Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St John; (Pietà) by Giovanni Bellini

Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St John; (Pietà) by Giovanni Bellini (1460)

Some time ago I talked about Madonna and Child genre of paintings and said that I believed that, as far as religious paintings were concerned, they were the most prolific type of religious art throughout the ages.  Other highly popular religious concepts in paintings are the Pietà and the Lamentation. 

The Lamentation represents a particular moment from Christ’s Passion, between the Deposition (the bringing down of the lifeless body of Jesus Christ from the cross after the crucifixion) and the Entombment.   The paintings always show groups of grieving mourners gathered around the central figure of Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary.  They often appeared in narrative paintings of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

The term Pieta derives from the Italian word for pity.   The Pietà is a timeless image, and is a term applied to a painting or sculpture which usually just depicts the Virgin Mary and the dead Christ, often with the Virgin Mary supporting the body of Christ on her lap.  However, sometimes the characters of St John the Evangelist or Mary Magdalene would be added to the scene.  The setting does not depict a particular moment in the Passion story, unlike scenes of the Lamentation.

So is My Daily Art Display today a Pietà or a Lamentation?  It is entitled a pietà so who am I to disagree !  It is tempera on panel painting which I came across this week and which I thought was very heartrending and poignant.   One could almost feel the grief of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist.  The work of art painted in 1460 and entitled Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St John; (Pietàa) is by Giovanni Bellini and can be seen at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.

At the bottom of the painting, on the parapet is the inscription:


which translated means:

When these swelling eyes evoke groans, this work of Giovanni Bellini could shed tears

To me, this perfectly sums up the painting.  It is not just me that is moved by this painting as it has been rightly considered as one of the most moving paintings in the history of art.  There is a deep passionate feeling to this painting.  It is not just religious passion but human and psychological passion.  Look at the Virgin Mary as she looks into the eyes of her dead son.  See how she is almost using his shoulder to support her chin.  There is a deep hurt and sorrow in her eyes as she looks intently at the face of her lifeless son.  Is there anything more moving that a mother’s sorrow for the loss of her only son?   She clutches the right wrist of Jesus and holds his lifeless limb across his chest.  She is almost cuddling him wishing she could breathe life into his dead body.  We can see the wound on the back of his right hand made by the crucifixion and Jesus’s left hand, with his fingers curled closed in pain, rests on the parapet.

To the right we see Saint John the Evangelist’s with his face wracked with sorrow and one can empathise with his desolation.  His head is turned away from Mary and Jesus as if he can no longer bear to look at the grieving mother clutching at her dead son.  John’s mouth is open as if he is crying out in anguish.  Maybe he is begging for some morsel of comfort.  It is as if he is asking for help to endure what is before him, as he is aware of his task ahead, that of consoling Mary.    

The three figures are in a tight group in the foreground behind which is an infinite horizon.  The sky is a steely grey-blue which gives a feeling of cold and accentuates the pervading anguish of the setting.

This is indeed a very sad and moving painting.

Saint Francis in the Desert by Giovanni Bellini

St Francis by Giovanni Bellini (1480)

After yesterday’s rather sad and depressing painting I thought I would try and raise my spirits (and yours) with a picture which has uplifted the spirits of many who have seen it at the Frick Collection in New York. It is Giovanni Bellini’s composition which used to be entitled Saint Francis in Ecstasy, but is now known as Saint Francis in the Desert.  It is an extremely beautiful and powerful work of art which the Venetian master painted in 1480. It is a painting full of detail some of which is easily missed if one only gives it a cursory glance. The gallery itself has no doubt about its worth, stating that it is “the finest work in The Frick Collection and the greatest Renaissance painting in America and also one of the best preserved”. True praise indeed !

This is my type of painting. It is an oil on tempera on poplar panel painting. I love and I am often mesmerised by paintings which are highly detailed and in which the artist has painstakingly spent a good deal of time in presenting us with such an extraordinary level of detail. For me, there is no comparison to be had between a watercolour picture, as beautiful as it may be, in which details are merged and lost in a haze of colour, and an oil painting with its precise detail of every bit of minutiae within the work of art.

Stigmata on St Francis's hand (note rabbit appearing from hole in the wall !!)

There is a spiritual force to this painting, which I am sure moves even those non-believers. The story behind, and the setting for the painting is Saint Francis of Assisi, whilst in retreat, praying and fasting in preparation for Michelmas, received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s Crucifixion. This is said to have taken place in 1224 during a retreat at a hut, which was given to Saint Francis by Count Orlando of Chiusi as a place to meditate. It was situated high in the Tuscan hills, above the Apennine forest on Mount Alverna.
Saint Francis, slightly right of centre in the painting, stands, leaning back slightly with his arm outstretched. He is looking transfixed heavenwards at the transcendental light, which emanates from the upper left of the picture. If one looks closely at the figure of St Francis one can just make out the mark of stigmata on the palms of his hands. This miraculous happening is shown as a shadow both illuminates the rocky entrance of St Francis’s dwelling and casts a dark shadow behind the saint and onto the espaliered limbs of the small trees, which act as a screen to the entrance of his dwelling. Look also at the laurel tree at the left of the picture. The laurel, with the fact that its leaves never wilt and preserves its green foliage, makes it symbolic of eternity. In this painting, see how the light illuminates the leaves. It is almost as if it is under a spotlight. Look how it trembles and bends as if being buffeted by strong gusts of wind as it leans into the picture.

Donkey and Crane

Let us look in more detail at the picture. Cast your eyes at the bottom left corner of the painting. One can just see, caught in the branches of a bush, a scrap of paper, on which is written the artist’s signature “IOANNES BELLINUS”. Behind Saint Francis, on the small reading table is a bible and skull, the latter represents death and the transitory nature of life on earth. One can also see a length of cord on the espalier which could have been used as a “bell-pull” by visitors to the retreat. In the field one sees a solitary donkey, standing motionless, and a crane. Further back, below the cliffs and on the outskirts of the city, we see a herdsman with his animals, unaffected by this transcendental happening.

Table with skull and bible with sandals underneath

The water we can see trickling from a spout in the stones is often compared to the miraculous fountain Moses brought forth from the rocks of Mount Horeb to quench the thirst of the Israelites. Another connection with Moses are the abandoned sandals of the saint seen lying under the desk. Bellini may have painted the scene with the bare-footed Saint Francis thus, as a direct connection to the story of Moses on Mount Herob when God spoke to him, saying, “put off the shoes from thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground
Put all these things together and it is no wonder that people tell you that this painting has such magical appeal and once seen will remain in your memory for a long time. If you live in or are lucky enough to visit New York, pay a visit to The Frick Collection which is much smaller than its nearby neighbour the Metropolitan Museum of Art but offers you a wide range of masterpieces of the art world. Go to today’s painting, stand in front of it, look at all the wonderful detail and absorb the beauty of this breathtaking work of art.

The Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini

The Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini

Giovanni Bellini was born in Venice around 1430 and was one of the greatest and most influential artists of the Italian Renaissance.  He came from a family of artists.  His father was Jacopo Bellini, an artist, and Giovanni and his brother Gentile trained under him. His sister married another great Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna.  Giovanni had a long and prolific career living to the age of 85, during which he transformed Venice into a centre of artistic excellence which rivaled Rome and Florence as established centres of art.  Venetian painting rose to prominence during his time through his use of colour, light and atmosphere.   Bellini was a master of portraiture and today’s art display is one of his most famous works of portraiture,  Doge Leonardo Loredan.

This portrait hangs in the National Gallery in London.  Bellini completed this painting around 1502.  This formal portrait of the Doge at the beginning of his rule shows the hat, called a corno, which was worn over a linen cap.   His robe is made of luxurious, gold-threaded damask and is decorated with ornate buttons which were part of the official wardrobe.  This was a traditional style of portraiture for incumbent rulers of the time.   The style of this portrait is similar to the style of sculpted portrait busts which were often inspired by Roman sculpture.  Bellini’s signature can be seen below on the parapet in the form of a cartellino.  A cartellino being a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, often as though attached to a wall or parapet in a painting, commonly with the artist’s name or that of the sitter.