Italy’s Most Mysterious Paintings: Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love

November 29, 2012

Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love is the gem of Rome’s Borghese gallery… and one of the most famous paintings of Renaissance Italy. It’s so beloved, in fact, that in 1899, the Rothschild family offered to pay the Borghese Gallery 4 million lira for the piece—even though the gallery’s entire collection, and the grounds, were valued at only 3.6 million lira!

Perhaps the painting is so famous simply because of its beauty and because it’s a masterpiece by the Renaissance great Titian.

Or perhaps people have fallen in love with it because of its hidden secrets and symbolism—much of which art historians still don’t completely understand!

There’s a lot of mysterious stuff going on here.

At first glance, the painting might just look like another portrait of two lovely ladies, with a pastoral background behind them.

Look again.

First of all, there are the women themselves. One is clothed, bejeweled, and—seemingly—made up with cosmetics. She’s wearing gloves, and holding a plant of some kind. The other is (almost) stark naked, holding just a torch.

The church and pasture in Sacred and Profane Love

Then look at what they’re sitting on. That’s no carved-marble bench… that’s a sarcophagus. In other words, a coffin, of the type the ancient Romans used.

And it’s a strange sarcophagus, because it appears to be filled with water, which a cherubic baby is swirling.

Look even closer, and you can see a spout in the sarcophagus’ front, which the water is pouring out of and, seemingly, watering a growing plant below.

In the background, meanwhile, you have some other strange things going on: On our left, a horse and rider race up a mountaintop to a looming fortress, while two hares appear to be playing (or chasing each other); on our right, shepherds herd sheep in a pasture in front of a picturesque church, while a dog chases a hare.

Nothing that’s here is here by mistake. So what does it all mean?

We’re not sure. We have to rely on our knowledge of the painting’s symbols and hidden meanings to find out. And that’s because…

We don’t even know the real title of one of the most famous paintings in Europe

Although the piece is called Sacred and Profane Love, that’s not its original name. In fact, we don’t know what its original name was.

Here’s what we do know: Titian painted the piece in 1513-1514, at the age of just 25. And it was commissioned to celebrate the marriage of Niccoló Aurelio, a secretary to the Council of Venice, to Laura Bagarotto. No name is listed in the records for the painting, but in 1693, almost 200 years after it was painted, it showed up in the Borghese Gallery’s inventory under the name Amor Divino e Amor Profano (“divine love and profane love”).

…or what it’s supposed to show.

Sacred—or profane?

For a long time, art historians thought that the painting was supposed to show two different kinds of love: the sacred, and the profane.

It’s definitely safe to say the painting is about love. Symbols of love are scattered throughout, from the roses on the sarcophagus to the myrtle the woman on our left clasps (more on that later!). And, of course, the painting was a marriage gift, which would make this focus highly appropriate.

But does it show sacred and profane love? Well, if so, that might explain the background. The fortress, symbol of war and humanity, could symbolize the profane (or worldly); the church would, obviously, symbolize the sacred.

And it could explain the two women. Perhaps one is meant to be a Venus showing what worldly love looks like; the other, a Venus showing us sacred love.

But the interesting question is:

If this is true, then which of the two women represents sacred love, and which is the profane?

Is nudity actually a sign of the sacred? (Maybe!)

At first glance, you might think the woman on our left represents sacred love. After all, she’s clothed! The other, naked one would, of course, represent worldly, amorous love.

Some aspects of each woman’s costume do back up that theory, because there are so many hidden symbols here! For example, the clothed woman’s belt was generally considered a symbol of marital ties; and the myrtle in her hand symbolized the lasting happiness of marriage. On the other hand, the nude woman’s flame symbolized earthly lust.

But look again, and you see just as much symbolism pointing us in the opposite direction. For one thing, the clothed woman is seated, and therefore below—and closer to the earth than—her nude counterpart. She’s wearing gloves for falconry, or hunting, and holding a case of jewels, both signs of worldly pursuits. And she’s dressed very sumptuously (and not all that modestly!), with rich fabrics and even a touch of cosmetics.

But heavenly beauty doesn’t need any worldly adornment. The nude woman, therefore, might be sacred.

The key could be Cupid, mixing the waters in the sarcophagus…

Water swirls in the sarcophagus… and waters a growing plant?

Of course, that’s no baby between the two depictions of love (in this interpretation, two versions of Venus, goddess of love, herself): It’s Cupid. By mixing the waters in the well/sarcophagus, he might be suggesting that the ideal love is, in fact, a mix of these two kinds.

But this painting might not even be about sacred and profane love.

In the 20th century, art historian Walter Friedländer argued that the painting wasn’t about these two types of love at all. He thought it showed Polia and Venere, two characters in Francesco Colonna’s popular 1499 romance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (don’t worry, there won’t be a test on that name!).

Another interpretation that’s much more simple… and makes a lot of sense? The painting could show the bride, Laura Bagarotto, herself, dressed in virginal white on the left. And the nude woman on the right? She might be Venus, initiating Laura into what love is like—complete with showing her the passion that’s necessary to make a marriage work (the torch).

But no one is sure what this painting really means. There’s a lot going on here, that’s for sure. And it’s kept art historians interested—and arguing!—for centuries.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

And don’t forget that you can learn more about this painting, and about other mysterious stories, symbolism, and art, at the Borghese Gallery with our Borghese museum experience!


by Walks of Italy

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13 responses to “Italy’s Most Mysterious Paintings: Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love”

  1. What great information contained here! Quite a bit of research went into the presentation of the arguments and symbols. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for the fine overview. I believe that my interpretation of the painting as “the Conversion of Mary Magdalen” answers most of the questions you raise. I’ve put my interpretation on my website at

    Hope you enjoy it.


  3. Cynthia says:

    I actually think that because the naked woman is unclothed, she is presented as she is and the clothed woman is hiding herself under clothes. There are also the hares. Hares in ancient world represents promiscuity because of how fast they multiply. The fact that they are alive and well in the clothed woman’s background is suggesting that love is promiscuous. We actually had a class on this and our teacher explained it very well.

  4. Doug IMHOFF says:

    I just found the site and think your work is very good. I have been looking arounat the picture on and off for years as my father once told me a story that our family was once patron of the artist Titian and he placed the family crest in the picture to signify the link. Till now I have not seen anything.
    However now in the enlargement of the casket there is a small raised image with a top half of a lion. This could quite easily be the Sea Lion that has been on the family crest since the 15th century.
    I don’t know if I am just reading too much into it but who knows.

  5. Diane Elmeer says:

    i always thought the two women depicted were the same woman. I also view the painting as one of Titians’ best and am awed that he was just 25 when he painted it. The painting has a calm, still quality to it that suggests the peace arrived within one self when the two kinds of love- sacred and profane – are in balance. Hence the overall composition of the work.

  6. The Meropis Collegium, a society of discovery has solved the mystery behind the painting. Tiziano’s fountain reveals the painting to be none other than Hercules at the Crossroads.

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