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Giovanni Bellini, San Zaccaria Altarpiece

Giovanni Bellini, San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505, oil on wood transferred to canvas, 16 feet 5-1/2 inches x 7 feet 9 inches (San Zaccaria, Venice). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Scott
    This work seems very well preserved compared to other similar works of the time. Is there a possible reason for this, given that it was stolen and moved about, perhaps that it was restored? Would using oil instead of tempra also have helped?
    (9 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Alastair Carnegie
      The San Giobbe Alterpiece is another of Giovanni Bellini's very large oil on wood panel paintings, we know that Bellini's father produced wood panel icons from his workshop, The tradition was to cover these wooden panels with an open weave flax cloth, which helped strengthen the gesso base, and also prevented cracks. An Alterpiece as large as this would require many planks of timber, and the timber joints would be a potential trouble spot. The wood is first 'roughed up' with coarse grindstone rubbed against the grain so that the raised wood fibres provide a key, for the first application of hot gloveskin glue. Gesso and cloth are laid over the panel with plenty of scrubbing and then smoothed with a sword blade. The Craftsman's Handbook "Il Libro dell' Arte" by Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, (15th Century Florence) Chapter CIIII "The System By Which You Should Prepare to Aquire The Skill To Work On Panel" gives instructions. The oil paints used were very slow drying, typically 'sun bleached stand oil' was used. This partially polymarized vehicle, that is clear and sticky like honey, will not fully dry in ten thousand years! This keeps the paint film constantly flexible. Also sun bleached stand oil does not darken with age, an added bonus. This probably accounts for the excellent state of preservation.
      (16 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Jane Churchland
    In the description above the video it says this is oil on wood transfered to canvas. I don't understand what this might mean. Is the painting at present on canvas or panel? Was it transfered as part of it's early history, or it's later (napoleonic) history?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Victoria  Chua
    Can we classify this piece under the high renaissance?
    (1 vote)
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  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user dawon
    Why is it named San Zaccaria?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user K. Patrick Cassell
    At , Saint Peter is said to be holding "the keys to heaven". In the KJV of Matthew -19 is written:
    "18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

    19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

    I believe that, "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" represent priesthood keys. That Peter was given authority to "bind on earth" and have those acts "bound in heaven". What do you think?
    (0 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      these are metaphors, but, as with St Lucy having her crystal attribute and St Catherine having her wheel (and St. Sebastian his arrows, and St. Lorenzo his grill), St. Peter has his keys. No matter how anyone may paint him, old, young, fat, thin, bearded or bald, if he's holding keys, he's Peter. Whatever the keys may or may not mean in the gospel, they mainly signify Peter in paintings.
      (4 votes)
  • winston baby style avatar for user Liotun Dahazrahazyeh
    so why did they have to leave at five?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Liam Li
    Did Giovanni Bellini borrow from Northern tradition when he painted the drapery of these figures?
    (1 vote)
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  • winston default style avatar for user Payton
    What is the origin of the phrase 'Sacra Conversazione?'
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    So this is called a Sacra Conversazione or "Sacred Conversation" we know that much. What I wonder is what about this is a "conversation" since everyone in the painting is so incredibly solemn? It certainly does not seem like they are partaking in much "Conversazione" with one another...
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Cindy Vojnovic
    Here again the video claims that egg tempera is "opaque." Opaque crosshatching is an option in egg tempera; translucent veils of color are equally viable in the medium. In particular, the Russian Byzantine school of icon painting begins with a dark "rozkrych" layer, then a semi opaque "light" followed by a translucent "float," 2nd light (smaller and more focused than the first) 2nd float, 3rd light (even smaller) third float and then finally, yes, finally, tiny tiny "life giving lights" that are in fact opaque, and occupy maybe one percent or less of the painting. Otherwise, ALL of these layers are simultaneously visible in the painting. Andrea Rublev is the most obvious example of this tradition of egg tempera painting. But traditional historical uses aside, egg tempera as a medium is no more opaque than oil! Oil paint can be opaque or translucent-exactly the same holds true for egg tempera.
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(piano music) Steven: We're in the Church of San Zaccaria in Venice, and we're looking at one of Giovanni Bellini's last altar paintings. Beth: This is the San Zaccaria altarpiece. It's a sacra conversazione, which is something that we see a lot of in Venice. A group of saints from different time periods around an enthroned Madonna and child. Steven: Starting on the left, we see Saint Peter. He holds a book in his right hand, and the keys to heaven in his left. Beth: Following him we see Saint Catherine. She supports a wheel that she was martyred on. Steven: In the middle, enthroned, is the Virgin Mary, holding the Christ Child. Below them is an angel playing a small, archaic instrument that is related to the violin. Beth: On the other side we see Saint Lucy, who holds a crystal. Steven: She's associated with sight. She's actually the patron saint of the blind. Her eyes were plucked out, according to legend, for her faithfulness to Christ. Then, all the way on the right, we see Saint Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate, and so he's associated with learning. He's a father, a doctor, of the church, and therefore is wearing Cardinal red. Beth: And is often shown bearded and with a book. Steven: But what I see across all of these figures is a tremendous degree of solemnity; of quiet. Beth: Of contemplativeness; of meditation; of prayer; of devotion. Absolutely, like in Masaccio's painting of the Holy Trinity, Bellini opens up the wall, so we don't believe that it's a wall any more, but rather a chapel. Steven: It's interesting that the interior architecture, the depicted architecture, seems to relate to the frame of the painting. The physical stone, because we can see, for instance, arches moving towards us on the upper left and upper right that frame the landscape, that we seem to be able to walk out, but we don't know how much of the original frame remains. This painting was taken to Paris by Napoleon. It was stolen. Obviously eventually returned, but we're not even sure if this painting is in its original location. Beth: So it seems to me Bellini is working hard to make this into a space that we can participate in, or at least understand, but on the other hand, we see the figures from very far below, and we look up at them, and so there is a real distance that's also there. Steven: We are looking at this sacred conversation that is not entirely available to us. In other words, we can approach it; we can certainly pray to it; but we're not quite invited to participate in it. Beth: So this is painted in oils, and we know that Bellini was one of the leaders in exploring the possibilities of oil paint. Unlike tempera, which is opaque, you can't see through it, oil, if you thin it down, you can see through it, and applied to a white ground in thin layers, you could create color with a depth and saturation that artists were never able to do before. Steven: Bellini is also able to introduce a kind of subtlety of light. Look at the way in which the eyes of the figures are downcast and in shadow. Look at the way in which the light articulates that semicircle behind the Virgin. There is this real sense of volume. The painting as it currently sits in the church is aligned so that the actual light from the sun outside corresponds perfectly with the light and shadow in the painting. Beth: That's right. As we stand and look at it, the doorway makes sense in relationship to the painting, when we see shadows moving from the left toward the right. Steven: And we see that beautifully also in the apse mosaic; there is this golden mosaic that is a reminder of Bellini's lifetime interest in the Byzantine tradition. Beth: The place that Bellini would have been most familiar with, that exemplified that tradition, is the Church of Saint Mark's here in Venice, that is covered with golden mosaics, very much like the one we see in the apse here. Steven: And yet there's also a classical and also biblical set of references. If you look, for instance, at the pilasters, you have Corinthian Capitals. If you look at the throne that Mary sits on, you see a classicizing head above it, and we think that might be King David; a reminder of Christ's regal ancestry, according to tradition. Beth: There is that sense of calm and contemplativeness, and it comes I think also in part from the symmetry. It's not a rigid symmetry. There is a real sense of balance and harmony. Two figures on either side; the figures close to us facing front, looking down; the two female figures looking inward; Mary, who tilts toward her right; the angel who tilts in the opposite direction. Steven: That sense of harmony and elegance is drawn out also in gentle arcs that we can see throughout the composition. Look for instance at the arc of the sleeve of Saint Peter, that's echoed by the palm frond held by Catherine and her drape. Look at the way that that's echoed again by the lighter color worn by the angel. Beth: You're right. There are these subtle curving forms that help to unite the composition. (church bells ring) I think it must be five o'clock and time to go. (piano music)