(b. ca. 1426, Venezia, d. 1516, Venezia)
Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St John (Pietà)1455
Tempera on wood, 44 x 34 cm
Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
In addition to the "Madonna and Child", another recurring theme in Bellini's work is the "Pietà". This subject too has the Byzantine origin of the imago pietatis iconographical models used in Venetian art. Venice, furthermore, was responsible for the introduction in the West of the so-called "Passion Portraits", whose function was to establish an empathetic dialogue between the dead Christ with the wounds of the martyr and the faithful contemplating Him. The faithful, besides being moved by the sacrifice of Christ, draws consolation for his own pain through the observation of divine suffering. In Bellini's work, for example, the Pietà of the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo and that of the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan are the prototypes of a series of variants showing the body of the dead Christ over the sarcophagus, with his head bowed and his hands positioned as if for burial. This is an iconography that originated in Constantinople, even if in Italy it was thought to derive from a famous miraculous Roman mosaic-icon, the one of Santa Croce in Jerusalem, which according to legend had appeared during Mass to Pope Gregory the Great.
The Bergamo painting is a harsh work, marked by a dramatic force which, in rather uncustomary fashion, the artist renders with the expressionistic masks of suffering of the Madonna and St John. The hands of the mother and son are clasped tightly together in a strong plastic join of Crivellesque inspiration, which in the past led scholars to suppose it was the work of a Ferrarese master. Nor should we underestimate the importance that the particular fascination of the Paduan altar of Donatello still held for Bellini at this time.
The painting is signed at the bottom as "IOHANNES B." The inscription at the top is illegible.