Three Ages of Man

Titian (Tiziano Veccellio)

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Feb-06-2001


This painting represents the artist’s conception of the life cycle in allegorical terms. Childhood, manhood synonymous with earthly love, and old age approaching death are drawn realistically as each figure reflects Titian’s attitudes toward each stage of earthly existence. A plump angel floats ethereally over two sleeping babies, protecting them, but also mirroring their purity.

To the left, he paints the joys [and exhaustion] of youth, the firmly muscled, mature male, perhaps spent from a sexual encounter, being tantalized by a pubescent girl dressed in provocative style to further endeavors. She holds two flutes and by chance is urging him on with her piped, "Siren’s song."

In the background, at the end of his days, a bearded old, stooped man gazes at two skulls, either in terror or in wonder. The exquisite detailed scenery reflects nature in her glory and decline--lofty, weightless clouds float through an azure sky. Parched trees in the foreground reflect the arid remnants of summer landscapes, as the skulls reflect those of man.


In life, we are in death, the philosopher tells us. In an age when people died so young, perhaps Titian is reflecting the same attitude by placing all of these figures in the same landscape. Perhaps the angel is not only protecting the infants, but also reminding us that in Titian’s day, children died at a frightening rate, inconceivable in this modern age, and his/her home in heaven is the destination to which they will soon be transported.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, That time of year thou mayest in me behold, Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, and When I have seen by Time's fell hand defac'd; Coulehan’s poem, “Sunsets”; and Roethke’s poem, “The Waking” (all annotated in this database) are equally applicable literary companion pieces. Cole’s paintings Voyage of Life: Childhood/Youth/Manhood/Old Age use similar landscape metaphors and Munch’s The Dance of Life offers a less traditional, more passionate, immediate and autobiographic treatment of this theme (see this database for the Coles and Munch paintings).


Dated 1515. Authorship of this poetical work has been the subject of scholarly debate. The young Titian was influenced by Giorgione's themes and motifs of far-flung elaborate landscapes and nude or draped figures.

Primary Source

Collection of the Earl of Ellesmere. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (on loan).