In a New Light
Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert
By Susannah Rutherglen and Charlotte Hale
(The Frick Collection, New York
In Association with D Giles Limited. London, 2015)
Not many visitors to the Frick Collection fail to notice a remarkable early Renaissance panel: St Francis in the Desert (also known as St. Francis in Ecstasy). The saint turns away from a dark hermitage at Mount La Verna where he has been engaged in meditation. He rises up to behold a divine light transforming both himself and the resplendent landscape that a spreads out before him. It seems that only through withdrawal and asceticism has St. Francis first been empowered to perceive the beauty of the world about him.
In a New Light is devoted entirely to this work, one of the masterpieces of Giovanni Bellini (1424/35 – 1516) the first supreme master of Venetian painting. The work was created in a society in which the contradictions of later ages had not yet emerged. In was a world in which theology, artistic technique, business and politics, public and private devotion were inextricably intertwined and “mutually enriching” (to apply a recent phrase). The patron was a leading man of the day – but not of the nobility. Both patron and artist belonged to the same lay confraternity. “The size of the panel, the care bestowed on its autograph design and the use of high quality ultramarine in the sky bespeak the work’s prestige and expense.”
It was a work intended for a private home or chapel. St. Francis in the Desert was:
“Among the most detailed of Bellini’s larger pictures, suggesting the work was intended to be scrutinized close up in an intimate setting rather than viewed from afar in a communal one. In the context of personal religious devotion, highly polished works….invite the spectator to embark on a meditational voyage, with the incidental discovery of minute details a reward for prolonged engagement and attentive viewing. (p. 123-24).
For the fact is that the incredible naturalist detail of mountains, towns, clothing plants and animals does not detract from the spiritual significance of this painting but reinforces it. The same can be said of the other innovations of Bellini: the use of oil paints, the depiction of the effects of natural light and of perspective and most obviously the creative departure from the usual iconography of the stigmatization of Saint Francis. Maureen Mullarkey has recently written insightfully on the difference between the “sense of the sacred” embodied in Isenheimer Altar of Grunewald and the “technically” focused, realistic art of Titian. In the case of Giovanni Bellini, however, such a contradiction does not yet exist:
The perceptive treatment of natural light furthers an essential aim of Bellini’s art: to create an illusion so convincing as to draw the spectator into authentic visionary experience, the sense that divinity has become fully and actually present in this world. (p.105)
As the authors state, summarizing the art historian Millard Meiss:
The golden effulgence at the panels upper left hand corner was, (Meiss) argued, the symbol of an “unseen power” that miraculously sealed Francis’s flesh with the stigmata and transformed him into the likeness of God incarnate. Bellini’s spreading landscape supplied a true receptacle for this hallowed light, drawing all creation into ecstatic transformation.
Yet this painting depicts not the stigmatization of St. Francis, but his transfiguration. Francis has indeed become an Alter Christus – but only by first participating in Christ’s suffering. Indeed, In a New Light is almost a course in itself on Franciscan mystical theology of the late middle ages.
Other chapters in this book by the authors and several other contributors tell us all about the history and context of the painting. Its well-documented path from Venice to New York is laid out. The technical findings from the recent restoration are presented. By comparing St Francis in the Desert with other works by Bellini and his contemporaries the authors propose dating the work to 1476-78. And Michael F Cusato OFM traces the picture back to Franciscan vernacular texts that were circulating in Italy at the end of the 15th century. He argues that the painting is not a direct product of the observant friars themselves but of the lay Franciscan environment of urban Venice.
So much can be learned from just one painting! In a New Light is a thorough guide. But before reading about this painting you should first visit the Frick Collection and contemplate St. Francis in the Desert for yourself…