A sixteenth-century religious landscape depicting the Rest on the Flight into Egypt is the first work by Venetian painter Paris Bordone to enter an Australian public art collection. A painter of exceptional versatility, Bordone is credited with inventing a new genre of painting: the architectural capriccio. It is in his justly celebrated religious landscapes, however, that Bordone (unlike any other painter of his generation) draws together the essential qualities of Titian and Giorgione, the joint parents of the Venetian Renaissance tradition, in a disciplined act of homage which required him to curb his own undoubted flair for innovation.
Bordone entered the studio of Titian around 1516. Once there, he so rapidly assimilated Titian’s manner that the disconcerted master had him expelled, but by this stage Bordone was already turning to the legacy of Giorgione as, in the words of Vasari, ‘that master’s style pleased him exceedingly’.
Bordone’s early oeuvre, of which Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Saint Catherine and angels is a classic example, reveals in varying degrees the dual influence of both mentors. While the drawing and sensual deployment of paint in Bordone’s portrayal of figures and fabric bring to mind Titian, this intrinsic worldliness is offset by pastoral settings evoking the dreamy Arcadia of Giorgione.
Bordone painted a number of versions of Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The size and complexity of the Melbourne version suggests that it was created for a rich private patron or as an altarpiece. The subject, the Holy Family with Saint Catherine, derives from the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, and later found its way into Jacopo da Varagine’s Golden Legend, a compendium of saints’ lives compiled in the thirteenth century. In this miraculous account, the infant Christ reportedly called upon a palm to bend down for Joseph to pluck its fruit, and summoned up spring water from its base. The animal motif in the middle ground recalls Isaiah’s prophecy (11: 6), that when the wolf and lamb lie down together, God’s promise of harmony on earth will be fulfilled.
Because of the fashion in sixteenth-century Venice not to sign paintings, Rest on the Flight into Egypt was long attributed to Giorgione, and it was as a Giorgione that the painting was purchased in 1833 by Lord Northwick of Northwick Park. In 1957 Bernard Berenson reattributed the work to early Bordone. The presence of pentimenti revealed by X-radiograph confirms the early dating of 1524–30 suggested by Berenson and others.
Roger Rearick has identified two preliminary drawings for the ‘Northwick Park’ painting, one of which shows a reversed sketch of the turning seated Virgin. This small, rapidly executed drawing reveals Bordone’s proto-Mannerist sensibility and an awareness of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel sybils; as John Spike has remarked, the ‘Madonna’s complicated pose was the height of modernity’ in Venice in 1530.
Sophie Matthiesson, Curator, International Art, NGV (in 2007)