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Giovanni Bellini, San Giobbe Altarpiece

Giovanni Bellini, San Giobbe Altarpiece, c. 1485, oil on panel, 471 cm × 258 cm / 185 in × 102 in (Accademia, Venice) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Man: We're in the Accademia in Venice and we're looking at a relatively early Giovanni Bellini. This is the San Giobbe Altarpiece. Woman: This was made for a church here in Venice dedicated to prayers for plague victims. One of five plague churches in Venice. Venice was a place that especially suffered from the plague. Man: So this is, we think, the very first Sacra Conversazione that is set within the architecture of a church painted in Venice. And one of the first examples anywhere in Italy. Woman: Sacra Conversazione is a group of saints from different time periods together in the same space with the Madonna and child. This was certainly a new trend in painting in the late fifteenth century. We see it in the work of Pierro della Francesca in his Brera Altarpiece and we also see it in the San Zeno altarpiece. We're invited to join the court of heaven, Mary and Christ surrounded by saints and angels. Man: And one of those saints is quite literally inviting us into the space. If you look on the extreme left you see Saint Francis. He is not only displaying his stigmata, that is the holes in his hands and his feet and his side that he received as a kind of honor because he lived his life so closely to Christ but he is actually beckoning us. If we can be as faithful as he, we could join this spiritual company. Woman: That invitation is there in the very construction of the painting. The painting had a rounded, an architectural frame, that had on either side plasters with capitals very much like the ones that we see in the painted space. Man: That's right this painting in it's original frame had married the architecture of the actual church with the architecture of the invented space. Woman: Bellini is also joining our space with the space of the Madonna and saints by creating this coffered barrel vault that extends into our space from which a canopy or baldacchino hangs so we really feel this joining of our own space in the space of the painting. Man: But the architectural references in this painting are not so much to the church of San Giobbe as to the most important church in Venice, that is the Basilica of Saint Mark. Woman: We can see that if we look up at the apse above and behind Mary and Christ. This is exactly what the inside of Saint Mark looks like with mystical golden light created by the mosaics. Man: You can also see references to San Marco in the beautiful [?] decorated marble that exists in back of the throne. After Venice had plundered Constantinople in 1204 during the fourth crusade they had brought back all of these treasures including this very decorative marble, which is all over the exterior of San Marco. And we see it replicated here in Bellini's painting. Let's go back to those saints for a moment though. In addition to Saint Francis you can see that there are two other saints on the left side. In the background Saint John the Baptist and then Job himself, who is offering prayers in the direction of Christ and the virgin Mary. Then on the other side we see Saint Dominick, in the foreground the nearly naked Saint Sebastian, and then in the back Saint Louis of Toulouse. Now remember this is just the beginning of what we will call the high Renaissance. Bellini is really interested in geometry here. You can see that the three saints on the left side create a kind of triangle with their heads pointing back into space with Saint John the Baptist's head as the furthest most point. On the right side we have another triangle of heads, so we have these inverted triangles. Woman: We also have a pyramid in the three angels at the bottom of the throne, and then Mary herself holding the Christ child, her body forms a pyramid. Something we see very often in high Renaissance art. We might recall, for example, Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks, where Mary and Christ and Saint John and an angel form a pyramid. Man: Geometry is bound to help with our understanding of the high Renaissance because it can help provide a sense of stability, of balance, and a sense of the eternal. Woman: So what Bellini is doing so different from earlier Sacra Conversaziones, if we could think for example of Domenico Veneziano's Saint Lucy altarpiece, there, there is a clear white light that permeates that space. But here Bellini has created a golden warm tonality and atmosphere that unifies the figures. Man: I think that also comes right out of Bellini's experience in San Marco. That architectural space has such a kind of rich internal atmosphere that is full of mystery, that is full of shadow. Bellini has brilliantly found a way of bringing that to the painted surface. Woman: In so many ways this painting is a continuation of something started by Masaccio of creating an illusion on the wall of real space but the naturalism of the Renaissance, its emphasis on real bodies and real space, is tempered I think by Bellini. That golden light, the meditative mood of the figures, this all gives us a sense of transcendence, of looking at something spiritual. Man: One of the things that I find most powerful about this painting is the rendering of the human bodies. You have two figures that are almost completely nude. And whose bodies are defined so beautifully by the subtle light and Sebastian really stands out in this regard. Woman: Look at his beautiful contropposto. Man: There is this attention to the beauty of the body, which is such an expression of the thinking of the Renaissance. (piano music)