Sacred and Profane Love

Sacred and Profane Love (Amore Sacro e Amor Profano) is an oil painting by Titian, dated 1514, early in his career.


It is assumed that the painting was commissioned by Niccolò Aurelio, secretary of the Venice Council of Ten, whose coat of arms is depicted on a sarcophagus or fountain, to celebrate his marriage with young widow Laura Bagarotto. In the early proposed identification of Charles Hope in a 1976 article, the painting shows a bride in white clothes, sitting next to Cupid, accompanied by the goddess Venus. However, many stories have been spilled by art historians trying to decipher the iconography of the artwork. Although, in addition, some consensus was reached, much of the intended meaning of the artwork, including the identity of the central figures, remains controversial.

The name of the painting was first recorded in 1693, when it was listed as Amor Divino e Amor Profano (Divine love and Profane love), and may not reflect the original concept at all.


Two women with similar physiognomy are sitting on a carved antique Roman sarcophagus located in the artwork’s center. It looks like a fountain, decorated with bas-reliefs and modeled after the shape of a Roman sarcophagus. It is unclear how the water enters, although it seems to be a complex closed source through which a steady stream of water flows from a copper stream between two women. Near the base is an image of the carved coat of arms of Nicolio Aurelio. 

Between the two women is a little winged boy, who may be Cupid’s son and a companion of Venus. This child stares into the water, putting a playful hand in it. The woman on the left is richly dressed, and her clothes are now commonly recognized as bride clothes, although in the past, they were said to be typical of a courtesan. In her hair, she wears a myrtle, a flower sacred to Venus, and a flower worn by the bride. On the contrary, the woman on the right is naked, except for white cloth on the loins and a sizeable red mantle, which is put on one shoulder. The nude figure sits on the fountain’s ledge, and her hand rests on it. The other holds a vessel in the air from which smoke comes out, most likely a lamp with olive oil contained in the morning light.

The dressed woman leans over a container with a lid, the invisible contents described in various and original ways, although it is impossible to see what is inside. In the 20th century, it was recognized that to some extent, contrary to the first impression, if the artwork represented figures along the line of Sacred and Profane Love, the dressed figure was “profane love,” and therefore, the naked was “sacred love.”

Carved scenes on the front side of the sarcophagus do not yet have a generally accepted perusal. Edgar Wind described them: “A man is being scourged, a woman dragged by the hair, and an unbridled horse is led away by the mane.” The landscape on the left behind the dressed woman moves uphill toward what appears to be a castle or village surrounded by a defensive tower. In addition, there are two rabbits nearby. The landscape behind the nude is then pulled down to turn on the town with the church tower and the spire on the opposite side of the water. Two men on horses hunt with a hound, a hare is chasing a dog, a shepherd feeds a herd of sheep, and a pair of lovers are in a hug.


Scholars have focused their attention on the difference between the two female figures. There is a sculptural precedent for this: Pliny recounts that Praxiteles carved two statues of Venus, one draped, the other nude. Even though they are similar, the two women represent the antithesis between eternal values on the right and the left, temporal ones.

Among the discussions on this topic, one of the hypotheses was that it could represent Polia and Venere, the two female characters in Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an illustrated romance published in 1499. Other versions are a representation of love or an allegory of fecundity.

Also, the occult subject of the artwork may be related to the Platonic philosophy that influenced Renaissance art. Thus, it may allude to the Christian and pagan ideals of beauty or the celestial and terrestrial. Following the Neo-Platonic doctrine, Cupid, mixing the water, a source of life, represents love as the intermediary between heaven and earth (Panofsky, 1939).

The artwork was analyzed in 2000 using a variant of X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, which allowed us to identify the pigments used by Titian. The analysis revealed lead-white, azurite, lead-tin-yellow, bright red and yellow ocher.

Borghese Gallery in Rome,
Book a Visit

Author: Titian


Tiziano Vecelli or Vecellio (1488/90-1576), known in English as Titian, was an Italian painter during the Renaissance, considered an essential member of the 16th-century Venetian school. Titian was one of the most versatile Italian painters who was famous among his contemporaries as "The Sun Amidst Small Stars" (recalling the final favorite line of Dante's Paradiso). They worked on portraits, landscape backgrounds, and mythological and religious subjects. His painting methods, particularly in the application and use of color, influenced other painters of the late Italian Renaissance and future generations of Western art.

style="display: inline;">