Sacred and Profane Love

Sacred and Profane Love

Monday 21 February 2011

The Sacred and the Profane: Finding the way in: Poetic Imagery of Donne and Giorgione.

"The aim of art is to embody the secret essence of things, not to copy their appearance."  

Fig 1. Giorgione. Sleeping Venus. c.1508

As an undergraduate of fine art, the image of the Sacred and Profane Love was presented to me as a masterpiece of the art world, and yet the 'meaning' of this work had eluded any convincing interpretation for almost five hundred years. The painting then presents something of a problem in this post-modern and perhaps more pertinently, post-conceptual environment of contemporary art practice. On exactly what basis should a Renaissance painting be considered a work of art? Does the term art as a descriptive refer to a virtuosic masterpiece; an antique painting; or is it actually 'art' in contemporary terms of conceptual intent? Social inscription is applied to the piece through the process of discussing its history by an institutionalised historiocracy, but it still may not be art, but rather it is simply assumed and agreed to be art. If the work is art it must be, as Oscar said, both "surface and symbol" and that social agreement cannot solely rely on the considerations of age or historical context or those things beyond the intent articulated within and contained by the limits of the picture plane. That craftsmanship or virtuosity must be self evident and readily apparent is clear, but a work must also project its own  intentional, deliberate argument contained by the complexities of visual language. A quick glance at the various interpretations of the Sacred and Profane Love yields little of any significant value, so perhaps it is time to depart from the futile practice of interpreting the interpreters. The language of art is the work itself and when resolved remains a work of the executive ego. This intent cannot be inscribed upon or added to by another beyond the final presentation. An exception to this is that it is sometimes discovered that the artist has employed complex geometric origins as the foundation of the image and so the work may contain a hidden substructure used to decide a departure point (in much the same sense as the skeleton of a creature must describe an approximation of form). When geometric symbolism is utilised as a type of foundation, the geometric & symbolic language forms a structural departure point which may be used to argue the cohesion of an even grander concept. The Sacred and Profane Love incorporates symbolic geometry as a structural foundation in its design, and the inclusion of any such arrangement must be considered an intentional contribution to the whole. Indeed it may be that the geometric scaffold describes the conceptual intention more than the glamour and theatre of the selected figurative imagery. The Sacred and Profane Love employs a self-referencing labyrinthine geometry to elucidate the whole and expose a deeper meaning. An isolated example would be that through sequential geometric affirmations the location of the heptagram (as a thaumaturgic blessing) can be located. It should also come as no surprise to find that a geometric proposition which the painting might dignify should be no less elegant than the painted image that must ultimately articulate that design. This introduction will declare the Sacred and Profane Love a collaboration between a humanist and perhaps as many as three visual artists synthesising and reinterpreting peculiar ontological touchstones of religious and cultural heritage. The painting is designed around a geometric and symbolic programme (invenzione) that had most likely been developed by a humanist, and while the demands of the humanist might institute certain boundaries, the artists capacity to posit seemingly disparate ideas and resolve them as non-textual conceptual schema is in evidence. But to discuss all of this coherently, emotionally charged layers of metaphor and meaning must be carefully analysed to indicate the diaphanous archetype of the feminine in abstraction (and to seek as to why such a complex structure might have been chosen to give form to the archetypal feminine). By clashing Giorgione & Donne (who both through sensory elevation endeavour in the pursuit of the beautiful) is it possible to test a relationship between painting & poetry, and by doing so reveal attitudes of maturity while both strive to give form and character to the idealised feminine

To navigate through the polarities of notions both sacred and profane this essay will select excerpts from the erotic poetry of a married Renaissance Priest (John Donne) and contrast those insights with Giorgione's Sleeping Venus and the Giorgionesque collaboration now known as the Sacred and Profane Love.

 Fig 2. John Donne (1572 -1631) 
Funeral effigy: St Paul's Cathedral, London.

"Wherever I go I find that a poet has been there before me" 

                                                                                                 Sigmund Freud

John Donne (1572-1631), author of Elegy XX: TO HIS MISTRESS GOING TO BED describes the allure of the feminine through an idealised type of nature; a pastoral bounty often associated with the personifications of Venus.

Donne never impolitely reveals his wife's person or personal form beyond the fashion of metaphor so that '...the eyes of busy fools may be stopp'd there' - and only then through the immersion of the personal into a conceptual eroticism:

                                       Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glittering,
                                       But a far fairer world encompassing.
                                       Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear,
                                       That the eyes of busy fools may be stopp'd there.

The girdle of Venus - named cestus or zone - bestowed upon the wearer an irresistibility over men (note the belt worn by the clothed female of the Sacred and Profane Love). Donne's spangled breast-plate refers to the starry sky in its physical, jewelled glory and Venus, the jewel wandering among the stars, is seen as a beautiful remote object long before the influence is understood:

                                       Gems which you women use
                                       Are like Atlanta's ball cast in men's views ;
                                       That, when a fool's eye lighteth on a gem,
                                       His earthly soul might court that, not them.

These themes of Donne's are relevant to the Sacred and Profane Love as in either case it is the idea of an exalted eroticism that becomes the vehicle of transformation. Painting and poem share alchemical parallels in that each employs the 'dross of sex' and then turns it into the 'gold' of the philosophical alchemist; the Profane becomes the Sacred, ie; sanctified.

Armed with the knowledge of the Athanor - the 'Bath of Mary' (Bain Marie) and 'yoni', the psycho-physical transformation occurs within the wedding chamber. Donne alludes to this wedding chamber as the 'hallow'd temple' the site of the 'mystic wedding' - the hieros gamos:
                            Off with your hose and shoes ; then softly tread,
                               In this love's hallow'd temple, this soft bed.
A critical oversight in past interpretations of the Sacred and Profane Love has been the failure to interpret the sarcophagus/fountain as Athanor - the matrix of the philosophical Alchemist.

Fig 3. Knole House, the Venetian Ambassador's Room,
18th century bedroom in Kent, England

According to the writings of the occultist Eliphas Levi the proportions of the Athanor can be described by the pentagram. Some four hundred years after the Sacred and Profane Love was executed, Levi would write:

                                   " By the pentagram also is measured the exact
                                    proportions of the great and  unique Athanor
                                   necessary to the confection of the Philosophical
                                   Stone and the accomplishment of the Great Work."

One of the major keys to unlocking the mystery of the Sacred and Profane Love is the Athanor which is none other than the sarcophagus/fountain whose proportions are measured by the upright pentacle  (blue) and the inverted pentagram (orange).

Fig 4. The pentagram is the symbolic geometric form which underlies the Sacred and Profane Love
 (annotation by the author).

In the image above a circle has been declared which contains a pentagram which thereby forms a pentacle (a pentacle being a five pointed star bound by a circle). At the centre of the pentacles interior an inverted pentagram can be formedCritically, the only two horizontal lines found in the upright pentacle and the inverted pentagram prescribe the upper and lower boundaries of the sarcophagus/fountain. It must be noted that the inverted pentagram invites the 'downward' action and declares the fountain (the fountain Cyane) to be the entrance to the underworld realm of Pluto (actually this earthly realm) and so describes the 'fall'. This descent into matter is mistakenly sexual and is implied and perpetuated (though never truly explained) by the ambiguous metaphors that relate the story of the expulsion from Eden. 

But the matrix of all philosophical alchemy is the Athanor; it is the sanctum sanctorum of the Great Work which at once is also the yoni and which are truly profane and yet also sacred. The gift to Adam from the 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil' is the sign of the pentagram or better, the esoteric and geometric mysteries of the pentagram. Return to Eden and slice Eve's stolen apple through the equator or 'girdle' and note the fruits geometric form at the core - the pentagram - symbol of Venus. It is the vegetative life of the earth which describe that garden which is no less than the entire planet.

Fig 5. Apple sliced across the girdle revealing the five point seed pattern.

The pentagram is sacred to Venus on this basis; at the conclusion of every eight years the planet Venus when aligned with the earth, describes a pentagram in the heavens. No other planet achieves anything remotely similar in riposte to this beautiful accident. She represents water and the vegetative fertility; abundance, pleasure, love, etc,.

An earthly personification of the 'terrestrial Venus' is equitable to the physical, and therefore legitimately sexual in nature, fertile and regenerative - something Giorgione's Sleeping Venus c.1508, achieved around ninety years before Donne's poem had been penned, and for which Giorgione's Venus is arguably most famous. Under Giorgione's hand the boudoir is natures garden and the hallow'd temple is found under natures canopy of clouds.

Fig 6. Giorgione. Sleeping Venus. c.1508
                                    Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
                                    as when from flowery meads th' hill's shadow steals.

Donne and Giorgione - one textually the other pictorially - sensuously compare the feminine (flowery meads) and Her form  to the gentle undulations of the landscape.

In Giorgione's painting a naked sleeping Venus is supported on plush red cushions and reclined upon an generous silvery white fabric in a landscape setting. Donne:

                                               ...cast all, yea, this white linen hence ;
                                                There is no penance due to innocence:

And rightly so. 

Because the two women at the fountain of the Sacred and Profane Love correspond to dual feminine archetypes the identity of the two women are interchangeable with other dual feminine mythologies. For example; Eve and Mary are equitable to the 'terrestrial Venus' and the 'celestial Venus' respectively and/or the profane and the sacred - one the 'fallen' woman, the other the celestial virgin. Growing up in a Roman Catholic household Donne must have been aware of the religious and exclusively Italian lineage of the Great Mother cults of Rome - of Venus as well as Mary. As a former Catholic and later Dean of St. Paul's in London, Donne's early erotic work may have pushed the boundaries of Christian propriety but there is always a sense of the humanist (in a contemporary sense) about Donne - as is also found in the observations of Giorgione.

Fig 7. Woodcut of Satyr & Venus from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.

The woodcut above, taken from the Renaissance novel the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (c.1499), might arguably be the inspiration behind Giorgione's Sleeping Venus. Although Giorgione's Sleeping Venus is well advanced from the rustic vulgarity of the Hypnerotomachia woodcut, in reality Giorgione's Sleeping Venus has not in any way raised Giorgione beyond the level of the satyr (portrayed in erecto facino) and Giorgione projects through the persona of the satyr to vicariously absolve the personal guilt of the male gaze.

The equally invisible patron/viewer (most likely male) will empathise with and as this invisible masculine God. This is what Giorgione (the young man) achieves in the Sleeping Venus; the artist - the initial perpetrator of the gaze is hidden - veiled behind his vision and virtuosity. He has removed the objectified ego (the satyr of the Hypnerotomachia woodcut) and must commit to the gaze in the first person to describe the subtle mask (the satyr) and thereafter this direct experience is passed vicariously to the viewer to indulge his lasciviousness 'scot- free' as it were. In a sense this could be interpreted as a psychological version of Filippo Brunelleschi's (1377-1446) 1425 experiment in geometric perspective. Through th use of the satyr Giorgione has located a 'hole in the Baptistery door' and is inviting the viewer to anonymously participate in this subtle act of voyeurism.

In the Sleeping Venus Giorgione's maturity has not yet arrived and he is paying a libidinous homage with youths eye for the voluptuous and the sensual and the polite - he is the voyeur - and as such suggests an immature solitary stage of psychosexual development. Donne, the refined married man clearly has the advantage, and his phyically intimate experience speaks of the consensual and elevated delights of conjugal bliss. The progression and ultimate fulfilment which Giorgione will later attain is made clear through the conceptual sophistication found in the Sacred and Profane Love. 

[In light of the Sacred and Profane Love's cosmological programme and the central importance of the inverted pentacle, one would be inclined to stress that the Sacred and Profane Love is in fact equally dedicated to Pluto as the Deus absconditas (the hidden God) as much as it is obviously dedicated to the feminine. The name Aidoneos or Aides relates to this God as ‘the invisible’. (Aidoneos = Aides from where the name Haides = Hades originates.) The pervasive invisibility of Pluto is articulated by the hidden geometric presence of the inverted pentagram and here Giorgione is repeats the formula of vicariousness... the viewer of the Sacred and Profane Love actually assumes the guise of Pluto as the Deus absconditas (the hidden God). This also develops the masculine balance between two the women of the Sacred and Profane Love who also in a sense represent the polarities of the feminine.] 

Again, Donne's sensitive erotica does not exploit the person of the wife, as the feminine in his sensual context refers primarily to the Goddess. Similarly, the Sacred and Profane Love invites a critical reading of the apparent luxury of  indulgence where the opulent dress of the 'terrestial Venus' is contrasted by the simplicity of the pure and bare. All works participate in the dichotomy of balance and of challenging the sexual motive as a creative path toward elevation, contemplation, and the development of conceptual mind. 
The feminine effusion - as developed in Donne's poem (Elegy XX) and the Sacred and Profane Love - is portrayed as a fugitive force with dual aspects coursing between the physical and spiritual; from the soberingly erotic to the conceptual dissolution of self and selves; the duality of the profane and the sacred.

When considering Giorgione's painting and Donne's poetry perhaps the concept and term nearest to that abstract feminine as sensual force personified as the Goddess is Shekhinah, which has been described as '...a revelation of the holy in the midst of the profane...'.
How am I blest in thus discovering thee ! 
To enter in these bonds, is to be free

Conceptualising the works of both artists in an imaginary, contemporaneous present Donne is the wordsmith in step with the sensuality of the Giorgione painting, and it is perhaps Donne who scribes the more mature visual poetry of the Sacred and Profane Love. It can be concluded that the Sacred and Profane Love - considered as an extension and progression in the oeuvre of Giorgione - is also dedicated to Venus (or Venuses) in all the forms and computations that could be ascribed to her given the boundaries of context within the intended allegorical narratives of Donne's poetry and Giorgione's paintings.

In art, images of the feminine are so often the attempt to capture an ideal of type most appropriate to describe the voltage of a fugitive force which is ultimately veiled by an equally fleeting glamour. Here, those words attributed to Horace** (65-27 BCE) are most fitting:

'Pulchritudo est aliquid incorporeum...'**

500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art
(video by Philip Scott Johnson)

It is perhaps trivial that the exterior form alone of the Sacred and Profane Love has preserved it through the ages rather than its complexity in totality. Yet to deny apprehension and intuition when facing the unknown would be to deny art - and only art - the lightening flashes of an encompassing comprehension; an experience which belongs to the human condition, and therefore defines and contributes to deeper notions of what it is to be one of us.

* The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil portrayed allegorically in the Bible (Genesis 2: 16-17) relates to the eating of animal life. 'Evil is knowing better but willingly doing worse..' states the psychologist Dr Phillip Zimbardo. The psycho-physical expulsion from the Biblical paradise warns of a form of dissonance on a global scale in regards to human relationships because of the abuse of the other sentient species with whom we share the planet. Eden was never a location on earth but rather, Eden was the Earth prior to the planetary descent into the Kali YugaThe Tree of Life refers to human life. So Eden refers to the loss of the vegetative paradise. 'The only paradise is paradise lost' - Marcel Proust

**This sentence caught my attention over twenty years ago, I believe the attribution to Horace is correct, but the source is lost.

All themes, writings, and opinions are copyright Paul Doughton 1997-2020 and may not be used in any form without written permission of the author.