On Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece

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During Albrecht Dürer’s second stay in Venice, in 1506, he wrote back to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer in Nüremberg about his experiences in the Serenissima, amongst other things describing the artists at work there. Of the elderly but still very much active Giovanni Bellini, he wrote that he was still “der pest im Gemoll” — ‘the best in painting.’ When Dürer wrote this, Bellini had recently completed his altarpiece for the Church of San Zaccaria (where it remains), dated 1505, a so-called Sacra Conversazione, ie. the Madonna and Child surrounded by select saints, a traditional model in ecclesiastic art dating back centuries. But crucially innovative, hugely influential, and deeply touching.

This was a time when a trio of young, ambitious and singularly gifted artists, Giorgione, Sebastiano Luciani (later anointed ‘del Piombo’) and Titian — the latter two pupils and the former a close associate of Bellini’s — were poised to displace the older master as the central innovator in Venetian painting, and change its course forever. The San Zaccaria altarpiece, however, is evidence that Bellini himself understood what was happening. Far from oblivious to the innovations of Central Italian artists, especially Leonardo’s dissolution of the barrier between individual and world, Bellini was at this point consistently defining his figures in clear, but liquid light, proving that he was, indeed, still pest im Gemoll.

The altarpiece is a votive picture. It is supposed to facilitate our interaction with God. This is its purpose and thus its theme. Bellini goes about creating the best conceivable conditions for the spectator by bridging the iconic constellation of the Sacra Conversazione and our timely world, not only through the by this time well-known strategy of extending the actual architecture of the chapel in which the painting is inserted, but by offering acute appeal to our senses. The timeless quality central to the genre is retained; the figures are still, quiet. The chords struck on the angel’s lira are the internal ones of divine order, not the physical ones of profane harmony. The muted sensuality, however, is ultimately what enables our contemplation.

At the edges, the wall opens to reveal a serene landscape bathed in the morning sun of an early spring day. It is a cool morning – Saint Jerome, on the right, is keeping his ageing hands warm by wearing woollen gloves as the leafs through the Bible, but the bright rays of the sun, entering from left, are warming the chequered tile floor to the bare feet of his companions. The heating air creates a slight atmospheric haze, dissolving the contours of the protagonists ever-so-subtly, while the light plays across them. It echoes beautifully through the deep purple and warm yellow fabrics of St. Peter’s robe, and in the clear water in which Saint Lucia’s orbs float. The crisp rendering of the garments worn by the saints conveys the sense of clean well-being experienced when slipping into fresh clothes. Saint Catherine’s broken wheel rests, in equilibrium, on the floor. Comfortably present, we are opened to contemplation.

The angel invites us to join these people, alone in their contemplation of God but spiritually united. The space between the hand of the Madonna and the raised left foot of the Child holds the electric promise of a tickle. It is almost as if this charge is what makes the Child raise his right hand, blessing each of us, alone — as we all ultimately are — in our act of faith.

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