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Video transcript

I'm looking at this gorgeous subtle painting by Giovanni Bellini of the ecstasy of Saint Francis but I'm not seeing the Seraphim I'm not seeing the gold rays I'm not seeing all the stage props of divinity that I expect to see make sense that you don't see those things because here we are around 1480 the Italian Renaissance is well underway and the artists of the Renaissance are interested in interpreting moments from the lives of saints or stories from the Bible in fully naturalistic ways and so that kind of obvious narrative where we see the gold rays and we see st. Francis so obviously receiving a stigmata has been reinterpreted this looks so natural in some ways we know what's happening but in some ways it's a landscape with a figure in it so a 15th century viewer would have been maybe as perplexed as we are they would have expected these things and they would have been able to innocence imagine them because they had been so trained to see them instead of the Seraphim and gold rays coming down we have a sense of supernatural light coming from the upper left of the painting flooding down on to st. Francis his body is represented in browns and golds but this little rocky ledge where he is is in shadow and so he seems illuminated but within this shaded environment that space is so cool and so beautiful but he seemed so warm there is the sense of God's love Francis has stepped away from his office he stepped away from his desk there is the sense of the momentary even though we might expect to see this rendered as a kind of eternal moment you know he hasn't even put his sandals on we do have a kind of unfolding of time and we have a sense of a real person engaged in real activities in a real landscape Francis is on a retreat he's in Mount Auburn and he's there for prayer and meditation and we see his Bible and we see a skull a memento mori' a reminder of death and the importance of repentance and we wonder what's made him I suddenly leave his sandals behind and turn toward the light animals seem to be wondering what's going on a shepherd in the back might also be paying attention but then also a sense of life continuing even while this miracle is happening in some ways that seems so much more credible that seems so much more possible that this man who had only lived a couple of hundred years earlier could have actually left his desk and turned around and God's presence could have flooded him there is that sense that that's the way it would have happened so there wouldn't have been a little gold raised and Seraphim flying through the sky that nature is enough to represent divinity here on earth but Bellini is really clever and he's able to take that ambiguity and to fill this painting with symbolism so for instance you have that sense of the momentary with the sandals left behind but that also becomes a reference to Moses walking barefoot on the ground before God there's a very subtle way that Bellini is able to take this naturalism and actually imbue it with even more symbolism and this is something that he's getting from the artists of the Northern Renaissance this idea of imbuing the natural world with religious meetings if you might think of camp as the muroid altarpiece where the objects on the table or the decorative forms on the furniture also have symbolic meaning in Bellinis painting we could also look up at the grapevine that he's cultivating that refers to the Eucharist to the wine the blood of Christ I see real parallels to campaign and the Marotta altarpiece not only and with concentrated symbolism that both artists use but also in the attention to manufacture it's not just camp and of course it's the entire northern tradition but look for instance at the desk we can understand the construction of the carpentry the physicality that notion of the spiritual overlaying the physical is central right and if you're going to do that then the physical has to be entirely believable many of the plants are identifiable by species the cultivated plants that are near his work and living space were grown in a monastic environment and the wild plants everything is painted with an enormous amount of hair and clarity so everything is so believable it's really the beauty of the interrelation between the spiritual in the physical world beauty is infused with divinity and it is a central idea of the Renaissance it is a central humanist idea we see Francis is only a small part of this whole landscape and townscape in the background that's really unprecedented this may be the most extensive treatment of landscape in the history of painting to this day can you think of an early example like well I can think of examples that are more schematic Ambrogio Lorenzetti is allegory of good government in the city and allegory of good government in the country so that proceeds this by about 150 years think about Vanek in the Ghent Altarpiece where we have a whole Flemish city in the background or in the background of the Joseph panel of the road altarpiece but it's as though Bellini has enlarged that so it's become the focus well there's something really different here which is that the main figure the protagonist Saint Francis has been diminished or I should say he's enhanced not by his scale but by his inclusion in this full world and it's absolutely appropriate to Francis who was associated with nature for whom periodic ventures into the wilderness were a part of his life and of course who received the stigmata after taking of the donkey that we've seen the middle ground up to mount over nough Francis is a noble or made divine by the landscape the landscape enhances our understanding of his divinity of his saintliness but what an incredible expression of the humanism of the Renaissance itself that is that our natural world the one that we inhabit can potentially ennoble us I get a real sense of dawn strong but subtle early morning light flooding from the left onto that townscape in the background and especially in the hill town that we see kind of up high amidst those clouds which are also capturing the morning sunlight you know if you look at this clouds closely it's really this / Feuer brushwork and if you look to the very upper left at the brushwork you can actually see he that works across the clouds and forms a diagonal line that's a very subtle from that light in the upper left towards st. Francis well that movement from upper left to lower right is continued through a linear perspective not anything precise because we're in a natural environment we don't have the right angles of architecture but if you look for instance at the orthogonals those three bars that help to steady the trellis you can follow those right back to that source of divinity and the warm light of Francis seems to stand out so strongly to make him such a potent figure in the foreground in comparison to the cool recessive colors that surround him it's interesting because those cool colors are what we would expect to see in the background that would help lead our eye into the distance with atmospheric perspective that's normally how we would see it that's right but here those cool colors function as a kind of frame for Francis and so the image is remarkably subtle we know that this is Francis we know that this is a miracle we know that Francis is receiving the wounds of the crucifixion on his body the st. Francis lifts his eyes up he opens his mouth but there's something about the subject and the miraculousness of what's happening that makes one expect drama and pain but instead it's all very gentle and subtle and lovely this is a painting that is about light oil allowed Bellini to be able to create the sense of luminosity this is ventus's inheritance from the north more than any Phoenician artists of the fifteenth century Bellini is able to take the great achievements of central Italy the Italian Renaissance and Wed them to the innovations of the north the miraculous is central to this painting but the miracle is expressed through nature as a credible force Oh