Sacred and Profane Love

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Sacred and Profane Love
Italian: Amor Sacro e Amor Profano
Tiziano - Amor Sacro y Amor Profano (Galería Borghese, Roma, 1514).jpg
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions118 cm × 279 cm (46 in × 110 in)
LocationGalleria Borghese, Rome
The clothed figure
The Cupid and part of the relief

Sacred and Profane Love (Italian: Amor Sacro e Amor Profano) is an oil painting by Titian, probably painted in 1514, early in his career. The painting is presumed to have been commissioned by Niccolò Aurelio, a secretary to the Venetian Council of Ten, whose coat of arms appears on the sarcophagus or fountain, to celebrate his marriage to a young widow, Laura Bagarotto.[1][2] In an early proposed identification by Charles Hope in a paper of 1976, the painting depicted a bride dressed in white, sitting beside Cupid and accompanied by the goddess Venus.[3] Although "much ink has been spilt by art historians attempting to decipher the iconography of the painting". Although some measure of consensus has been achieved, much of the intended meaning of the painting including the identity of the central figures remain in dispute.[4]

The title of the painting is first recorded in 1693, when it was listed in an inventory as Amor Divino e Amor Profano (Divine love and Profane love), and may not represent the original concept at all.[5]


Two women who share a similar physiognomy are seated upon a carved Ancient Roman sarcophagus. This appears to be a fountain modelled along the form of a Roman sarcophagus (the broad ledges here are not found in actual sarcophagi). How the water enters is unclear, though it appears to be an elaborate capped spring through which the steady stream of water escapes through a brass spout sited between the two women. Next to the spigot is a representation of a carved coat~of~arms belonging to Niccolò Aurelio.[6]

Between the two women is a small winged boy, who may be Cupid son and companion of Venus, Mercury (important to any Alchemical reading of the painting) or in other less complex interpretations, perhaps merely a putto. This child looks intently into the water immersing a playful hand in it. The woman on the left is fully and richly dressed; her clothing now usually recognised as those of a bride,[7] though in the past they have been said to be typical of courtesan wear. In her hair she wears myrtle, both a flower sacred to Venus and one worn by brides.[8] In contrast, the woman at the right is nude except for a white cloth over her loins and a large red mantle worn over one shoulder. The nude figure sits comfortably on the ledge of the trough/fountain, with one hand resting on it and the other held high, holding aloft a vessel with a wisp of smoke coming out of it (most likely an olive oil lamp held against the morning light).

The clothed woman leans over a lidded container whose invisible contents have been described in various and imaginative ways despite the fact that it is not possible to see any contents. Another shallow metal bowl a silver [phiale] sits on the ledge nearer the nude figure and on this some have claimed meaning such as declaring the family crest of Aurelio's bride - the Bagarotto coat~of~arms - were faintly visible inside the bowl. However, after the picture was cleaned and on closer scrutiny this would not seem to be the case.

It was generally recognised by the 20th century that somewhat contrary to a natural first impression, if the painting indeed represented figures along the lines of Sacred and Profane Love, the clothed figure was "profane love" and therefore the nude was "sacred love".[9]

The carved scenes on the front face of the trough/sarcophagus does not yet have a generally agreed reading.[10] They were described by Edgar Wind "A man is being scourged, a woman dragged by the hair, and an unbridled horse is led away by the mane", and then interpreted as perhaps images of the taming of the passions.[11] By 1914 they had been claimed to derive from scenes in five different literary works, ancient and modern,[12] reflecting the 19th-century taste for finding literary sources for paintings. They have been connected with the woodcut illustrations to Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (published in Venice in 1499).[13]

The landscape at the left, behind the clothed woman, moves uphill to a what seems to be a walled castle or village dominated by a high defensive tower. There are two rabbits nearby. The landscape behind the nude figure then stretches downhill to include a village dominated by a church tower and steeple on the far side of water. Two men on horses are hunting with a hound, and a hare is chased by the dog; a flock of sheep are tended by a shepherd; and a pair of lovers are in reclined embrace nearby.[14]


Detail of the nude woman

There have been a number of conflicting interpretations of the painting. Their starting point is identify each element the painting. Many interpretations in recent decades see the work as commemorating a marriage and this point cannot be ruled out. Those two female figures who appear physically similar but whose clothing is so different need to be assigned identities, and at this point all agreement ends. As Titian would probably not have devised a complicated allegorical meaning himself; it has been suggested that the Renaissance humanist scholar Cardinal Pietro Bembo, or a similar figure, may have devised the allegorical scheme.[15] A more recent interpretation by Paul Doughton[16] 1997, claims that the work is a geometric, alchemical and astrological allegory which may underscore the reason that the work is so challengingly obscure as alchemical works were outlawed in Venice in 1488. Scholars now remain more ready to consider allegorical alternatives of some complexity,[17].

Many scholars have proposed a variety of identifications for the figures, and the analyses and interpretations largely flow from these. The concept of Geminae Veneres or "Twin Venuses", a dual nature in Venus, was well developed in both classical thought and Renaissance Neoplatonism, with the earthly Aphrodite Pandemos representing carnal love and beauty, and the heavenly Aphrodite Urania representing a higher and more spiritual love. Erwin Panofsky and others found both in the painting[18]. More recently Paul Doughton [19] claims the two women to reference Ceres (nude) and her daughter Proserpina (clothed) and the paintings 'moment' recalls the heuresis [the finding again] of Proserpine by Ceres at the fountain Cyane [the small olive oil lamp held aloft is a Renaissance improvisation of the pine torch used by Ceres to find her daughter by night].

Others see the clothed figure as representing the bride (idealised, and not a portrait, which would have been rather indecorous in Venice), and only the nude figure representing Venus. For Edgar Wind the theme was "an initiation of Beauty [at left] into Love".[20] The art historian Walter Friedländer outlined similarities between the painting and Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and proposed that the two figures represented Polia and Venere, the two female characters in the 1499 romance.


The composition has elements also found in the works of Titian's former master or colleague Giorgione, an immensely influential Venetian painter who died very young in 1510, but the painting is generally agreed to show that Titian's own style had developed into a maturity that allows no confusion with his old rival. While many works of the previous few years have been disputed between the two artists, there is no question of that here. Titian shows "entire clarity and consistency of purpose, and certainty in the selection of artistic means. After a decade of search in multiple and sometimes contradictory directions, Titian has settled for the basic proposition of classical style that had been expounded by Giorgione, but with precise self-knowledge of the differences of personality and vision — and, not least, of hand — with which could interpret it."[21]

A religious painting of the same period, that has many similarities in style is the Noli me tangere, probably also of 1514 (National Gallery), in which Titian uses much the same group of buildings as at the left here, but reversed and without the tower. These develop from the group in the Dresden Venus.[22]

In Titian's Jacopo Pesaro being presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter (probably before 1512, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp) Saint Peter is enthroned above a painting of a classical relief which can be compared to the one here in size, complexity, and its uncertain subject-matter.[23]


The work was bought in 1608 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V and a major collector and patron of art. It is now kept with other works from the Borghese collection in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.

Painting materials[edit]

The painting was analyzed in 2000 by a variant of x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy which made it possible to identify the pigments used by Titian. The analysis identified lead white, azurite, lead-tin yellow, vermilion and yellow ochre.[24]


  1. ^ Robertson G. Renaissance Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, June 1988 , pp. 268-279(12) Honour, Love and Truth, an Alternative Reading of Titian's Sacred and Profane Love. doi:10.1111/1477-4658.00064
  2. ^ Jaffé, 92
  3. ^ See Puttfarken, 146.
  4. ^ Jaffé, 92 quoted; Puttfarken, 147; Brilliant, 75-80
  5. ^ Jaffé, 92; Brilliant, 78; Brown, 239
  6. ^ Jaffé, 92; Brilliant, 75; Brown, 238
  7. ^ Jaffé, 94; Brown, 239-242
  8. ^ Jaffé, 94;Brown,240
  9. ^ Wind, 142-143
  10. ^ Brown, 242-243; Brilliant, 78-79
  11. ^ Wind, 145 (quoted) to 147
  12. ^ Brilliant, 79. In reverse date order of the suggestion: Ovid, Statius, Virgil, Boiardo, Gaius Valerius Flaccus.
  13. ^ Jaffé, 94
  14. ^ Jaffé, 94; Brown, 238, 243; Brilliant, 75-76
  15. ^ Jaffé, 92-94
  16. ^ Doughton
  17. ^ Puttfarken, 147; Brilliant, 79-80
  18. ^ Brown, 239-241
  19. ^ Doughton
  20. ^ Wind, 148
  21. ^ Freedburg, 147-148
  22. ^ Jaffé, 86
  23. ^ Jaffé, 78-79
  24. ^ R. Klockenkamper, A. von Bohlen and L. Moens, Analysis of Pigments and Inks on Oil Paintings and Historical Manuscripts Using Total Reflection X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometry, X-RAY SPECTROMETRY, X-Ray Spectrom. 29, 119–129 (2000); ColourLex Titian, Sacred and Profane Love


  • Brilliant, Richard, My Laocoön: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of Artworks, 2000, University of California Press, ISBN 0520216822, 9780520216822, google books
  • Brown, Beverley Louise, "Picturing the Perfect Marriage: the Equilibrium of Sense and Sensibility in Titian's Sacred and Profane Love", in Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, ed. Andrea Bayer, 2008, Metropolitan Museum of Art, ISBN 1588393003, 9781588393005, google books
  • DeStefano, Francis, Sacred and Profane Love, 2011
  • Doughton, Paul,
  • Doughton, Paul, 2003-11
  • Jaffé, David (ed), Titian, The National Gallery Company/Yale, London 2003, ISBN 1 857099036 (the painting was listed as #10 in this exhibition, but did not in fact appear)
  • Puttfarken, Thomas, Titian & Tragic Painting: Aristotle's Poetics and the Rise of the Modern Artist, 2005, Yale University Press, ISBN 0300110006, 9780300110005, google books
  • Wind, Edgar, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, 1967 edn., Peregrine Books