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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:19

Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: We're in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna looking at Giorgione's The Three Philosophers. But that title is provisional because we really have no idea what this painting is about. Beth: These figures clearly represent something. They're each so very distinct in their gestures and the way that they look and how they're dressed and what they hold, that there must be a key. But we don't know what it is. Steven: So let's take a look at what Giorgione is offering us and see if we can't figure this out at least a little bit. Their faces are beautifully illuminated by that light just before dusk, when the sun is low in the sky. But the figure seated, the youngest of the three, is wearing this green and brilliant white. He holds in his hand a compass and a right angle. The standing figure next to him, red and blue wearing a turban, seems to be gesturing over to the oldest figure on the extreme right side, who is himself dressed in these rich golds. He holds a compass in his left hand and a drawing in his right. Beth: And that drawing seems to have on it a sun, perhaps a moon, some geometric diagrams so perhaps he is a ancient philosopher or mathematician. Steven: So this is esoteric knowledge. It is knowledge that perhaps has been lost to us. Beth: And he's the oldest of the three figures and he seems to look, if anything, inward. The figure next to him, by contrast, looks down. Steven: That's the standing man in middle age. Beth: And then the youngest figure seems to look up. Steven: But look what he's looking at. Beth: Into the darkness, into this cave form. Steven: He seems to be trying to measure not only the physical world around him, in contrast to the old man on the right who seems to be measuring the cosmos in some way, but he seems to be trying to understand and draw out something factual, something actual, from a space that he can't really see or at least that we can't really see. Beth: It's very complicated and the most recent theory matches what we're describing ourselves as we stand and look at it, which is that the figure on the left represents the era that Giorgione lived in of this new humanist interest in the world around us. That the figure in the center who looks like he's wearing foreign clothing may represent the Islamic world and the way that they preserved ancient Greek and Roman knowledge, and the figure on the far right may represent that philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. Steven: Other competing theories take these figures as the three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Beth: Another theory is that they represent three specific philosophers, we really don't know. We know that Giorgione did work for aristocratic patrons in Venice and they seemed to have preferred a new type of subject and often we really can't determine what those were. They're not the standard Christian subjects. Steven: Well right, they're not enacting a narrative. They're not enacting a biblical story, they're not representations of mythic figures. In a sense they seem to be referencing a set of ideas and that is more elusive and thus it's lost to us. Beth: So even though we can't determine the specific meaning we can still really enjoy the painting. Steven: The composition is so interesting because they are pushed over to the right, they occupy less than half the canvas. But they're perfectly balanced by the darkness, the mass of the cave on the left. Beth: And then between those groups a really beautiful landscape that, to me, looks very Venetian. Steven: Well look at that atmospheric perspective as we move back. The hillside becomes bluer and bluer and then that's played against the golden light of that setting sun. Beth: And that golden light is the environment for all of the figures. That's one of the wonderful things about Giorgione and Venetian painting is that there's a real sense of atmosphere, of time of day, of a soft glowing light that envelops the landscape and that also envelops the figures. Steven: It creates a mood for the entire painting which is soft and contemplative and really does underscore the idea that something profound is taking place. (piano playing)