How To Read Paintings: Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece
The decoding of a Venetian masterpiece
There are few places like Venice.
With its lagoons and waterways that shimmer under a brilliant Adriatic light, with its buildings and sometimes stinking water (that always makes me think of the pestilence in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice), the city is a landscape transformed like no other.
There are few places like Venice, and not least because of the art. It’s rare to find these days, but in Venice you can still see paintings that hang in the position for which they were made. The history of Venice lives like so few other cities do.
One such painting is Giovanni Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece, painted in 1505 when the artist was in his early seventies — Bellini’s exact birth year remains a matter of debate. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin judged the painting one of “the two best pictures in the world.” (The other was the Madonna of the Frari Triptych, also by Bellini.)
What is immediately gripping about the San Zaccaria Altarpiece is the elegant sense of space Bellini has created. The illusion is of an architectural apse, a small chapel space with columns on either side and capped by a dome covered in mosaics. The Virgin Mary is sat on the throne in the center, surrounded by saints. See how the white marble of the throne, along with Mary’s white shawl, and above all, the luminosity of the Christ Child, makes the middle of the painting bloom.
Also, just look at the way Bellini has angled the light so it flows across the scene from left to right, thereby allowing a soft shadow to fall behind Christ to his right, setting him forward and emphasizing his outline. It is easy to overlook these details, but they make all the difference.
Behind the throne, the architectural recess is modeled in three-dimensions and glows soft yellow-ocher, allowing the rest of the scene to occupy a plane that is set-forward, almost crossing over into our real-world space. It is a triumph of the painting that none of these effects look forced. The blend of colors — the reds, golds, blues and greens of the robes, and the subtle whites of the architecture — give the whole work a finely-spun richness. It is in the subtly of this richness that Bellini’s originality lies.
What are we looking at?
One of the pleasures of the painting is in discovering the tiny details that bring it’s meaning to life.
One such detail, at the very top of the painting, is so easy to miss: an ostrich egg hanging from a chord.
It is now known that ostriches lay their eggs in communal nests, which consist of little more than a pit scraped into the ground. The eggs are incubated by the females in the day and by the males at night.
However, in medieval times, the ostrich — a much admired bird — was commonly believed to bury its eggs in sand and allow the heat of the sun to carry out the incubation. On account of the young emerging without parental involvement, it was thought that the ostrich egg was an ideal symbol of the virginity of Mary — a theologically tricky concept for which parallels in nature were sought.
The ostrich egg, symbolizing Mary’s virginity, works in symbolic unison with the crystal lamp that hangs below it. The lamp represents purity, since crystal glass is tangible yet also transparent.
So from the very top of the painting, a vertical line leads downwards, from a combined pairing of virginity and purity, to Mary and her child below.
One further detail, one that perhaps makes sense of all these signs, is the carving at the top of the throne. It shows the head of Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba and the third king of Israel. Solomon was revered for his wisdom, and no more is his wisdom better displayed than in the marvelous story of his Judgement, as told in 1 Kings 3:16–28 : Brought before Solomon are two women in the midst of an argument. Both have born a child, but one of the babies has died; now both women claim the remaining child to be theirs. In order to discover the truth, Solomon orders for a sword to be brought, saying “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” At this, one of the women immediately renounces her claim to the child, thus revealing herself to be the true mother, who could not bear to see harm come to her child.
So, the carved head on Mary’s throne speaks of the Virgin and Child occupying a seat of wisdom. Thus, we may read the unity of virginity, purity and wisdom as ideal attributes of the sacred mother and child.
Mary and Christ are surrounded by fours saints, positioned symmetrically about the throne. The overall style of painting is known as a sacra conversazione, a tradition in Christian painting where several saints are gathered together around the Virgin. Saints can be from different ages, regardless of the period in which they lived, apparently in ‘holy conversation’ but more often in reflective reverie. Such a concept allows for a multitude of symbolic combinations.
In Bellini’s painting, the fours saints shown are Peter, with his attributes of bible and keys (“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”); Catherine of Alexandria, holding a palm leaf to symbolize her martyrdom and stood beside her shattered wheel (the instrument of her torture); Lucy with her own palm and a glass lamp (derived from her name, meaning illuminate); and Jerome, the scholar and translator of the bible into Latin. At the foot of the Virgin is an angel playing an instrument similar to a violin.
They are positioned symmetrically about the throne. It is worth noting how the composition leads the eye to the center of the painting, with the two outer figures stood facing squarely outwards and the two inner figures turned three-quarters inwards, configuring the space so that a sort of passageway towards the middle is created.
Look for instance at the hands and arms of the left-most figures, Sts Peter and Catherine. The position of Peter’s left arm forms a continuous line with Catherine’s right. The lines of their drapery and the angles of their shoulders too, all —by subtle degrees — add a touch of inward dynamism to the whole.
So the saints work towards a meaningful composition; they also have symbolic depth in their own right.
One way of reading the saints is to consider them as two sets of complimentary pairs: the two outer figures, the two males, representing the founding of the church (Peter) and its scholarly development (Jerome); and the two women on the inside representing the virtues of learning and wisdom (Catherine) and devoutness (Lucy).
All this may seem obscure and pedantic to us, but to a worshiper of the 16th century, the symbols would have been far more ‘readable’ and apt for reflection. Bellini’s real achievement — why it is easy to call this a masterpiece — is the elegant blending of the symbolic motifs into a harmonious and somewhat naturalistic whole.
At the very heart of the painting, the Virgin is sat on her marble throne, with her left knee raised to support the Christ Child, presenting him to the spectator for worship.
The face of the Virgin represents perhaps the most beguiling aspect of the work, and a dilemma over interpretation, what the art historian T J Clark calls the ‘problem of expression’:
“Even to pose the matter as a ‘problem’ seems embarrassing. What would it have felt like to be the mother of God? And how would that feeling, or play of contradictory feelings, have registered in comportment, a ‘face’ presented to the world?”
To answer the ‘problem of expression’ certain words appear to come close — contemplative, demure, reflective — but fall short because they are too obviously clichés.
Why not also see worry or confusion in her face? After all, the theology of the Virgin has always contained some element of doubt, even fear. Perhaps, as she listens to the music of the violin, played with all the assurance possessed by an angel, her thoughts begin to drift, and with a dose of ordinary longing she wonders what strangeness has befallen her. She begins to cup the foot of the baby Christ as He raises His leg — an instinctive moment of contact between a mother and her baby that happens subliminally. In a moment He will lower his foot and her hand will cup it, and their eyes will turn back to one another. Perhaps. But this is the moment before, when the sweep of the violin music has made us all stop, saints, mother and child, and pause on our complex place in the story of salvation. Bellini’s painting does all this.
Christopher P Jones writes at his blog. You might also be interested in these stories about art: