This painting by Titan, which is known as Sacred and Profane Love in English, depicts two female subjects intentionally derived from Botticelli’s two Venuses in The Birth of Venus and La Primavera. The two women respectively represent the sacred and profane aspects of love. Compositional elements within the painting emphasize a strong distinction between the two. One is richly clothed and formally posed, while the other is mostly nude and naturally positioned. If Botticelli’s artistic analogy is followed in this painting, then the nude figure likely symbolizes the heavenly or philosophical Venus; the other, therefore, represents her terrestrial counterpart (Bowman). Titian’s distinction, however, appears more pronounced than Botticelli’s, as the two figures share little in common besides their pale skin, fair hair, and the vibrant red coloring in the sleeve and shoe of Profane Love and the draped fabric cascading down Sacred Love’s side. The disparity between the two Loves is further accentuated by the objects in their right hands. Sacred Love holds aloft a small, nondescript vessel of incense, while Profane Love rests her hand upon an ornate, larger vase of jewels. These articles appeal to conventional symbolism: the jewel case represents transitory happiness on earth, while the incense container embodies both the burning flame of God’s love and a future of eternal happiness in heaven (Galleria Borghese). Even the landscapes behind the two women highlight their differences. The distant castle, rocky terrain, and deep shadows all make Profane Love seem tied to terrestrial life. The pastoral fields, open terrain, and expansive sky surrounding Sacred Love, however, cause her to appear symbolically elevated to heavenly heights.
The title of Titian’s painting is the result of a late 18th-century interpretation, which imposed a moralistic reading of the figures’ symbolic depictions and relationship (Galleria Borghese). Although the precise relationship between the figures is not known, modern critics maintain that Titian did not intend the piece to be an overt condemnation of earthly love, but a visual exaltation of both forms of love as represented by the two female figures. The Neoplatonic philosophy so highly esteemed by Titian and the other artists of the Renaissance held that contemplation of earthly beauty encouraged an awareness of cosmic divine perfection (Galleria Borghese). Ergo, it is unlikely that Titian is outright condemning Profane Love, although he does elevate Sacred Love in the symbolic composition of the piece.
The water in Titan’s painting forms the primary bond between the two figures while also symbolizing the great contrast between them. Contained in a sarcophagus, the water is being stirred by the arm of Cupid, who gazes into the water, seemingly unconcerned with the presence of either woman. Although the two figures both sit upon the edges of the sarcophagus, the distinction between them is highlighted especially by the direction of their gazes in relation to the water between them. While Profane Love levels her gaze at the viewer, Sacred Love looks into the water-filled sarcophagus instead. If in Titian’s piece the two modes of the soul are represented as figures echoing the Neoplatonic concepts of earthly and otherworldly, then a sarcophagus seems an appropriate metaphor of the material world as experienced by the incarnated soul (Bowman). The dark water filling this vessel, then, likely symbolizes the unfathomable beauty of rational existence in its twofold experience of both earthly and unearthly love. Profane Love, currently occupied with aspects of earthly existence, does not gaze into this mystical water. Sacred Love, however, looks earnestly into its dark ripples, seeming to welcome an old friend.
Bowman, David. “Sacred and Profane Love by Titian.” AIWAZ. 2008. Web. 7 Apr 2012. <http://www.aiwaz.net/sacred-and-profane-love-by-titian/a118>.
“Sacred and Profane Love.” Galleria Borghese. Web. 7 Apr 2012.
Sacred and Profane Love. Photograph. Wikipedia. Web. 7 Apr 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_and_Profane_Love>.