(b. ca. 1426, Venezia, d. 1516, Venezia)
Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels1480-85
Tempera on poplar panel, 83 x 68 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
This panel was centrally placed in the uppermost register of a polyptych. It shares the new stoicism of the painter's brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna; both artists were inspired by the sculptural force of Donatello, who was long resident in nearby Padua.
Among Bellini's favourite themes, to which he returned again and again, were the representations of the Madonna and the Lamentation in which the figure is shown half-length - a treatment already accorded the subject by Donatello. It provided the artist with the opportunity to combine a careful and subtle study of the nude with an expression of muted pain. Here Bellini succeeded in giving visual expression to new spiritual realms which no one before him had made manifest.
Two angels are supporting the naked body of the crucified Christ, who is sinking back from a sitting position. Each holds the dead man's arm with one hand, while their faces lean gently against his head. Bellini had previously executed two paintings on the same theme; one is now in the Pinacoteca Comunale, Rimini, the other in the National Gallery in London. In the first of these, which is in a landscape format, there are four angels. This rather too fanciful interpretation was abandoned in the London picture, which - making the most of the upright format - shows Christ with only two angels. It was not until he painted the picture now in Berlin that Bellini succeeded in achieving a composition which has the balance in a classical sense, and in which the natural beauty of the human body is completely in harmony with the spiritual content of the subject. At the same time, the graphic structure of the picture with its soft yet vigorous contours loses none of its prominence, and in this the likeness to the art of Mantegna is unmistakable. It is hardly surprising that precisely this style should have deeply impressed Albrecht Dürer, the draughtsman, and that, during his visit to Venice, he wrote of Bellini that he was 'still the best of all painters'.