The Three Philosophers

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The Three Philosophers
Giorgione - Three Philosophers - Google Art Project.jpg
Artist Giorgione
Year c. 1505–1509
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 123 cm × 144 cm (48 in × 57 in)
Location Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Three Philosophers is an oil painting on canvas attributed to the Italian High Renaissance artist Giorgione. It shows three philosophers — one young, one middle-aged, and one old. The work was commissioned by the Venetian noble Taddeo Contarini, a Venetian merchant with an interest for occult and alchemy. The painting was finished by Sebastiano del Piombo.

The Three Philosophers was finished around 1509, one year before the painter died. The picture has been reframed with nearly 1/5 width lost and its compositional balance destroyed.[1] The painting is now displayed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The current name of the work derives from a writing of Marcantonio Michiel, who saw it in a Venetian villa.[2] The three figures portrayed are allegorical: an old bearded man, an Arab, and a sitting young man, enclosed within a natural landscape. In the background is a village with some mountains, the latter marked by a blue area whose meaning is unknown. The young man is observing a cave on the left of the scene, and apparently measuring it with some instruments.


Various interpretations about Giorgione's picture have proposed since the end of the 19th century when scholars and critics rejected on various grounds the earlier view that it is a representation of the three Magi gathered before Jesus' grotto.[3] New hypotheses about the figures, their identities and the symbolism are still currently advanced.

Sheet held by the oldest philosopher

In a note about the picture G. C. Williamsom, early in the 20th century, stated that "It represents Evander and his son Pallas showing to Aeneas the future site of Rome".[4] The possibility that the three men are King Solomon, Hiram I, King of Tyre, and Hiram Abiff has been advanced by Neil K. MacLennan and Ross S. Kilpatrick.[5]

Augusto Gentili proposed that the picture illustrates the waiting for the Antichrist, based on conjunctionist astrology. On the sheet held by the oldest philosopher the word 'eclipsis' and an astronomical diagram can be seen. The great conjunction of 1503 and the eclipse the same year were believed to be signs announcing its coming.[6]

It has been suggested that the figure of the young man can be inscribed neatly in a right-angled triangle for which the Pythagorean theorem applies. Karin Zeleny, relying on a reading of Polydore Vergil[7] has proposed that the philosophers are the teachers of Pythagoras - Pherecydes of Syros and Thales. Thales has been painted as a Jew, while Pherecydes was mistakenly believed to be a Syrian.[8] This interpretation was modified by Frank Keim who claimed that the older philosopher is in fact Aristarchus of Samos[9]

Other scholars have asserted that the figures are typical representations for three stages of humanity (youth, middle and old age), three epochs of European civilization (Antiquity, Middle Age, Renaissance), the three Abrahamic religions or some combination of such general conceptions.[10]


  1. ^ Gombrich E."A note on Giorgione's 'Three Philosophers' " Burlington Magazine, 128 (1986), p. 488 [JSTOR]; A copy by David Teniers the Younger shows rather faithfully the original disposition, see [1]
  2. ^ Marcantonio Michiel , Notizie d’opere di disegno, manuscript, Venice (see Zeleny)
  3. ^ Settis S.,(1990), Giorgione's Tempest: Interpreting the Hidden Subject,University Of Chicago Press
  4. ^ G. C. Williamson, ed.,(1903), The Anonimo. Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy Made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century, (trans. Paolo Mussi), London: George Bell and Sons,p102 [2]
  5. ^ by Neil K. MacLennan and Ross S. Kilpatrick, King Solomon & the Temple Builders: A Biblical Reading of Giorgione`s Painting "The Three Philosophers" Heredom 9(2001)
  6. ^ Gentili A., Giorgione, Giunti Editore (coll. Dossier d'art), 1999, (Googlebooks)
  7. ^ Polydore Vergil, De inventoribus rerum, libri tres, Venetia, 1499
  8. ^ Zeleny K., The Giorgione Code, Kunsthistorisches Museum Papers
  9. ^ Keim F., Die Entdeckung der Jupitermonde 105 Jahre vor Galileo Galilei, 2009, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag.
  10. ^ see Settis S., MacLennan and Kilpatrick, 'op. cit'

External links[edit]

External media
Giorgione 033.jpg
Google Art Project (Audio 5)
Giorgione's Three Philosophers, c. 1506, Smarthistory