BELLINI, Gentile
(b. ca. 1429, Venezia, d. 1507, Venezia)

Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo

Tempera on canvas, 323 x 430 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

The Confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in Venice called upon the most respected Venetian painters of the period, including Pietro Perugino, Vittore Carpaccio, Gentile Bellini, Giovanni Mansueti, Lazzaro Bastiani and Benedetto Diana to paint nine canvases for the Great Hall of their headquarters showing the Miracles of the Holy Cross, the story of the miracles performed by the fragment of wood from the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. This fragment had been donated to the brotherhood in 1369 by Philip de Mezières, Chancellor of the Kingdom of Cyprus and Jerusalem, and had soon become an object of great veneration and the symbol of the Scuola, one of the most important and wealthy Venetian confraternities.

The canvas painted by Perugino has been lost, but the eight surviving paintings executed between 1496 and 1501, contain depictions of some of the most famous parts of Venice. Since the imposing series of pictures (known as 'teleri') are all in the Accademia now it is easy to compare them: we notice immediately the basic difference between the archaic choice of images, sometimes portrayed purely as a sort of inventory, offered by the older artists and the new, lively depictions of the city painted by Carpaccio.

Gentile Bellini painted three of the teleri, the second being the Miracle of the Cross recovered from the canal of S. Lorenzo. According to legend the miraculous event took place between 1370 and 1382 during the annual procession when the relic of the Holy Cross was carried from the Scuola to the church of San Lorenzo. When the procession was crossing the bridge in front of the church of S. Lorenzo the relic was pushed into the waters of the canal by the crowd. The relic floated, miraculously eluding the grasp of all the faithful who dived into the canal to save it; all except Andrea Vendramin, the Grand Guardian of the Scuola.

The scene is registered with documentary fidelity but is seen as though through a watery light. The same rarified atmosphere overlays both participant in the event and the spectators of the miracle who include real contemporary figures: Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, is the first of the ladies kneeling on the stage on the left, and in the group of gentlemen on the right Gentile included portraits of himself and his brother Giovanni. Incomparable fifteenth century Venice then, with its buildings decorated with highly coloured frescoes and painted plaster work, with its round chimney-pots and equally characteristic jutting grills, provides a colourful and poetically archaic setting for the event. And the many characters who people the picture seem to be participants in a scene of enchantment, inhabiting a magically still atmosphere, figures set in relief against the deep green of the waters of the canal frozen forever in this moment of time.