Michelangelo: Doni Tondo.
Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo is one of the greatest masterpieces of the High Renaissance. It is his only surviving panel painting and now hangs in the Uffizi in its original frame. Most scholars date it somewhere between the completion of the David in 1504 and Michelangelo’s departure from Florence to Rome in 1506. Like many of the masterpieces of this era, it has elicited many different interpretations. At first glance, it appears to be simply a traditional rendering of the Holy Family but, on closer inspection, it raises a number of questions.
In the foreground Mary, Joseph, and the Infant Jesus are situated in a landscape. But what is going on? Is Mary handing the Child to Joseph, or is Joseph handing the Child to Mary? Why does Mary look as she does with muscular arms shockingly uncovered? What is Joseph doing in the painting? Why, despite tradition, has he been brought so prominently into the center to play an apparently key role? What is the young John the Baptist doing behind a parapet or wall in the midground? Finally, who are the five male nudes in the background, and why are they there?
As far as the first question is concerned, I originally agreed with Giorgio Vasari’s view that Mary “presents” the child to Joseph. In his life of Michelangelo, Vasari wrote:
There came to Angelo Doni, a Florentine citizen and a friend of Michelagnolo, who much delighted to have beautiful things both by ancient and by modern craftsmen, a desire to possess some work by Michelagnolo; wherefore that master began for him a round picture containing a Madonna, who, kneeling on both knees, has an Infant in her arms and presents Him to Joseph, who receives him. Here Michelagnolo expresses in the turn of the head of the Mother of Christ and in the gaze of her eyes, which she keeps fixed on the supreme beauty of her Son, her marvelous contentment and her lovingness in sharing it with that saintly old man, who receives Him with equal affection, tenderness, and reverence, as may be seen very readily in his countenance, without considering it too long.[i]
Modern scholars tend to disagree with Vasari’s opinion. In a 1968 essay Mirella Levi d’ Ancona, because of her belief that Michelangelo was supporting a Dominican view of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, saw the Child raising himself out of his mother’s body as if he was actually being born and sanctifying his mother at the moment of His birth. She wrote,
The Christ child—God incarnated in human form—is issuing from the body of the Virgin to take his human form, and at the same time blesses his mother, to bestow on her a special sanctification.[ii]
On the other hand, in 2003 Timothy Verdon argued that the source of the Doni Tondo could be found in Marsilio Ficino’s Neoplatonic concept of three kinds of love. As a result, Verdon saw that not only was Mary receiving the Child but that the man in the painting was not even St. Joseph.
the old man in the Tondo Doni seems to flout the tradition of a passive Joseph, separate from Mary, for the simple reason that he is not Joseph: he does not represent the surrogate father, but the real one, God, from whom the Son proceeds ab aeterno. Vasari was mistaken when he said that the old man “takes” the baby from Mary; it is rather the baby who emerges from the Father, with his left foot on the Father’s thigh and his little hands in Mary’s hair to maintain his balance. The Baby, with his right foot on Mary’s arm, is about to push himself up and over, in order to descend into the Virgin’s womb.[iii]
I now believe that neither view is correct. Vasari was often mistaken or ill informed but he was a close friend and confidant of Michelangelo. It would be almost the height of temerity to reject his eyewitness description of the central feature in this painting. Nevertheless, it would appear that he did not take more than a glance at the painting. For example, he saw the Madonna kneeling although she is obviously sitting.
It is so easy to overlook or ignore details in a Renaissance masterpiece, but there are significant elements in the Doni Tondo that call for a new interpretation. Rather than handing off the Child to Joseph, I would argue that Mary is actually elevating the body of her Son in the same way that a priest elevates the Host or Body of Christ at the Consecration of every Mass. The keys to this interpretation are the hands of Mary, the posture of Joseph, and the presence of the young Baptist.
The position of Mary’s hands and fingers in the Doni Tondo cannot allow her to either hand the Infant Jesus off to Joseph or take the Child from him. As I pondered the painting, I asked myself where had I seen hands like that before. Eventually, I realized that Mary’s hands and fingers resembled a priest’s at the Consecration. After the Second Vatican Council liturgical norms in the Catholic Church were somewhat relaxed, but I remembered from my childhood that the priest would take the host between the thumb and forefinger of both hands before and during the elevation. Naturally, his other fingers would then close or cup, in the shape of Mary’s, as he raised the host. Since the priest’s back was to the congregation, he would raise the Host high above his head, and look at it intently in the same way Mary does in the Doni Tondo.
In the art of the Renaissance it was common to equate the infant Jesus with the Eucharistic host. He could by lying on his mother’s lap, or on the ground surrounded by various worshippers. The Portinari Altarpiece is one of the best examples of the latter. The infant Jesus lies on the ground surrounded by worshippers including angels wearing the vestments of altar servers. But in Franciscan theology even when Mary was holding her infant Son on her lap, she was the ara coeli, the altar on which the Eucharist rested.
In 1974 Leo Steinberg published a brief essay on the Doni Tondo in Vogue magazine. Steinberg’s reputation was so great that practically every commentator on the Doni Tondo refers to the Vogue essay. In that essay Steinberg saw deliberate ambiguity in Michelangelo’s famous painting that makes it very difficult to determine who is handing the Child to whom. He found four levels of meaning including a Eucharistic one that is usually overlooked. Here is his ending.
Christian tradition made the Virgin’s identity interchangeable with Ecclesia; and it made Joseph the typus apostolorum, protector and spouse of the Church, “guardian of the living bread for himself and the whole world” (St. Bernard). And as the maternal function of the Church culminates in the Mass, which engenders the sacramental body of Christ, so in the tondo, the unprecedented pitch of the Child above the Madonna prefigures the Elevation of the Host, of the Corpus Verum, the Eucharist—literally, a “Thanksgiving.”[iv]
Steinberg did note the “furled fingers” of Mary but only concluded that since no woman would ever receive a child in that way, “she must have just let it go.” So, the raising of the Child only “prefigures the Elevation of the Host….”
The garments of Mary also indicate a priestly role. Michelangelo depicted her in her traditional red dress with her blue cloak or mantle draped over her knees. But there is a green cloth wrapped around her on which a book rests. Perhaps it is a Missal. Green is still the color of the priest’s vestments on most of the Sundays of the Church year.
In her comparison of the Doni Tondo with Leonardo’s equally famous Madonna and Child with St. Anne, the late Rona Goffen did not go so far as to see Mary elevating her Son as a Eucharistic host but did see that Michelangelo had given her a priestly role. Goffen argued that Michelangelo deliberately used the bare muscular arms of Mary to masculinize her and give her a worshipful rather than a motherly presence in this painting.
In the Doni Tondo, she is more worshipful than motherly. Mary’s motherhood is secondary to her role as the priest who offers the Eucharistic Christ, her humanity is subsumed in her symbolic identity as the altar and tomb from which he emerges, her maternal affection is subjugated to her veneration of the Child.[v]
Goffen, whose main point was to show how Michelangelo distanced himself from Leonardo’s feminine Madonna, did not go further and claimed only that the subject of the painting was a “Holy Family”. In Renaissance Rivals she focused on Mary and did not discuss St. Joseph, John the Baptist, or the nudes in the background.
The concept of St. Joseph as protector and spouse of the Church is sufficient to explain his prominent position in the Eucharistic celebration. The man in Michelangelo’s tondo bears all the characteristics of St. Joseph as he was portrayed during the early decades of the sixteenth century. Joseph was increasingly depicted as a virile man quite capable of protecting his family especially on the flight into Egypt. One just has to look at Raphael’s Sposalizio in the Brera. In addition, the purple and gold coloring of his garments identifies Joseph as from the royal line of King David.
Even more than these characteristics, the posture of Joseph confirms his identification. He is behind Mary and the Body of Christ. At the consecration of the Mass the sacrifice was offered to the Father above at the heavenly altar. Also, we see that Joseph is not standing since he does not tower over the sitting Madonna. Is he squatting awkwardly? Is he sitting on a hidden stool? We can only see his right leg but it is bent at the knee. It would appear that Joseph is kneeling or genuflecting as all worshippers do as the priest elevates the Body of Christ. At the same time his left hand is placed firmly on the Infant’s chest. Is he actually receiving Communion or just indicating the central role of the Church in the acceptance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?
Behind St. Joseph there is a kind of parapet or structure that resembles an altar rail. It separates the figures in the foreground from those in the mid-ground and background. The young John the Baptist stands by the rail. What is he doing there?
In the Doni Tondo Michelangelo placed the Holy Family outside in a landscape. He used the setting of one of the most popular legendary subjects of the day, the encounter of the Holy Family with the infant John the Baptist on the return from the sojourn in Egypt. Obviously, the infant John the Baptist had also been saved from the murderous designs of King Herod. While the Holy Family had fled to the safety of Egypt, popular legends recounted the escape of the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth by taking refuge in a desert cave or grotto.
Scripture does not record how long the Holy Family remained in Egypt but the legends claimed that when they finally did return to Judea, they encountered the young John the Baptist in the desert. The significance of the meeting was not lost on theologians, ordinary folk, and the artists who found a ready market for paintings of the meeting of the two infants.
The meeting in the desert was regarded as a precursor of the meeting at the Jordan some thirty years later that marked the beginning of the public life of Jesus. At the Baptism of Jesus, John had proclaimed, “behold the lamb of God”, a prophecy of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross that was reenacted at every Mass. When artists portrayed the two infants meeting and sometimes embracing in the desert, they were depicting the acceptance by Jesus of his sacrificial mission. Sometimes the scene included an actual lamb, or even a lamb in the place of the Baptist.
Leonardo’s so-called Madonna of the Rocks is a good example of the encounter with the young John the Baptist. Leonardo placed the meeting in the cave or grotto in which the Baptist and his mother took refuge. The version now in London even depicts the Baptist showing the little cross to the infant Jesus. Leonardo’s equally famous depiction of Mary, her mother Anne, and the two young boys is also a version of the encounter in the desert.
Jesus claimed that John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the Hebrew prophets. Accordingly, the young Baptist leans on the parapet that separates the Old Covenant from the New and gazes at the Christ Child being raised up by his Mother.
It has been argued that the presence of the young Baptist in the painting indicates a baptismal motif that helps to explain the nude figures in the background. In recent years the five nude young men have received as much, if not more, attention than the Holy Family in the foreground. There would appear to be no agreement as to who they are or what they represent. Among other things, they have been variously interpreted as angels without wings, sinners, penitents awaiting Baptism, figures from pagan antiquity, figures from the Old Testament, or even souls in Limbo.
In a paper, entitled “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo: Holy Family and Family Myth,” Andree Hayum concentrated on the scene in the background. [vi] She noted the many different interpretations offered for the five nude men, but found the source in the Old Testament account of the drunkenness of Noah. She saw a connection between the young men and Michelangelo’s famous depiction of the Noah story on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.
But if one thinks of them as a constellation of three, the figures they recall are Michelangelo’s sons of Noah in the Sistine fresco of Noah’s Drunkenness. The most notable feature of Michelangelo’s sons of Noah is their nudity.[vii]
In her interpretation the three men on the viewer’s right would be Noah’s sons Ham, Seth, and Japheth before the incident of their father’s humiliating drunkenness. After drinking of the fruit of the vine, the naked Noah had fallen into a stupor in his tent. Ham looked upon his father’s nakedness but the other two averted their faces and covered him. When Noah awoke and realized what had happened, he cursed Ham. Hayum argued that the two innocent or sinless sons are therefore depicted after the episode on the viewer’s left.
There is a connection between the young John the Baptist in the midground of the Doni Tondo and the story of Noah. In the First Letter of St. Peter the saving of Noah and his family are seen as prefiguring Baptism. Just as the waters of the Flood wiped away sin, so too do the waters of Baptism. There can be no doubt of the prominence of the Noah story during Michelangelo’s time. Savonarola, his favorite preacher, had given perhaps his most famous series of sermons on Noah and the Flood just before the French invasion of Italy in 1494. A couple of years after the completion of the Doni Tondo Michelangelo featured the Noah story on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.
However, I have some questions about Hayum’s hypothesis. In the first place, where is Noah in the Doni Tondo? For Hayum this question was not a problem because she saw Noah in the figure of St. Joseph.
As in the sacrifice of Noah, the Holy Family alludes to Noah and his sibylline daughter-in-law. They have come to rest holding up the future male child. Like the ritual of sacrifice, the thanksgiving and the gift are one, and a sense of celebration prevails.[viii]
Noah’s daughter-in-law was reputed to be a sibyl and given the sibyls in the Sistine chapel; it was easy for Hayum and others to recognize a sibyl in Mary’s posture. Nevertheless, I believe it would be impossible to find another reference to Joseph as Noah. If anything, Noah is a type of Christ, not of St. Joseph. Noah’s salvation of mankind from destruction at the time of the Flood prefigured the salvation effected by Christ on the Cross.
My second question relates to the postures of the nude figures in the Doni Tondo. Rather than participating in the scene of their father’s drunkenness, they lounge about like modern Italian men on a street corner ogling passing young women. A similar posture can be seen in an earlier devotional tondo by Luca Signorelli that is usually called the Medici Madonna. Hayum and others have seen a connection between the five nudes in Michelangelo’s tondo and the four practically nude young men in Signorelli’s painting.
In the foreground of Signorelli’s painting the Madonna sits on the ground while her son appears to be taking his first step. St. Joseph and John the Baptist are absent but a bust of the Baptist as a man appears in the fictive frame above the tondo with a banner reading “Ecce Agnius Dei”. However, the four young men in Signorelli’s tondo also appear to be idlers. It is hard to see how they could be the sons of Noah either before or after the incident of his drunkenness.
I would like to suggest that the nudes in both paintings are related to the story of Noah but that they are not his sons. In the Book of Genesis there is a brief reference to giants upon the earth. Here is an English translation of the Vulgate Latin.
Now giants (gigantes) were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. [Genesis 6:4]
The Golden Legend embellished the biblical account of the time of Noah.
This time men began to multiply upon the earth, and the children of God, that is to say of Seth, as religious, saw the daughters of men, that is to say of Cain, and were overcome by concupiscence and took them to their wives. This time was so much sin on earth in the sin of lechery, which was misused against nature, wherefore God was displeased…
A fuller account can be found in the apocryphal legends of the Jews.
Unlike Istehar, the pious maiden, Naamah, the lovely sister of Tubal-cain, led the angels astray with her beauty, and from her union with Shamdon sprang the devil Asmodeus. She was as shameless as all the other descendants of Cain, and as prone to bestial indulgences. Cainite women and Cainite men alike were in the habit of walking abroad naked, and they gave themselves up to every conceivable manner of lewd practices. Of such were the women whose beauty and sensual charms tempted the angels from the path of virtue. The angels, on the other hand, no sooner had they rebelled against God and descended to earth than they lost their transcendental qualities, and were invested with sublunary bodies, so that a union with the daughters of men became possible. The offspring of these alliances between the angels and the Cainite women were the giants, known for their strength and their sinfulness…[ix]
The legends of the Jews ascribed a number of names to these giants but one was Nephilim, “because bringing the world to its fall, they themselves fell.” The modern Jerusalem bible does use the word Nephilim instead of giants to describe these troublemakers whose sins were so great that it took a flood to wipe them out. In addition to walking about naked, the Nephilim were noted for their arrogance and wantonness.
They knew neither toil nor care, and as a consequence of their extraordinary prosperity they grew insolent. In their arrogance they rose up against God…. It was their care-free life that gave them space and leisure for their infamies.[x]
The description of the Nephilim in the Jewish legends fits the depiction of the nude young men in the background of both Signorelli’s Medici Madonna and Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo. The painter of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel certainly had knowledge of the Book of Genesis. Scholars have demonstrated that he could have read the text in Italian because of the publication of the vernacular Malerbi bible in 1490. He obviously used the Malerbi woodcuts in his work in the Sistine chapel.
Could he have been familiar with the folklore and legends of the Jews? Michelangelo grew up in a Florence that was a center of Hebraic studies. He trained at the Medici court where Pico della Mirandola was known for his knowledge of the Hebrew lore and traditions that were all lumped together under the heading of Cabala. Most of Savonarola’s sermons were based on the books of the Old Testament. Also, Sante Pagnini, who succeeded Savonarola as Prior of San Marco, was a Dominican specialist in Hebrew language and grammar. He spent practically his entire life translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin.
Finally, another source for the Nephilim was readily available in a book published only a decade before Michelangelo painted the Doni Tondo. David Whitford’s 2009 study, The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era, included a chapter devoted to the Giants or Nephilim. In particular, he discussed the Commentaria of Annius of Viterbo, a Dominican friar, whose book containing alleged writings and fragments of pre-Christian Greek and Latin authors appeared in 1498. Contemporary humanists suspected that the Commentaria and its author were frauds. Annius claimed linguistic knowledge that he did not possess, and even planned a fake archaeological discovery. Nevertheless, the book became very popular and was reprinted in 1515 with only minor corrections.
Here is Whitford’s account of Annius on Noah and the Nephilim.
Book One begins by stating that before the “famous catastrophe of the waters, by which the entire world perished, many ages passed.” In these ages, giants ruled the world from their great city, Enos. The giants were corrupt and prone to tyranny, lechery, and debauchery. They devoted themselves to sexual immorality such that, “they had intercourse with their mothers, their daughters, their sisters, with other men and with wild beasts.” They also despised religion and the gods. Despite warnings and prophecies that the world would be destroyed because of this wickedness, the giants continued their impiety. Only one giant, who was more “reverential to the gods and wiser than the rest,” paid any attention to the prophecies; because of this he survived. His name was Noa “and he had three sons, Samus, Japetus, and Chem.” Noa (or Noah) survived because he could read the stars and foresaw the deluge to come. Thus, beginning 78 years before the Flood, he built an ark. When the floods came, the whole human race was drowned, except for Noa and his family. From this family sprang all the peoples of the earth.[xi]
Despite the spurious nature of the Commentaria, it would appear that the story of the Nephilim was in the air even before its publication in 1498, and that the Commentaria of Annius only added to its popularity.
Scholars have often seen a resemblance between the nudes in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, and those in Luca Signorelli’s Medici Madonna, painted around 1490. In both paintings the postures of the young men resemble lazy idlers up to no good. Moreover, in the Signorelli painting the four scantily clad young men seem quite oversized as they tower over the horse that seems to occupy the same plane.
Why would Michelangelo place the proud giants or Nephilim in the Doni Tondo? I can only offer the following suggestion. The painting is a devotional image. The Madonna elevates her infant Son in the way a priest elevates the Host at Mass. John the Baptist looks at the Host and utters the words of the Agnus Dei: “Behold the Lamb of God….” But the full version of the ancient prayer is “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”
The Nephilim represent the sins of the world. In both Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo and Signorelli’s Medici Madonna the Madonna and Child have turned their backs on the nudes in the background. Mary, Joseph, and John the Baptist gaze at the elevated Savior who takes away the sins of the world in the same way as ordinary participants in the Mass would gaze at the elevated Eucharistic host.
At the height of the Renaissance, patrons, theologians, and artists were bringing devotion to the Eucharist to a new level. The great church at Orvieto was built in the late fifteenth century in response to a Eucharistic miracle. Shortly after the completion of the Doni Tondo, Raphael’s School of Athens would feature philosophers of antiquity progressing toward the Eucharistic host in the so-called Disputa on the opposite wall of the Stanza della Signatura.
Of all the painters of the Renaissance Michelangelo was perhaps the most religious. We know that he admired the reformer Savonarola, and read his works throughout his life. The Doni Tondo was painted less than a decade after the death of the Dominican friar in 1498. Michelangelo admitted that in his Pieta he depicted the Madonna holding her deceased Son on her lap as a young woman in order to make a theological point. He did the same thing in the Doni Tondo when he portrayed an active, almost virile Madonna acting as a priest in offering her Son in expiation for the sins the World. ###
Dr. Francis P. DeStefano
[i] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston du C. De Vere, with an introduction and notes by David Ekserdjian, Everyman’s Library, 1996, v. II, p. 656.
[ii] Mirella Levi D’Ancona: The Doni Madonna by Michelangelo: An Iconographic Study. Reprinted in Michelangelo, Selected Scholarship in English, edited with Introduction by William E. Wallace, New York and London, 1995, V. 1.Life and Early Works, p. 404. This paper originally appeared in the Art Bulletin in 1968.
[iii] Timothy Verdon, Mary in Florentine Art, Firenze, 2003, pp. 97-98.
[iv] Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo,” Vogue, December, 1974, pp. 138-
[v] Rona Goffen, Renaissance Rivals, Yale, 2002, p. 166.
[vi] Andree Hayum, Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo: Holy Family and Family Myth. Reprinted in Michelangelo, Selected Scholarship in English, edited with Introduction by William E. Wallace, New York and London, 1995, V. 1.Life and Early Works, p. 421.
[vii] Hayum, op. cit. p. 424.
[viii] Hayum, op. cit., p. 427.
.[xi] David Whitford, The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era, Ashgate, 2009, p. 50-51