Titian’s Sacred and profane love is the jewel of Rome’s Borghese Gallery… and one of the most well-known paintings in Renaissance Italy. It is so beloved that the Rothschild family offered 4 million lire to the Borghese Gallery in 1899 for the piece, even though the entire gallery and grounds were only valued at 3.6 million lire.
The beauty of the painting and the fact that it was created by Titian, a Renaissance great, maybe the reason why it is so well-known.
Perhaps people fell in love with it due to its symbolism and hidden secrets, which many art historians still don’t fully understand.
There is a lot going on here.
The painting may look at first glance like another portrait of two beautiful ladies with a pastoral background.
Take a second look.
First, let’s not forget the women. One woman is dressed in a bejeweled and cosmetically stained. She is wearing gloves and holding some type of plant. One is almost completely naked and holds a torch.
Next, take a look at the surface they are sitting on. It’s not a carved-marble bench, it’s a Sarcophagus. Also, it’s a coffin of the same type used by the Romans.
It’s also a bizarre sarcophagus because it seems to be filled with water. A cherubic baby is swirling in it.
If you look closer, you will see a spout at the front of the sarcophagus. This is where the water is flowing out and watering the plant below.
You can see other bizarre things happening in the background. On our left, a horse raced up a mountaintop towards a fortress while two hares were playing (or chasing each other). On our right, sheepherders tend to flock to a field in front of a church while a dog chases one.
There is no mistake in what’s already here. What does this all mean?
We aren’t sure. To find out, we must rely on our knowledge of the symbols and hidden meanings of the painting. This is because…
The real title of one of the most famous paintings of Europe is not known.
The piece is now called Sacred and Profane Love. However, this is not its original name. We don’t even know its original name.
We know that the painting was created by Titian in 1513-1514 when he was just 25 years old. It was created to commemorate the marriage of Niccolo Aurelio, secretary to the Council of Venice to Laura Bagarotto. Although no name is recorded in the records of the painting, in 1693, nearly 200 years after its completion, it appeared in the inventory of the Borghese Gallery under the title Amor Divino e Amor Profano (“divine and profane loves”), although it has not been listed.
…or the thing it’s supposed to show.
Art historians believed that the painting should show two types of love: the sacred and the profane.
The painting is definitely about love. There are many symbols of love scattered throughout the painting, including the roses on a sarcophagus and the myrtle that the woman to our left clasps (more details later). This would be appropriate because the painting was given to the couple as a wedding gift.
It does it display both sacred and profane affection? If so, this might explain the origins of the symbol. The symbol of war and humanity, the fortress, might represent the profane or worldly; the church, however, would symbolize the sacred.
It could also explain why the women are so different. One could be a Venus demonstrating what love is like in the world, while the other Venus could be representing sacred love.
The interesting question is:
If that is true, which one of the two women is sacred and which is profane?
You might initially think that the woman to our left is a symbol of sacred love. She’s dressed! The naked one, on the other hand, would be worldly, amorous.
Because there are so many hidden symbols here, some aspects of each woman’s costume support that theory. The belt worn by a woman was considered to be a sign of marital ties. Her hand holding a myrtle symbolized the long-lasting happiness of marriage. The nude woman’s flame, on the other hand, symbolized earthly lust.
You will see the symbolism that points us in the opposite direction if you look again. One thing is that the woman in clothing is seated and, therefore, lower than her nude counterpart. She is wearing gloves for falconry or hunting and a box of jewels as a sign of her worldly pursuits. She’s also dressed extremely well, and not in a modest way! She’s dressed in rich fabrics and cosmetics.
Heavenly beauty does not require any external adornment. Therefore, the nude woman might be considered sacred.
Cupid could be the key, mixing the waters from the sarcophagus…
There is no baby between these two representations of love (in this case, there are two versions of Venus, the goddess of love herself). It’s Cupid. He might have been suggesting that ideal love is a mixture of both these types by mixing the waters in his well/sarcophagus.
This painting may not be about holy and profane love.
Walter Friedlander, an art historian, argued that the painting was not about these types of love in the 20th century. He believed it depicted Polia and Venere. There are two characters from Francesco Colonna’s 1499 romance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
A simpler interpretation makes more sense and is much easier. It could be Laura Bagarotto (the bride), dressed in virginal white on the left. The nude woman is on the right. Venus might be the one initiating Laura into love–completely by showing her how passion is necessary to make a marriage last (the torch).
However, no one knows what the meaning of this painting is. It has a lot of meaning. It’s what has kept art historians interested for centuries.