The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
Titian, Giorgione, Tintoretto & Iris Murdoch
The title comes from Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (above left in Rome’s Borghese gallery), a painting which is notoriously ambiguous about which of the clothed or naked women depicts which type of love. In the novel Murdoch also repeatedly unsettles the reader as to whether Harriet and Blaise Gavander’s 19 year marriage, or Blaise’s nine year clandestine affair with Emily, is the sacred relationship. Before the novel opens, their neighbour, crime writer Monty Small, who has colluded with Blaise, has already loved, hated and been widowed by his possibly adulterous actress wife Sophie. Was his love sacred or profane?
Harriet’s relationship with Monty, and her decisions to forgive, and later not forgive, Blaise’s affair and love child, drive the plot.
Early in the novel, dumped in the National Gallery while Blaise visits his mistress, the still unsuspecting Harriet looks at “Giorgione’s picture of Saint Anthony and Saint George”. Presumably this is Il Tramonto (The Sunset), which the gallery acquired in 1961 (above middle).
“There was a tree in the middle background which she had never properly attended to before. Of course she had seen it, since she had often looked at the picture, but she had never before felt its significance, though what that significance was she could not say. There it was in the middle of clarity, in the middle of bright darkness, in the middle of limpid sultry yellow air, in the middle of nowhere at all with distant clouds creeping by behind it, linking the two saints yet also separating them and also being itself and nothing to do with them at all, a ridiculously frail poetical vibrating motionless tree which was also a special particular tree on a special particular evening when the two saints happened (how odd) to be doing their respective things (ignoring each other) in a sort of murky yet brilliant glade (what on earth however was going on in the foreground?) beside a luscious glinting pool out of which two small and somehow domesticated demons were cautiously emerging for the benefit of Saint Anthony, while behind them Saint George, with a helmet like a pearl, was bullying an equally domesticated and inoffensive little dragon.”
A lovely, albeit rather inaccurate, description of the painting, but an even better metaphor for her state of innocence before discovering her husband’s ménage.
Later, reading Blaise’s letter confessing all:
“She remembered an Annunciation by Tintoretto in which the Virgin sits in a wrecked skeleton stable into which the Holy Ghost has entered as a tempestuous destructive force. Only Harriet was not glorified by ruin. Her house was destroyed indeed.”
But not at first. Harriet rallies, forgives the lovers and takes charge. But it’s not easy. Emily wants her man. Blaise vacillates. There are children involved. Outsiders interfere. The plot twists and turns, but it turns relentlessly against Harriet. Eventually she and her house are “destroyed indeed”.
Tintoretto’s Annunciation (right above) is in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice.
Iris Murdoch. The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Chatto & Windus. London. 1974