It is one of his last paintings and although it was largely completed
by Giorgione himself, it is documented that the finishing touches were applied by one of his
contemporaries, Sebastiano del Piombo. Commissioned by Taddeo Contarini, a wealthy venetian
occultist, “The Three Philosophers” has been said to have many layers of meaning from biblical to
esoteric. The original title and subsequent meaning are unknown as the name, The Three
Philosophers was acquired from a 1525 description by venetian art critic, Marcantonio Michiel. The
painting can be found today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Rendered in oils, The Three Philosophers depicts three men; one old, one middle-aged, and the
other quite young. According to their dress, it would seem that the old man is Greek, the middle-
aged man, wearing a turban, is thought to be Arabic, and the young man is apparently of the
renaissance. They are all outside a cave which holds some interest for the young man who is sitting,
gazing into dark space while consulting some tools and instruments.
The other two men appear to
pay no attention to the cave. All three men are surrounded by nature and in the background, there
is a bright town and mountains. Giorgione was a great lover of nature and always found ways to
include landscape in his paintings. In fact, nature almost takes pride of place in “The Three
Philosophers” as all of the men are standing to one side allowing clear view of the surrounding
landscape. Giorgione famously injected great emotion and depth into his work and this is no
exception. His skill in blending colour and shade lends an almost poetic feeling to the whole
composition, the result is etheric and mysterious.
Giorgione's work was always symbolic and layered with meaning and emotion, but none more so
than “The Three Philosophers”. The master’s great gift was to offer the viewer many
interpretations, hence this has been a hugely debated painting for centuries.
Of course, there are obvious meanings to be gleaned; those favoured by traditionalists for example,
who believe that Giorgione is offering us an interpretation of the Magi outside Jesus' shrine.
However, there are many holes in this theory. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the fact that the
three men are clearly from three different countries and times makes it unlikely that they represent
the three kings. Additionally, considering the popular views of the time, the artist’s own humanist
bent and the fact that it was commissioned by a man who was renowned for his mystical beliefs, it is
hard to reconcile religious illustration alone being the meaning Giorgione intended.
Another simplistic interpretation of the painting is that it merely offers us the three ages of
civilisation; ancient Greece, the middle ages and the Renaissance. Alternative religious ideas have
also been offered in that it may symbolise the three Abrahamic religions; Christianity, Judaism and
Islam. However, with a clear understanding of Giorgione’s body of work the meaning surely has to
be more esoteric than this.
The most popular and widely adopted interpretation of “The Three Philosophers” is undoubtable
that these three figures are an allegorical story of the history of understanding and enlightenment.
The oldest man, generally considered to be Greek, represents perhaps Aristotle or Pythagoras, both fathers of modern philosophy and science. The middle-aged man most likely represents Averroès, a
shining light in the Golden Age of Arabic philosophy continuing the quest for knowledge through the
ages. The youngest man of course indicates the age of the Renaissance, the coming into the light of
science and understanding. To expand on this story, it is thought that the town in the background is
indicative of the shining new world coming forth from knowledge and truth. This would seem to be
the most complete and feasible interpretation of the painting. However, what is true and
undisputed, is that like Giorgione’s other works, “The Three Philosophers”, is thought provoking and
Giorgione’s great skill was not only his choice of subject matter and the masterful depiction of
nature, it was his magical use of colour and light. Many of his paintings were believed to have been
created in his studio, so it is even more remarkable that he creates a dream-like quality to both
characters and landscape alike. Giorgione must have been a man of great depth, as one only has to
study his paintings to understand the feelings and emotions he is trying to convey. His easy use of
sfumato, the technique of blending shade and light, to create other-worldly poetry in his work, sets
him apart as a true master.