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Text by Deanna MacDonald


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Giorgione: The Three Philosophers 1508–1509

Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Giorgione is famous for his enigmatic pastoral canvases. Though fewer than a dozen extant works can be definitively attributed to his hand, his dreamy melancholic images, like poesia, or painted poems, fascinated his contemporaries and would directly influence Venetian art for a century.

The Three Philosophers is one of these mysterious works. It takes its name from a 1525 description of the painting: ‘Three philosophers in a landscape…with those so marvellously painted rocks’. However, the exact meaning of the picture is unknown. It depicts a grey-bearded man swathed in rich yellow and brown robes and holding a document with what seems to be astronomical symbols. Next to him a younger man in a turban and oriental costume looks lost in thought. A third youthful figure sits with his back to them. He looks intently at some unseen object and holds mathematical instruments in his hands.

Over the centuries numerous theories have been put forward as to any meaning. The young, middle-aged and elderly men could represent the three ages of man. Their exotic costumes have lead to suggestions they are the Three Magi. The most popular theory today is that they represent three philosophical movements or mathematical schools: the old man representing ancient thought, the turbaned man Arabic philosophies and the youth modern science. But, as is the case with most of Giorgione’s images, the conclusive answer is yet to be found.

Also like all of Giorgione’s work, the colour, light and mood are novel, intense and expressive with a suggestion of the unknowable. Giorgione cloaked his expert perspective in sfumato (light and shadow blended for a smoky effect) and subtle contours and colours. One of the first painters to focus on nature, here he places the figures to one side leaving he rest of the canvas to an allegorical landscape. His figures are neither idealised nor recognisable. Though his pictures seem to tell no literal story, through the centuries his art has left a lasting impression on viewers. For instance, though he claimed to hate painting Lord Byron was fascinated by Giorgione and referred the artist and his art in his poetry.

Giorgione (whose name translates roughly as ‘Big George’ or Tall George) is almost as mysterious as his art. He was born in the Veneto and later moved to Venice where he worked with Giovanni Bellini and was a great influence on Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo. His early death is recorded in a 1510 letter to Isabella d’Este, informing her that she could not purchase one of his paintings as he had died of the plague. It was said that Giorgione, reputedly handsome, fond of poetry, music, and beauty in all forms, contracted the plague from his mistress.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Contemporary Works

1508 Albrecht Dürer: Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

c1508 Leonardo da Vinci: The Virgin of the Rocks, London, National Gallery

1509 Gerard David: Virgo inter Virgines, Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts

c1509 Titian: Concert Champêtre, Paris, Musée du Louvre

Further Paintings of Interest

Madonna in the Meadow


The Choice Between Virtue and Vice

Paolo Veronese

Jupiter and Io