Sunday, December 14, 2008

For the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Giovanni Bellini

Madonna of Doge Agostino Barbarigo

Below is a generous selection of Madonnas by Giovanni Bellini, the last great master of the Italian Quattrocento, and the founder of Venetian oil painting. While Raphael's Madonnas are much better known, and formally more sophisticated, I've always preferred Bellini's more distant melancholy Madonnas to Raphael's treacle. Bellini's paintings are filled with homages, obvious and subtle, to the Byzantine heritage of his native Venice. God is always kind in Bellini's work. There is an almost musical concord among differences in his paintings; between very different saints, between very different colors, between humanity and nature, and between the material and the spiritual. And just in case we still don't get the point, Bellini frequently provides angel musicians in his paintings. His work is very much about the "peace which passes all human understanding."
Few things are more truly incarnational than Renaissance painting where the objects of our prayers come down to meet us on our own terms. The painting becomes a kind of threshold where the inhabitants of the material and spiritual realms meet and face each other. It's no accident that the frames of so many Italian Quattrocento pictures resemble door and window frames. I've always argued that Renaissance art is more genuinely religious than most people suppose.
Bellini was probably the first artist to understand the connection between color and mood. He was one of the finest colorists of the Quattrocento able to create the color effect of a warm summer evening in the Barbarigo Madonna, or a cold November morning in the Meadow Madonna.
It was through Venice that oil painting, invented in Flanders, entered Italy. It was Bellini and his successors in Venice who transformed oil painting with its rich color effects into monumental painting.

Madonna degli Alberetti

Madonna with Saints, the Frari Triptych

The Meadow Madonna

The San Giobbe Altarpiece

Bellini's largest surviving work, painted for the high altar of San Giobbe. The presence of Saint Sebastian and Job in this painting points to a sad fact of Venetian life, the constant threat of the plague. Both Sebastian and Job were invoked in Venice in times of plague.

Madonna with John the Baptist and a Female Saint

The San Zaccharia Altarpiece.

Bellini's last major work, painted when he was in his 80s. John Ruskin wrote of this painting in the 19th century that it is "beyond all description and above all praise."

Landscape detail from the Barbarigo Madonna at the top.


Davis said...

Your remark about the music in Bellini's work is very much to the point, One can almost hear the Renaissance polyphony in them.

JCF said...

Wonderful use of color. Maybe I like them so much because, as you say Doug, of his "homages, obvious and subtle, to the Byzantine heritage of his native Venice" (as you know, my tastes in painting run towards the Byzantine. Go Rublev! ;-) )

Is this the SAME Bellini as of the "Vatican Columns" (the arcade in St. Peter's Square)? I know that that era produced a number of multi-talented "Renaissance Men", but oh my... (Or was that "Bernini"? Those Paisans and their similar names! :-0)

[Thanks again, for showing Gina/Pagan Sphinx, how to do these sort of Pop-Open comment threads!]

Counterlight said...

I believe that you're thinking of Bernini, who lived a couple of centuries later. He's the one who designed the colonnade around St. Peter's square, as well as most of the interior of St. Peter's.

To add to the confusion, there were 3 Bellinis working in Venice in the 15th century. There was Jacopo, Giovanni's father. And then there was Gentile, Giovanni's older brother, who went to Constantinople to work for the Ottoman sultan. To confuse things further still, the artist Andrea Mantegna was Giovanni Bellini's brother-in-law.

If you love Rublev, then have you ever seen Andrei Tarkovsky's movie about Andrei Rublev? A lot of it is speculative fiction, since so little is known about Rublev, and he makes Rublev into something a little more anachronistically modern than he probably was, but it's a great movie. It's probably my favorite movie about an artist. A little warning, it's very long, very elliptical, and very Russian. But it's worth it with a surprising and very moving ending. It's also a very unglamorous look at medieval Russia. The Soviets banned the movie when it was finished in 1965, which as far as I'm concerned is a rave review.

Leonardo Ricardo said...

Thank you...ah, the richness of it all...all.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Thank you, Doug. A feast for these old eyes. There is nothing so beautiful as a Bellini Madonna - except perhaps a Bottecelli Madonna....

JCF said...

If you love Rublev, then have you ever seen Andrei Tarkovsky's movie about Andrei Rublev?

Sadly, yes.

I was prepared for Russian length (so to speak) and, as you say, its "very elliptical" quality.

I was NOT prepared for the frequent, blatant, and graphic brutalization of animals on-screen (and w/ me having ZERO trust that "No animal were harmed..."---not that the film had such a disclaimer). It was so disturbing, that it ruined the movie for me (despite that final segment in color).


Yeah, I caught myself on the Bellini/Bernini confusion (I knew that Bernini was a sculptor---his AMAZING "Teresa of Avila"!---but not a painter. And I had no idea that Bernini lived centuries later)