figure, and also of the standing secondary figure in the Venus of Urbino. Often the symbolism of colour in clothes suggests white for purity, red for carnality, the red of the naked figure’s billowing cape conjuring up thoughts of intimate, inner flesh – and suddenly the idea of who is sacred and who profane is turned on its head! Perhaps this is meant to be. Perhaps what we see is sacred-in-profane and profane-in-sacred.

However, I have been assuming that the subject of the painting is the two women. In fact it can be argued that they are simply elements in a highly symbolical whole. Everything about them offers similarities and contrasts, but what is the significance of the fact that their bench is in fact a sarcophagus – a stone coffin – and that it is brim-full of water? What is the significance of the relief on the front of the sarcophagus? When that question is asked, suddenly no detail of the painting is trivial, everything is symbolical – even the background is busy and full of action – and it goes to make up a symbolic whole. Alternatively, nothing is significant in all the detail… but then why would the painter even bother?

Wait a moment, I have strayed so far off topic! What I am trying to examine in this series of posts is the erotic in art, and today I have spent all my time talking about symbolism. All right then, are Titian’s women sexy? Discuss.



Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ provisions.


I have uploaded a new story, Talking to April about Sex, hence the ‘adult’ tag today, and the tags indexing ‘fiction’ etc. Enjoy.


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