(b. 1477, Castelfranco, d. 1510, Venezia)

The Three Philosophers

Oil on canvas, 124 x 145 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Three Philosophers must be a work of the last couple of years of Giorgione's life, since a near-contemporary source says that it was begun by him and finished by Sebastiano del Piombo, a collaboration confirmed by stylistic analysis. The subject matter has long been a source of disagreement. In addition to interpret the painting as three philosophers (or three matematicians) it is also assumed that the painting represents the three Magi, the Holy Family being in the cave at the left.

Whatever the precise theme, one can find three ages of man, three distinct temperaments, and three different nations. There are important pentimenti, more easily accomplished in the oil medium that Giorgione favoured than with tempera. The present picture may have been cut down on all sides, judging from a later copy. If there was an element of collaboration, the invention and the figure types, their poses, and the relation of one to another are Giorgione's. Sebastiano's role must have been limited literally to finishing the work, that is, giving it the final surface and unifying the elements. In the Three Philosophers the figures are rather weightless, silent images, placed somewhat unspecifically in space, haphazardly related, as it were, to the landscape. For example, the youngest figure, seated toward the centre of the composition, is partly blocked out by the oriental with the deep red garment, and his head, in profile, is apparently unrelated to the twin tree trunks behind it. The natural and private world Giorgione has created envelops us with its mystery and poetry, with its antiscientific structure and even its rather unclassical choice of figural types and poses.

The painting belonged to the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels, as shown by the painting of David Teniers (now in the Prado, Madrid). Teniers also painted a strongly modified copy of this painting (now in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin).