February launches us into a new artwork of the week theme — “Sacred and Profane Love” — a theme inspired in part by the month’s adoration of a divinity with a quiver, and in part by a painting of the same title. And so, let us begin February in Venice and with a discussion of the painting in question, a work that renders “the double motion of the soul, its simultaneous attraction to the earthly and the heavenly.”
Sacred and Profane Love, 1514
oil on canvas, Museo Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy
A viewer stands before Titian’s 1515 painting Sacred and Profane Love and is instantly placed at the crossroads. On his right stands one woman, a statuesque nude with marble-like skin and tendrils of hair brushing her collar bone. On his left is the nude’s voluminously clothed twin. The nature of the choice before our viewer is clear: on one side stands the chaste, the virtuous; on the other stands the corporal, the profane. But which is which? On closer inspection the surrounding details blurs the line between virtue and vice, and the viewer realizes the choice is more difficult than it initially appeared.
The figure we immediately associate with chastity is the woman on the viewer’s left. With her weighty white dress and gloved hands, and with the glaring white citadel in the deep background, she seems the model of feminine modesty. However, a collection of other elements hint at something else. Her exposed décolletage, the flowers she holds near her hip, and a pair of rabbits (nature’s famous reproducers) behind her help our viewer identify her as a bride. As a woman for whom a pending marriage promises love of a physical nature, she comes to embody the figure of “Profane” Love, for as Ingrid D. Rowland writes in From Heaven to Arcadia, “the bride represents love as it occurs in the life of the real world.” The woman on our viewer’s right must then be the personification of “Sacred” Love. Despite her open nudity, a virginal-white drape across her lap maintains her modesty as does her averted gaze. She holds a lamp, a symbol of charity, high above her billowing scarlet robe. Along with the ominous background, a lakeside village over which the sun has already set, her attributes infuse her presence with a divine power.
Titian aligns the two figures through multiple compositional details. Besides rendering the two women as identical in facial features, he paints them seated on the same surface – a Roman marble sarcophagus converted into a fountain. By placing them on the same pictorial plane, he portrays them as equals. Additionally, Titian conflates traditional attributes of personified Virtue and Vice to blur the distinction between the dual figures. The temptation is to see these women as polar opposites, but what Titian reveals through the painting’s structure and selection of detail is that they are, in fact, interrelated, inseparable, figures – the Sacred and the Profane are in fact “born from the same seed.”