BELLINI, Giovanni
(b. ca. 1426, Venezia, d. 1516, Venezia)

San Zaccaria Altarpiece

Oil on canvas, transferred from wood, 402 x 273 cm
San Zaccaria, Venice

Bellini's last phase is heralded with the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Peter, Catherine, Lucia and Jerome of the church of San Zaccaria in Venice, dated 1505. According to Ridolfi (1648) the altarpiece, commissioned in memory of Pietro Cappello, was already in its own time "considered one of the most beautiful and refined works of the master". Bellini was now an old man of about seventy-five. Yet his astounding ability to change, arising from a conscious understanding of the evolution of art, does not appear to have dimmed for a moment. Confronted by the first achievements of Giorgione, he assimilated and adapted them to his own artistic expressivity with total coherence. The compositional and architectural structure of the canvas is not fundamentally very different from the San Giobbe Altarpiece: a niche-like apse surrounding the group of the enthroned Madonna and the saints who are positioned at her sides. Here too, from a spatial point of view, the painting becomes a continuation of the altar on which it is placed. But at the same time the landscape appearing from the sides, according to an idea taken from Alvise Vivarini who had experimented it in the Battuti Altarpiece at Belluno (now destroyed), pour forth into the air a light that softens the forms. The tonal colour gains the upper hand, creating a new harmony of broad planes, softened forms, and a warm sense of the air. In his turn Giorgione must have contemplated this elaboration the old Bellini was making of his inventions, and kept it in mind in the frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi of some years later.

When one enters the little church of San Zaccaria in Venice and stands before the picture, immediately notices that his approach to colour was very different. Not that the picture is particularly bright or shining. It is rather the mellowness and richness of the colours that impress one before one even begins to look at what the picture represents. Even the photograph conveys something of the warm and gilded atmosphere which fills the niche in which the Virgin sits enthroned, with the infant Jesus lifting His little hands to bless the worshippers before the altar. An angel at the foot of the altar softly plays the violin, while the saints stand quietly at either side of the throne: St Peter with his key and book, St Catherine with the palm of martyrdom and the broken wheel, St Lucy and St Jerome, the scholar who translated the Bible into Latin, and whom Bellini therefore represented as reading a book.

Many Madonnas with saints have been painted before and after, in Italy and elsewhere, but few were ever conceived with such dignity and repose. In the Byzantine tradition, the picture of the Virgin used to be rigidly flanked by images of the saints, Bellini knew how to bring life into this simple symmetrical arrangement without upsetting its order. He also knew how to turn the traditional figures of the Virgin and saints into real and living beings without divesting them of their holy character and dignity. He did not even sacrifice the variety and individuality of real life - as Perugino had done to some extent. St Catherine with her dreamy smile, and St Jerome, the old scholar engrossed in his book, are real enough in their own ways, although they, too, no less than Perugino's figures, seem to belong to another more serene and beautiful world, a world transfused with that warm and supernatural light that fills the picture.