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

Madonna and Child with Two Saints (Sacra Conversazione)

c. 1490
Oil on wood, 58 x 107 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

Bellini's Sacred Conversation the two saints are traditionally identified as Sts Catherine and Magdalene but it is more likely that they are two noble Venetian ladies who commissioned the painting.

The painting is one of the loftiest expression of this frequently painted theme. It shows a magisterial development that has prompted critics to recall the fundamental teaching of Leonardo's "sfumato". The light, in fact, softly progressing over the faces and garments, strikes from the side of the assorted figures of the Virgin and Sts Catherine and Magdalene, silent companions of the former in sacred contemplation. Also in the characteristic symmetrical composition of all Bellini's sacred conversations, the spreading of a crepuscular and intimate light that tinges the figures is a demonstration of how far ahead Bellini was proceeding in these years in developing the concepts of space and colour which had belonged to Antonello da Messina. The indistinct background, completely lacking any kind of connotation, is just "opened" in depth by the two diagonal wings of the saints which close at the sides the perfect pyramid formed by the group of the Madonna and Child. What is suggested is a warm and yet transparent depth in which the figures move without being engulfed.

There is also another, probably autograph version at the Prado in Madrid. The success of paintings like this can be measured by the large quantity of existing variants, mostly the work of the workshop or only partially autograph, and often reproduced in various copies.