Titian’s Christ Flagellated (c.1560)

Some of Titian's early portraits have his initials inscribed on the stone parapet below the sitter: T V. for Tiziano Vecellio. In the example at left the initials are widely spaced on either side of the unknown man's extravagant blue sleeve as if to say, "whoever this man is, he represents me, Titian."

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Portrait of an Unknown Man or The Man with the Blue Sleeve (c.1510) Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London

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In a female portrait from the same period his initials appear again, enlarged in the inset at left.1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, La Schiavona or Portrait of a Lady (c. 1510-12) Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London

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That brings us to a painting not thought to be by Titian's hand but clearly from his studio. It depicts Christ after his flaying and hangs in the Galleria Borghese, Rome. The reproduction at left is not particularly clear but regular users of this site standing in the front of the actual picture would quickly recognize that Titian has depicted himself as Christ. How would they know it so quickly?

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Captions for image(s) above:

Studio of Titian, Christ Flagellated (c.1550) Oil on canvas. Galleria Borghese, Rome

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The bloody scars across the left-hand side of Christ's chest, the brightest part of the composition, spell TV for Tiziano Vecelio. It is one of the largest signatures in art. Almost all great masters of the High Renaissance, following the mystical tradition of the Regular Church, depicted themselves as Christ.2 Their message like that taught by Jesus in parables is that every part of Nature has within it a divine essence and that Man by purifying and perfecting his soul can become Christ-like. It was widely preached in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that if you followed Jesus' life-story as an example for your own life, you too could become Christ-like.3 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Diagram of Christ Flagellated indicating Titian's initials on Christ's chest.

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Dürer's 1500 Self-portrait is the best-known example by another master. However, even though Panofsky argued in 1943 that Dürer had painted himself as Christ - even altering his features to look more Christ-like - other scholars deny it out of caution. They fear it would have been blasphemous.4 If only they knew how important the Inner Tradition has been for artists, they would make more sense of their paintings. The truth is that within Christianity, that path  - the imitation of Christ - is the only one leading to Wisdom, Heaven and God.

Captions for image(s) above:

Dürer, Self-portrait (1500) Oil on panel. Alte Pinakotek, Munich

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Notes:

1. In portraits by other Venetian artists of the period, including one by Giorgione, the initials VV are sometimes engraved on the stone parapet. In one case the sitter is said to be Gabriele Vendramin thus leading experts to think that they stand for Vendramin Venetus or, in English, Vendramin from Venice. Occasionally there is just one V. There is no consensus on the meaning of VV  or V alone though all agree that in works by Titain TV stands for "Tiziano Vecellio". See Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, Vol. 2: The Portraits (London: Phaidon), p. 11 and n.56, p. 11

2. Examples by Titian, Cranach, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and others can be found under the theme Artist as Christ; more will be published soon. Separately, there were two churches in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, not one. The Regular Church comprised and catered to those in monasteries, nunneries and other cloistered establishments; the much larger Secular Church was responsible for lay people, the general population.

3. Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ and other books of private devotion which were enormously popular in the Late Middle Ages and described how the reader of either sex could become Christ or Christ-like. Originally Christ was a title, not a name.

4.  Panofsky's only reservation - wrong, in my opinion -  was that Dürer was painting himself as what he would like to become, the state he aspired to, rather than the state he was. Instead Dürer and other masters of the period seem to believe that in conceiving the artwork, the artist's mind becomes like God's creating the world. In other words, at the moment of creation, the artist's mind is God's. That then is what we are looking at: the moment of creation in the artist's mind. For a discussion of how art scholars have tried to deny the painting's Christomorphic dimensions, see Joseph Leo Keorner, The Moment of Self-portraiture in German Renaissance Art (University of Chicago Press) 1993, pp. 71-9

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 12 Feb 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.