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(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Steven: 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 of the stage props of divinity that I expect to see. Beth: It makes sense that we don't see those things because here we are around 1480, the Italian Renaissance is well under way 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. So that kind of obvious narrative, where we see the gold rays and we see Saint Francis, so obviously we see the 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. Steven: 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, in a sense, imagine them because they have been so trained to see them. Beth: And so the seraphim and gold rays coming down, we have a sense of supernatural light coming from the upper left of the painting flooding down onto Saint Francis. His body is represented in browns and golds, but this sort of rocky ledge where he is, is in shadow, so he seems illuminated, but within this shaded environment. Steven: And that space is so cool and so beautiful, but he seems so warm. This is this sense of God's love. Francis has stepped away from his office. He's stepped away from his desk. There is this sense of momentary, even though we might expect to see this rendered as a kind of an eternal moment. He hasn't even put his sandals on. Beth: 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 Alverno. He's there for prayer and meditation. We see his Bible and we see a skull, a memento mori, a reminder of death and the importance of repentance. We wonder what's made him rise 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 the sense of life continuing even while this miracle is happening. Steven: 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, turned around and God's presence could have flooded him. There is that sense that that's the way it would have happened. Beth: So there wouldn't have been little gold rays and seraphim flying ... Steven: That's right. Steven: That nature is enough to represent divinity here on earth. But Bellini is really clever. He's able to take that ambiguity and 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. Beth: This is something that he's getting from the artists of the northern Renaissance. This idea of imbuing the natural world is a religious meaning, so you might think of Campin's Merode Altarpiece where the objects on the table or the decorative forms on the furniture also have symbolic meaning. In Bellini's painting, you can also look up at the grapevine that he's cultivating that refers to the Eucharist, to the wine, to the blood of Christ. Steven: I see real parallels to Campin and the Merode Altarpiece, not only in the concentrated symbolism that both artists use, but also in the attention to manufacture. It's not just Campin of course, it's the entire northern tradition. Look, for instance, at the desk. We can understand the construction, the carpentry, the physicality, that notion of the spiritual overlaying the physical is central. Beth: Right, and if you're going to view 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. The wild plants, everything is painted with enormous amounts of care and clarity so everything's so believable. Steven: It's really the beauty of the interrelation between the spiritual and the physical world. Beauty is infused with divinity. It is the central idea of the Renaissance, it is the central humanist idea. Beth: We see Francis is only a small part of this whole landscape and townscape in the background that's really unprecedented. Steven: This may be the most extensive treatment of landscape in the history of painting to this day. Beth: Can you think of an earlier example? Steve: I can think of examples that are more schematic; [unintelligible] Allegory of Good Government in the city and Allegory of Good Government in the country. Beth: So that precedes this by about 150 years. Think about then again the Altarpiece where we have a whole Flemish city in the background or in the background of the [unintelligible] panels of the Merode Altarpiece. It's as though Bellini has enlarged that so it's become a focus. Steven: There's something really different here which is that the main figure, the protaganist Saint Francis, has been diminished, or I should say he's enhanced not by his scale, but by his inclusion in this full world. It's absolutely appropriate to Francis, who is associated with nature, for whom periodic ventures into the wilderness were a part of his life. And of course, he'll receive the stigmata after taking of the donkey that we see in the middle ground, up to Mount Averno. Beth: Francis is ennobled or made divine by the landscape. the landscape enhances our understanding of his divinity, of his saintliness. Steven: What an incredible expression of the humanism of the Renaissance itself, that is, our natural world, the one that we inhabit, can potentially ennoble us. Beth: I get a real sense of dawn, a strong but subtle early morning light flooding from the left onto that townscape in the background, especially in the hilltown that we see kind of up high amidst those clouds which are also capturing the morning sunlight. Steven: You know, if you look at those clouds closely, it's really this bravura brushwork. Beth: And if you look to the very upper left of the brushwork, you can actually see paint that works across the clouds and forms a diagonal line that's very subtle from that light in the upper left towards Saint Francis. Steven: 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 orthogonals, those three bars that help to steady the trellis, you can follow those right back to that source of divinity. 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. They would help lead our eye to the distance. Beth: With atmospheric perspective, that's normally how we would see it. Steven: That's right, but here, those cool colors function as a kind of frame for Francis. Beth: 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 runes of the crucifixion on his body. Saint 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, subtle and lovely. Steven: This is a painting that is about light. Oil allowed Bellini to be able to create this sense of luminosity. This is Venice's inheritance from the north. More than any Venetian artist of the 15th 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. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)