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

Sts Christopher, Jerome and Louis of Toulouse

Oil on panel, 300 x 185 cm
San Giovanni Crisostomo, Venice

In 1513 Bellini signed and dated the altarpiece with Saints Christopher, Jerome and Louis of Toulouse of the church of San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice. (It is usually referred to as the Altarpiece of San Giovanni Crisostomo.)

The painting had been commissioned in 1494 by the merchant Giorgio Diletti, who had left instructions in his will for the construction of an altar and the execution of an altarpiece to go with it representing Saints Jerome, Louis and Crisostomo. The almost twenty years that elapsed between the ordering and execution of the altarpiece, and the partial modification of the identity of the saints requested by Diletti, have raised a number of queries which scholars have only partly resolved. The first uncertainty concerns the bishop saint on the right holding a book bearing the inscription "De civitate Dei", which has led some scholars to identify him with St Augustine. However, the inscription on the book is almost certainly a later addition: its extraneousness is revealed by the fact that it is written on the back of the volume and by the uncertainty of the inscription itself, unimaginable in Bellini who was always highly accurate and extremely precise. Besides, the Anjou lilies on the bishop's cloak confirm that it must be the French noble Louis, who renounced the throne to become a Franciscan. According to a complex iconological interpretation of the altarpiece, St Louis in his lavish bishop's robes represents a pastoral and liturgical significance. In this he provides a contrast with Christopher, an emblem of the active faith and preaching, and both are placed under an arch, a symbolic image of the church, on which the second verse of Psalm 14 is written in Greek: "The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God". The choice of the Greek language is explained, besides the fact that the church of San Giovanni Crisostomo was the centre of the Greco-Venetian community, also by remembering Bellini's contacts with the erudite circle that revolved around Aldo Manuzio. Manuzio, indeed, is credited with an important edition in Greek of the Psalter, which was printed between 1496 and 1498.

Beyond the parapet St Jerome, a hermit and doctor of the Church, represents the highest point of spiritual life, that of mystical exaltation and revealed science. Beside him the fig-tree symbolizes that he has been chosen by the Lord to understand its supreme law.

According to this interpretation we are therefore confronted by a clear, conscious stand-point in the contemporary religious debate that existed in Venice during those years: a position by which action and contemplation are a unitary moment in the ecclesiastical path.

Undoubtedly such a complex and culturally significant proposition must have been established by the client in the first place; nonetheless, Bellini's humanistic and theological lucidity too is certainly confirmed once again.