The Three Philosophers is a 1509 painting by Italian artist Giorgione, a founder of the Venetian school of Italian Renaissance painting during the late 15th century. This work is located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.
Giorgione mostly completed The Three Philosophers during his last year and with a final contribution by Sebastiano del Piombo, and titled on the basis of a contemporary description by the Venetian nobleman Marcantonio Michiel.
In this essentially rural scene, we observe three men (The Three Philosophers) in the right-hand half of the painting. On the left-hand side, a strange bluff of earth and rock occupies the space, with apparently a grassy surface on the top which falls just outside the frame. In the middle of the scene, beyond a clutch of brown, bare tree trunks and branches, we see a small group of building encompassed by greenery. Hills roll in the distance. The upper-middle part displays a hazy sky.
An opposition between areas in light and areas in darkness has enabled Giorgione to confer a clear impression of depth to the painting. Its key lines come to the fore and help us to envision its structure at once. The upwards-sloping diagonal from the base of the bluff to the young man’s midriff is an instance.
The Three Philosophers in this picture evidently represent the three ages of human life: youth, middle age, and old age. It is also clear that their different postures, attributes, and attires bear a metaphorical meaning. What the three men precisely signify, however, is unknown to this day, though hypotheses have not been wanting.
The young man to the left of the group is sitting on a slab of rock. He is holding a compass pressed onto a drawing board in his hands while he looks out of bounds to the left, either at the cavern we assume to exist or at some vision of the sky.
His elegant flowing garments are white and emerald green. With the central figure dressed in faded blue and red, and the old man to the right wearing brown and yellow, the colors of the men’s clothes appear to symbolize a progression from luminosity to sedateness, and thus from youth to old age.
The astronomical theme set up by the youth continues with the old man, who also bears a compass in his left hand while with his right he extracts from his vest a large sheet covered in astronomical calculations and shows the title “Celus”: Sky.
The central figure, whom we identify as an Oriental on the basis of his skin tone and vestments, is another easy allusion to astronomical knowledge, as the Arabs and the Persians were, in Giorgione’s age, known as the great masters of the sky.
Astronomical treatises, some of Arab/Persian authorship and some derived as translations from the ancient Greeks, were reaching Europe through the Caliphate and sparking a lot of interest among the educated.
As well as showing the life of man in three moments, The Three Philosophers seem to be intended to show him from the three classical perspectives: profile, full-length, and three-quarter profile.
From Marcantonio Michieli, we learn that The Three Philosophers was ordered by Taddeo Contarini, a Venetian nobleman known for his astronomical studies.
The Three Philosophers may therefore seek to deliver to Contarini the astronomical knowledge of the ages, passed down the generations and cultures.
It may even seek to imply that the dedicatee is a possessor of said knowledge. But other interpretations have been seen in these “ages of man” the eras of mankind. The sitting youth would then possibly represent the Renaissance, the age rooted in the knowledge of the past and looking at it with scientific curiosity.
He is in fact sitting on a levigated slab of rock and looking inwards into the cave, which might even allude to Plato’s Cave.
But whether the three men represent particular figures from the past or Giorgione’s age, and who might they represent, is quite mysterious.
Historian Giuseppe Faggin has proposed Copernicus as the youth, al-Battani as the Oriental, and Ptolemy as the old man. All three are, of course, astronomers. Augusto Gentili has instead claimed that the calculations on the old man’s sheet point to the period of 29 February – 1 March 1504, when a lunar eclipse occurred.
They also reportedly refer to the horoscope and its connection to the Abrahamic religions. If Gentili is right in detecting a reference to the then-current debate on whether the Anti-Christ would originate among the Jews or the Christians, then the painting may even contain an opinion on that.
Gentili has proposed that the youth must be an allusion to the Anti-Christ, while the other two men might represent Moses and Mohammed. The strange hypothesis appears to gain something from radiographic analyses of the painting, which uncovered, as the precursor to the figure of the youth, a much more expressive and negatively marked visage.
It should be kept in mind that Giorgione painted pictures like The Three Philosophers without resorting to preparatory drawings. This required him, in case of mistakes or changes of mind, to scrape off the paint.
Historian Salvatore Settis has instead proposed that we read the three figures as those of the Three Wise Men, customarily depicted as being of three different ages.
The narratives of the birth of Jesus have them traveling to a cavern in the mountains to spot the star in the sky that will lead them to the Messiah. The presence of the cavern, of the ivy, and of a wellspring all seem to encourage the Three Wise Men reading with an allusion to the coming Christ.