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(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)