As the sun rises on a new angry, frightened, and far less friendly world with an uncertain future, some old favorites of mine -- Giovanni Bellini's great Venetian altarpieces -- have a whole new meaning and resonance. I've loved these paintings all of my life, and never more so than now.
I've posted these paintings before, usually around this time of year. But this year they are especially meaningful.
Bellini's paintings are hybrids, as is the city of Venice itself. These altarpieces combine the linear perspective and monumental Classical form pioneered in Florence with Venice's own native Byzantine artistic heritage. Bellini was a pioneer of oil painting in Italy, a foreign import. The Flemish invented oil painting which came into Italy in a very round about way first through Sicily and finally through Venice. Bellini's paintings incorporate the Flemish oil painting aesthetic of color, light, and atmosphere conveyed with transparent layers of oil glazes and scumbles.
It makes perfect sense for all these cosmopolitan influences to come together in Bellini's work in that most cosmopolitan of Renaissance cities, Venice. The Most Serene Republic had trade ties all over Europe and throughout the Middle East, as did Florence. Unlike Florence, many of those trading partners travelled to Venice and took up residence in the city. In the Piazza San Marco and on the Rialto in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries you would be likely to meet people from England, France, Germany, Flanders, Greece, Spain, Turkey, Egypt, North Africa, Central Africa, Russia, India, and even from China. This was at a time when travel was long, arduous, and dangerous by sea and on foot. Venice was somehow worth all the trouble to get there for all these various peoples.
Bellini's work at its best harmonizes all these diverse influences. What is more, all the different formal elements in his work agree together beautifully without any one part getting lost in the whole. Each color is so rich and sonorous on its own and yet each in its singularity contributes to the overall tonality of the whole. Each saint is so very sharply individualized and distinct from every other character in the painting. And yet every saint in the fullness of their individuality contributes to the sense of peaceful agreement and calm resolution that pervades these paintings. The architecture (including the actual frames in all of these pictures) ties the painting together structurally and is itself joined to the rest of the painting by the subtle play of light and shadow, and by color tonality.
The San Giobbe Altarpiece
Here is what I consider to be one of the most perfect paintings ever made, the San Giobbe Altarpiece. Bellini painted it sometime in the 1480s for a side altar in the church of San Giobbe (Saint Job) in Venice. The Venetians borrowed the Byzantine practice of making saints out of Old Testament figures. Some scholars date the painting to sometime around the Plague of 1487 because of the prominent presence of Job and Sebastian, two plague saints. The plague frequently lurks behind the sublimity of Venetian art since the dense crowded port city was always at risk of epidemics.
This painting is probably the last great masterpiece of the Quattrocento, the fulfillment of the Sacra Conversazione composition showing the Virgin and Child together with saints all in the same picture pioneered by Fra Angelico in Florence. The beautifully made linear perspective composition with its Roman coffered vault comes right out of Masaccio's work in Florence. The amazingly subtle diffuse lighting throughout the painting comes from the work of Jan Van Eyck only now applied on a monumental scale with life-sized figures. The half-dome in the fictional apse of the painting contains an homage to Venice's Byzantine heritage with a gold mosaic of seraphim. Bellini's enthroned Virgin Mary is a more subtle tribute to Byzantine form inspired by generations of mosaics and icons of the enthroned Theotokos.
I haven't been to Venice since 1988. I saw all of these pictures while I was there, and each of them was a memorable experience.
Online reproductions continue to improve dramatically with each passing year, and appear to me to have now surpassed print reproductions in quality. Hats off to Wikipedia and Wikimedia, and especially to Google Art Project with its amazing scans from original works of art.
I much prefer Bellini's more remote and melancholy Madonnas to Raphael's rather saccharine versions.
The Frari Triptych
This painting was completed in 1488 after the San Giobbe Altarpiece, and still stands on its original altar in the sacristy of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the Franciscan church in Venice.
On the left panel, we see Saint Nicholas and Saint Peter. On the right panel are Saint Mark (patron saint of Venice) and Saint Benedict. The frame was probably designed by Bellini himself and is beautifully incorporated into the whole picture, transformed into a fictional building open to an outdoor landscape in the two side panels and focusing on an apse in the center with another fictional Byzantine mosaic vaulted ceiling and half dome. What is not Byzantine is the Latin inscription in the mosaic half dome: IANUA CERTA POLI DUC MENTEM DIRIGE VITAM: QUE PEREGAM COMISSA TUAE SINT OMNIA CURIAE ("Secure gateway to Heaven: guide my mind, lead my life, may everthing I do be entrusted to your care" translation from here).
As the inscription indicates, Bellini, like so many Renaissance painters since Masaccio, treat the surface of the picture as a gateway or window between worlds, between this world and the spirit. The painting is a threshold where the inhabitants of both worlds meet.
Saint Nicholas and Saint Peter
Saint Mark and Saint Benedict
The Frari Triptych deeply affected the German artist Albrecht Dürer. Dürer made two trips to Venice, one in 1494 and the other in 1503. On both occasions, Venetian artists treated him with hostility as a foreigner and a threat. As Dürer recalls in his own writings, Bellini alone greeted the young German with grace and kindness, even befriending him. Dürer never forgot the aging Bellini's kindness or the greatness of his work. Bellini's influence is there in so much of Dürer's work especially in his paintings.
The San Zaccaria Altarpiece
Bellini completed this painting in 1505 when he was about 75 years old. The 15th century was now past, but in many respects, this is still very much a Quattrocento painting. And yet, many scholars see the influence of younger artists upon the aging Bellini, especially that of his former pupil Giorgione.
In its overall composition, the San Zaccaria Altarpiece remains a Quattrocento painting five years after that century ended. Bellini turns the frame into a portal and into a three dimensional structure. This one is probably the most ambitious and successful fictional spaces he ever produced. Linear perspective is carefully laid out based on the eye level of the viewer. The saints arrange themselves around the Virgin and Child in the center, not much different from his earlier work. What is different is the use of color and atmosphere, perhaps reflecting the influence of his former pupil Giorgione.
Like Giorgione, Bellini now sacrifices precise contour and detail to an over all effect of light and color. Light and shadow play a much more decisive role here as they do in Giorgione's work.
Giovanni Bellini's work is about harmony and happy agreement. In his mature work, tragic subject matter rarely appears, and if it does, the tragedy is sublimated in spirituality. Bellini was not a prodigy. He did not begin making the mature work for which he is most celebrated until he was approaching 50. His earlier work is derived from, and over shadowed by, the work of his father Jacopo, his older brother Gentile, and his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna. Giovanni Bellini's mature work was a hard won triumph.
Venice at the time Bellini made these paintings began its long decline. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks declared war on Venice and gradually took over Venetian possessions in the Aegean and on the Black Sea. After 1492 with the discovery and conquest of the Americas the global economy began, a new international economy that would leave Venice and much of the Mediterranean behind. Rivalries and warfare with Milan and the Papacy shrank Venice's Italian territories.
It would be an injustice to see Bellini's altarpieces as a refuge from the anger and conflict of the world. Great art sends us back into the world, teaching us a new way to see and to think about it. Bellini painted these works in the later part of his life, in his old age. His native Venice saw warfare, economic decline, and epidemics. His own time was no more happy than ours. He meant his paintings to speak to the anxieties of his own day not simply by reflecting or expressing them, but by suggesting through art a way to transcend them and to give them meaning.
For me, these paintings represent an idea of cosmopolitan harmony where individuals and identities are not subsumed into some homogenous whole, but each part in its full singularity adds to the community. This is the idea at the heart of democracy; political democracy, social democracy, and economic democracy. The individual is no longer isolated and alone, left to fend for themselves in a chaotic world. As a physician (whose name I don't remember) once said, absolute individualism is the philosophy of the cancer cell. At the same time, the individual is not annihilated by absorption into a larger collective like a beehive. The Polis or The Beloved Community are places where individuals find each other and their fulfillment among friends and equals. Democracy is not utopia. Utopias presume the end of conflict, and that can only be accomplished by eliminating human diversity. Democracies at their best are not perfect societies, perfect neither in peace nor equality; but, they are decent societies that provide the security and community necessary for individuals to live out their freedom, where individuals can find meaning and fulfillment instead of futility.
The world appears to be in retreat from this idea; devolving back into nationalism, sectarianism, tribalism, and racism. The individual becomes subsumed into a larger national or tribal identity, a community where everyone is the same and where belonging and homogeneity count above all else. The world outside this closed community of identity is always a frightening. The Nation is always under threat from outside and from within. People draw together in fear. If there is hope, it is only the hope of victory over all who threaten them. Fear and hatred sweep across the world as people prepare themselves (and arm themselves) for struggles to come.
WH Auden wrote a long verse poem "New Year Letter, January 1, 1940" to his close friend Elizabeth Mayer at an even darker time, the outbreak of World War II. It is a long poem about art and its place in a world that is coming apart. Here are a few excerpts:
Vague concentrations shrink to take
The sharp crude patterns generals make,
The very morning that the war
Took action on the Polish floor,
Lit up America and on
A cottage in Long Island shone
Where Buxtehude as we played
One of his passacaglias made
Our minds a civitas of sound
Where nothing but assent was found,
For art had set in order sense
And feeling and intelligence.
And from its ideal order grew
Our local understanding too.
To set in order – that’s the task
Both Eros and Apollo ask;
For Art and Life agree in this
That each intends a synthesis,
That order which must be the end
That all self-loving things intend
Who struggle for their liberty,
Who use, that is, their will to be.
Though order never can be willed
But is the state of the fulfilled.
For will but wills its opposite
And not the whole in which they fit,
The symmetry disorders reach
When both are equal each to each,
Yet in intention all are one,
Intending that their wills be done
Within a peace where all desires
Find each in each what each requires,
A true Gestalt where indiscrete
Perceptions and extensions meet.
Great masters who have shown mankind
An order it has yet to find
What if all that pedants say of you
As personalities be true?
All the more honour to you then
If weaker than some other men
You had the courage that survives
Soiled shabby egotistic lives.
Now large magnificent and calm,
Your changeless presences disarm
The sullen generations, still
The fright and fidget of the will.
And to the growing and weak
Your final transformations speak,
Saying to dreaming ‘I am deed’
To striving ‘Courage, I succeed.’
To mourning ‘I remain. Forgive.’
And to becoming ‘I am. Live.’