(b. 1445/46, Venezia, d. 1503/5, Venezia)

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints (Sacra Conversazione)

Tempera on wood, 175 x 196 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

The heavy plasticity of Bartolomeo Vivarini and Andrea da Murano was soon surpassed by the more balanced and harmonious three-dimensional quality of the works of Antonello da Messina. His St Cassiano altarpiece of 1476, fragments of which are now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna was studied and admired by a whole generation of painters. One of the first to be inspired by it was Alvise Vivarini, son of Antonio and follower of his uncle Bartolomeo, who soon went on to become a major exponent of Antonello's theories of crystalline form and colour. His major work coming from the first and much-admired studio of Messina is the Sacra Conversazione dated 1480, originally in the church of San Francesco in Treviso.

The painting is composed with geometrical symmetry: the two groups of saints, Louis of Toulouse, Anthony of Padua and Anne on the left and Joachim, Bernardino and Francesco Gioacchino on the right, face inwards towards the enthroned Virgin. In their gestures immobilized by the cold light which comes from the top left-hand corner, the three-dimensional figures appear to form a kind of architecture the centre of which is the throne, a construction of cylinders and parallelepipeds, behind which the curtain falls heavily excluding from sight all natural elements apart from two small fragments of a cold, clouded sky. Shadows appear to cut into the floor, confirmation of the geometrical relationship between space and figures, while the clear line delineates areas of pure enamel-like colour. This theory of formal abstraction was to become during the last few years of the 15th century still more monumental, in contrast to the ideas of colourization and sublime naturalness represented by Giovanni Bellini.

Recent examination has revealed that the green curtain in the background was added at a later date. The panel is signed and dated on the dais of the throne.