(b. ca. 1426, Venezia, d. 1516, Venezia)
Polyptych of San Vincenzo Ferreri1464-68
Tempera on panel
Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice
The polyptych of St Vincent Ferrer, executed for the altar dedicated to the saint in the Venetian basilica of St John and St Paul, is Bellini's first public assignment. It comprises nine panels arranged in three parts: above the Pietà with the Virgin and the Angel of the Annunciation at the side; in the centre the titular saint with St Christopher and St Sebastian at the sides; in the predella five miracles of the saint. Formerly the painting was crowned by a lunette which is lost.
Champion of the Dominican Order, ardent and threatening preacher and controversialist, early confessor and later bitter adversary of Benedict XIII, the Spanish saint had been sanctified in 1455 and immediately the Order had committed itself to a vast campaign of propaganda and assertion of the cult.
The looming figures of the central register, furrowed by the lines of their bodies and drapery, are emphasized by a brilliant light shining from below. The measure of their perspective is expressed by one or two basic elements: the arrows of St Sebastian, the stout staff of St Christopher in the foreground. Above, the Christ in Pietà (which, as always, faithfully follows a Byzantine iconographical model) is enclosed between an announcing angel and a Madonna with extremely limpid colours. In the angel, especially, the colours are blended with an almost glassy quality, and their pallid and alabastrine splendour contrasts with the sudden blaze of red curtain behind the Virgin. The space is suggested by small details in an almost unnoticed and yet essential way: the deep dark folds of the curtain, and the sharp cold corner of the marmoreal pillar.