November 2017 marks 501 years since the death of Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), one of Venice’s most famous and influential artists, whose sublime paintings adorn many of the city’s churches, museums and galleries. He was described by the Victorian critic John Ruskin as “the only artist who appears to me to have united, in equal and magnificent measures, justness of drawing, nobleness of colouring, and perfect manliness of treatment with the purest religious feeling”. Bellini’s works continue to bewitch viewers today – over half a millennia since they were first created. We have selected three of our favourites:
Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints – Church of San Zaccaria. Depicting the Virgin and Child enthroned, together with St Peter the Apostle, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Lucy and St Jerome, this radiant altarpiece was painted specifically for the church of San Zaccaria in 1505, towards the end of Bellini’s career. Looted by Napoleon and taken to Paris for twenty years, it was thankfully returned to Venice in 1817, where it has remained ever since.
The Frari Triptych – Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Considered by Ruskin to be the greatest work in Venice by Bellini, this jewel-like triptych is still in its original frame, and still in its original location in the sacristy of the Frari church. The painting was commissioned by the family of a Venetian noblewoman named Franceschina Pesaro, who died in 1478 and is buried here; poignantly, the work depicts the Madonna enthroned, surrounded by four saints who bear the names of Francheschina’s husband and sons.
Madonna Enthroned with the Sleeping Child – Gallerie dell’Accademia. Bellini is especially renowned for his beautiful small paintings of Madonnas, more than 80 of which survive by his hand or studio assistants. One of the most moving examples can be found at the Accademia Galleries, showing the Virgin with hands clasped tightly in prayer and eyes cast down, while her Son lies sleeping in her lap with one arm hanging limply, foreshadowing the figure of the dead Christ in a Pietà.