Why is fire so prominent in the paintings of Titian? In some instances it is actual fire, as in Christ Crowned with Thorns (Fig. 1), where a crown of flames blazes against the surrounding darkness; in others it is hard to determine whether fire is described or merely its semblance. In a late St Sebastian the saint's flesh, conjured in loose brush-marks against the low horizon of a fiery sky, stirs memories of funeral pyres, martyrs burnt at the stake, the flames their glory.1 Over his long career Titian moved between painting the passion of the saints and the passions of the flesh: in The Rape of Europa, destined for the Catholic emperor, Philip of Spain, he suspended the four elements of air, water, earth and fire in a dynamic state of flux reminiscent of the archetypal dramas of dreams – flying, losing balance and traversing immeasurable...

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