Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints is an oil-on-panel painting by the Venetian Renaissance master Giovanni Bellini (1427-1516). It was executed in 1505, as attested by the signature and date on the cartouche at the foot of Madonna’s throne (IOANNE BELLINVS MCCCCCV).
The artwork is also known as San Zaccaria Altarpiece, from the name of the Venice church where it is preserved.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints is a large altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini depicting a sacred conversation. It depicts Madonna and Child Jesus seated on a throne, surrounded by a group of saints. The scene is set in a large niche: a square lodge, characterized by checkerboard pavement and a mosaic apse, decorated with vegetal elements. On either side of the structure, a landscape and clear sky can be glimpsed.
Giovanni Bellini follows a precise scheme in the composition. In the center is the Madonna on a throne holding Infant Jesus. At her feet is a musician angel on a step, intent on playing the viola. The four saints are arranged in a semicircle and symmetrically. From left to right they are identified as St. Peter the Apostle, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Lucy, and St. Jerome.
Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints was commissioned in memory of the Venetian politician Pietro Cappello, as attested by 17th-century writer Carlo Ridolfi. It is a work that was subject to several curtailments, modifications, and changes of location. Its probable original location was the Altar of St. Jerome, in the church of St. Zaccaria, near where it is at present. However, the altarpiece was stolen during the Napoleonic wars and transported to France. During this period the work was transferred from panel to canvas; it was returned to its original medium only after its restoration in 1976.
The altarpiece also experienced size modifications. Originally, the large-scale work was even larger. The scene was cut down from the bottom section of the floor to allow it to fit inside the arch of the chapel for which it was destined. The cut, offset by the sections at the top, however, altered the important perspective layout originally conceived by Giovanni Bellini.
The San Zaccaria Altarpiece is a work that belongs to the Renaissance period, particularly that of the Venetian area of which Giovanni Bellini was among the most important exponents. Renaissance aspects are, for example, the study of perspective in a scientific way, which Bellini applies in the checkerboard pavement and the construction of the arcade. The semicircular arrangement of the saints around the Madonna also creates depth. In addition, classical elements of the Greco-Roman tradition are present, harking back to the typically Renaissance taste for the classical era.
The work depicts a frequent theme in Renaissance culture, the sacred conversation, in which the enthroned Madonna is surrounded by saints recognizable by their iconographic attributes: St. Peter with the keys to Heaven and the Bible, St. Catherine with the wheel and the palm of martyrdom, St. Lucy with her eyes in the jar, and St. Jerome absorbed in reading. The choice of the two wise virgin saints can probably be explained by the location of the altarpiece, in the women’s convent of San Zaccaria.
However, Giovanni Bellini makes innovations by contextualizing the scene outdoors, in a landscape. The landscape element is included by depicting shrubs at the right and left ends and allowing a glimpse of a portion of the blue sky. Bellini is precise in his naturalistic depiction of vegetation. Fig and ivy leaves can be recognized.
Nature and the study of the landscape are interests present in Renaissance culture and typical in Giovanni Bellini’s style of painting. Placing a sacred scene in a natural landscape means placing it in a human, daily environment that can be investigated with new scientific methods.
From a stylistic point of view, the San Zaccaria Altarpiece is a late work by Bellini, who in his last phase of production moved closer and closer to tonalist painting and shows stylistic debts to Giorgione. The figures are not outlined with sharp contours but through shaded colors. The scene is achieved with color, spread tone on tone, and which amplifies the fusion between characters and landscape.
From a compositional point of view, the San Zaccaria Altarpiece picks up the models already used by Bellini in 1487 in the San Giobbe Altarpiece, preserved in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, with the same architectural framework. However, in the latest altarpiece, there is the introduction of the landscape.
Giovanni Bellini also introduces cultured quotations to earlier works by other artists: the egg hanging over Madonna’s head may refer to that in Piero della Francesca’s Brera Altarpiece (1472), a symbol of motherhood and rebirth; the hanging oil lamp recalls the same one in Andrea Mantegna’s San Zeno Altarpiece (1456-59).
What is a ‘sacred conversation’?
A Sacred Conversation is a common genre of Italian Renaissance painting and Giovanni Bellini’s art. It is a “holy conversation” depicting the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus among a group of saints. It represents a naturalistic and informal turning point in the representation of a sacred scene, very different from the hierarchical and rigid previous medieval composition. The group is effortless and represented in a unified space, in the same altarpiece, unlike the rigid ancient polyptychs.
What is the tonalist technique?
Tonalism is the painting technique used by Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and Venetian Renaissance painters. Unlike Florentine painting, the Venetians did not delineate figures and volumes with drawings and sharp outlines, but through color. They created figures tone-on-tone, with overlapping glazes of color, achieving a soft and plastic result.