Before Bellini painted his altarpiece for the church of San Zaccaria in Venice (see my blog entry for that,) he was commissioned to do a huge altarpiece for a Venetian church connected to a hospital, the church of San Giobbe (Saint Job.) In Venice even Old Testament figures are candidates for sainthood,
and so it was with Job, whose suffering and faith made him a perfect exemplar for the hospital patients associated with the church. In this altarpiece, all the saints suffer physical wounds, and though those wounds are not always presented by Bellini, the patients who looked at these figures would have known what physical trial each saint had endured and might have taken heart from the shared suffering. The church where the painting stood originally still exists in Venice,
but the altarpiece was removed for safekeeping to the Accademia in Venice.
The painting is a very large sacra conversazione, a sacred conversation, where saints are the same size as the Madonna and share the same space of the holy figures, mother and child, on a throne.
From the left the saints in the San Giobbe altarpiece are:
St. Francis John the Baptist Saint Job Saint Dominic Saint Sebastian
St Louis of Toulouse
Francis opens his robe to show the stigmata wound on his chest, while holding out his hands and feet
with theirs. The three knots on the rope tied round his robe signify charity, humility, and poverty, the
three tenets of Franciscan life.
St. John the Baptist holds his cross staff and has wild hair; he was imprisoned by Herod and then
executed by beheading when Salome asks Herod for that favor, an irreversible wound.
Job, of course, is the patron name saint of the church and hospital, so he is shown here, semi-naked,
praying to God (the Christ Child) to relieve him of his terrible trials. Job was first stricken with boils all over his body, then he lost his children, and then his wife, and he questions his faith in God when
these bad things happen. But he learns to trust God that his skin will be restored to him, and in the end, his body gets rid of the boils, he marries again and has more children, so his family in a sense is restored as well. Bellini chooses not to show Job's boils, but his white beard and scanty clothing mark him as the Old Testament figure who survives his wounds.
Then comes St. Dominic, the rival of St. Francis; he is shown with a tonsured head and holds a book,
seeking solace in the word of God, perhaps indicating what patients should try to do when suffering illness. His brother died in a plague, which may give him a place in a painting about living beyond
And last on the right is St. Louis of Toulouse, a bishop in France who died young; since he is not associated with plague suffering, perhaps his presence is required for the name of a patron who paid
for the altarpiece.
Above the Virgin is an apse supported by pilasters that resemble the original frame in the church itself, as can be seen in these photos, something lost when viewing the painting in its current location in the Accademia in Venice.
The gold mosaic in the curved apse behind the Madonna's head is meant to be an extension of the actual space of the altar and resembles the gold mosaic work found in many Venetian churches today.
Two astonishing things set this altarpiece apart from others painted at the same time:
1) The one-point perspective leads the eye to the signature of the artist in the cartellino at the bottom
of the throne: It reads IOANNES
BELLINUS (Giovanni Bellini)
2) The halfway mark of the length of the altarpiece is the center of the cross above the head of the Madonna.
What that means is the air in the apse created by the altarpiece takes up HALF of the painting, with
all the figures below. Why does the painter give such importance to the AIR in this painting?
If we go back and read medical treatises from the 15th century in Venice, we may be able to understand the emphasis in this altarpiece.
In the 15th century people believed that the human body was made up of various organs and
elements and that if you treated one element that was ailing you might cure the person of disease. FIVE sections of the body were considered for healing by doctors, and four of these were connected to the four elements thought to make up the earth, in Italian ARIA, FUOCO, TERRA, and ACQUA.
AIR was associated with blood or youthfulness
FIRE was associated with yellow bile or anger
EARTH was associated with black bile or melancholy
WATER was associated with phlegm or lethargy
Certain personality traits were considered a combination of elements and if you worked on healing
the elements of those traits you could make a person well. I don't think Bellini is thinking about
these four elements in presenting the figures in his altarpiece, but I do think he was conscious of
THE FIFTH ELEMENT mentioned by doctors in medical treatises in the 15th century. (See Nancy G. Siraisi's book, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine.) That element is SPIRITUS.
Spiritus, in these treatises, seems to be connected to the organ of the HEART. It is an intangible element that we might today call the "will to live." The spirit of the person ultimately has a say in whether the body gets better from the illness it is afflicted with, in most cases. A person's spirit will not be the only factor in healing but doctors in hospitals even today acknowledge that recovery from operations or from debilitating episodes can be affected by how strongly the person wishes to live and thrive.
Bellini is painting this intangible quality into the atmosphere around the sacra conversazione for the church of San Giobbe.
healing. Bellini knows the power of music to fill in that space with serene resolution. And all of the saintly figures standing in the space are aware of the power of the spirit to revive and foster healing.
Bellini pays homage to music's ability to soothe here, but the beauty of his saintly figures also
serves to nourish even the poor visitor/viewer today whose only malady is the stress of travel. The beauty of this collection of survivors touches the heart, the SPIRITUS, even while the original hospital setting is nowhere near. Whose life experience can ever be as sorrowful as that of Job? Francis and Sebastian try to compete for suffering, but Job stands alone in the group as the one who knows the worst and has found a way to keep going. If that is not inspiring, I don't know what is, and what is inspiration except SPIRITUS?