Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1534-38)
One of the great pleasures of visiting the Accademia Museum in Venice is in the last room where a masterpiece by Titian greets the visitor. The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple is mounted above two doorways where it has hung, mostly unmolested, since shortly after the paint dried. Originally there was only one portal. Then forty years later, Titian now nearing ninety, someone cut another section out of the lower left corner to make room for a second door. What few visitors have ever recognized as they descend the small flight of steps into the room is that they are facing, on the left-hand side where they enter, one of the largest self-portraits Titian ever painted. It is nearly four feet high.
Superficially the canvas depicts the apocryphal story of the Virgin entering the Temple at 3 years old to consecrate her life to God.1 Mary, watched by the crowd, is alone on the steps as though in the middle of a theatrical performance.
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Reinforcing this perception is the vast old woman in the foreground who is out-of-scale (top). Partly hidden behind the back-drop of the stairs, she has the air of a stage-manager or off-stage narrator. Stage-flats, of course, resemble paintings (bottom) and often depict buildings in foreshortened perspective like those in the background. In any event the fusion here of back-stage with on-stage is a common feature of great art (often revealed on EPPH).2 It allegorizes how the outside world is merged in our heads with an inner one. "Titian" (whom the woman represents) is therefore "painting" the scene on a smaller scale than himself. One of her masculine hands has the separated thumb of an artist's palette-hand while cradling what could be an unseen palette. Even the angled fold in the fabric behind suggests it. The other hand rests on her thigh as though ready to "paint".
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This must be why she has Titian's features, a likeness missed until now because while she resembles Titian's Self-portrait (right) she was painted thirty years earlier.3 Titian must have painted this alter ego as he imagined his future appearance. Why? Age conveys wisdom. Nor was he alone in doing this. Leonardo, I believe, aged his features too.4
With Titian's androgynous alter ego "painting" in the foreground, we must assume that he also "paints" himself in the background. And so he is. Billowing clouds, changing shape, often represent the metamorphic imagination of an artist. Those here seem to resemble Titian's own facial features (see diagram below). Click the image to enlarge it and you should see Titian's "eye and pupil" on the left, the tip of his "nose" and nostril, and both "lips" partly open. A blank eye on the right traditionally represents insight. Even if the forms are not Titian's, it must still be the "face" of a God-like creator-artist.5
His veiled "self-portrait" is so similar to other metamorphic self-representations on EPPH, including Michelangelo's portrait of Dante in The Last Judgment, that readers should know what to look for. If not, see the 100+ examples under Veiled Faces. There are thousands of such hidden portraits in galleries everywhere. Look out for them; they will help improve your perception.
More Works by Titian
Get to know what painters and sculptors look like at work - and their various processes - and your brain will penetrate the surface of a painting in no time. A painting like this one...
Original Publication Date on EPPH: 27 Jun 2014. © 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.