Thursday, May 17, 2018



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.
Unlike in the muted San Zaccaria piece, where both mother and child look down, both mother and child here look outward and acknowledge with their hands the viewer.
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
Then comes the champion of those who endure plagues, Saint Sebastian, who was the saint associated with plagues in Venice and elsewhere. He was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity, then was shot at with arrows by his fellow soldiers, but he didn't die because none of the arrows pierced a major organ. He was nursed back to health by Irene. He stands here as a symbol of the power of faith in surviving calamity. Two arrows pierce his skin but he stands resolutely with arms behind his back, face resigned to the anger of his campmates.
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.
And then the musicians! Seated on the steps of the throne are three musicians, in the act of playing instruments, two lutes and one lira da braccio.
Bellini was friends with Giovanni da Ponte, a composer, musician and musical instrument-maker in Venice, and his instruments are perhaps painted here from life and with light falling on them from the right. The music extends the sensation of the panel to hearing so that we can imagine the scene with music wafting through the air around the throne and the saints. Music, after all, is healing, as everyone has experienced who knows a certain song or piece will put them in a good mood after they have listened to it.
         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.

The Latin inscription within the cherubim's wings reads "Ave, gratia plena" meaning "Hail, full of grace" and a larger circling inscription above their heads reads "Ave Virginei Flos Intemerate Pudoris," meaning "Hail, undefiled flower of virgin modesty. "
Both of these are hymn lines praising Mary for her virtues.
       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.
The small red line indicates the arms of the cross and the halfway point for the space of the painting.
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.
The space above the figures is the area filled with SPIRITUS, the spirit of faith required to ensure
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?

Friday, April 27, 2018



Around the same time that Botticelli was painting the San Barnabas Altarpiece, (see previous blog entry) 1485-88, Ghirlandaio was painting this large altarpiece for the church associated with the
Hospital of the Innocents, the first public orphanage in Florence. The Ghirlandaio painting was
removed from the church of Santa Maria degli Innocenti in 1786 and installed in the museum of the
Ospedale degli Innocenti in 1917.

Exterior of Brunelleschi's Ospedale degli Innocenti, 1419; museum now is the long hall where windows perch above the arches on the second floor:
 Della Robbia swaddled children on exterior in roundels:

Model and Plan of Hospital of the Innocents:

The YELLOW X marks the large courtyard (for the boys) and the PURPLE X marks the girls'
courtyard. Today there is still a daycare center in the building.  
The altarpiece in situ in what used to be the boys' dormitory:

Since the altarpiece was commissioned by the Guild that also paid Brunelleschi to create the building,
the Arte della Seta (guild of the silk workers,) the commissioners wanted a painting showing the Three Magi paying homage to Jesus as a child; they chose the Adoration of the Magi as the subject for their altar.
The three wise men, Magi, representing the three ages of man, youth, middle-age, and old age,
come with gifts for the Christ child:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The youngest on the left, with
blond hair, holds the myrrh in a crystal goblet:

The oldest king kneels below him and kisses the foot of the child. He has placed his gold gift on
the step. The middle-aged king wears a purple robe and hold the container for frankincense.
All three kings usually have crowns to identify them as kings.The crown for the oldest king looks like a gilded baseball cap and appears in front of the kneeling child. 
Where are the other two crowns? The two fancy hats worn by the guild members on the right look
bejewelled enough to be crowns, but does Ghirlandaio mean to suggest that they hold the crowns
for the kings until they take them back?
Just as, anachronistically, the Holy Family and the Kings and the saints all wear the gorgeous silk brocades of the 15th-century Silk Guild?

It is certainly true that the Silk Guild liked their wares being promoted this way in the altarpiece they
paid for. And before we think that that self-promotion is old-fashioned, we have only to look at the portraits that Ghirlandaio did of the prominent members of the Guild over on the right. These portraits look remarkably like contemporary members of the Corteo Storico in Florence:

Ghirlandaio knew how to please his customer. But that is not the only reason for this display of material wealth. In order to understand what else is going on in this painting, we must examine the
other subjects depicted.
In the Background Left:
The Massacre of the Innocents - the killing of all children up to the age of one by Herod when he heard that a new king had been born who would end up ruling over the Jews and Romans:

In this scene Roman soldiers with swords go after mothers with their babies as the women try to escape the slaughter.
Behind the figure group Ghirlandaio painted various iconic
buildings in Rome, as he remembered them after having spent several years there to paint on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. We can see the Colosseum, the Torre delle Milizie,
and the Pyramid of Cestius as well as Trajan's Column. Is
the new St. Peter's what he imagines on the top of the hill?
(The St. Peter's we see today was only begun in 1503.) But he is depicting Rome here to stand in for Jerusalem, and the Adoration scene takes place at a distance from the city, in  Bethlehem.
In the background right:
The Annunciation to the Shepherds:

Two shepherds can be seen looking up at the angel flying down to tell them about the birth.
Those same two shepherds, dressed in dark grey, reappear behind the Holy Family, as witnesses to the birth.
The artist inserts the date of the completion of the altarpiece 1488, in Roman numerals on the triumphal arch to the right:

Above the heads of the holy family fly four singing angels who unfurl a banner with the song they are singing:  GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO - Glory Be to God in the Highest, the phrase the Bible says was sung by angels when Jesus was born:
How like these angels the current daycare children dressed in white seem:
But those additions are not enough for Ghirlandaio. He includes a self-portrait over on the left behind the young king; the artist looks out at the viewer with serious intent.

And to the left of him, dressed in black, is the
Prior of the Ospedale, Francesco di Giovanni
Tesori; St. John's cross points to and appropriately emblazons his chest.

But the piece de resistance in this painting is barely discernible from afar. Ghirlandaio has painted into the foreground of the scene two kneeling babies, two innocents, the INNOCENTI for whom the building was conceived, the orphans of 15th-century Italy.

The one on the right is guided forward by St. John the Evangelist. The one on the left is looked out for by St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the city of Florence.
The children face away from the viewer and toward the Holy Family and the Three Kings; they, too, are paying homage to the Christ Child, who is even younger than they are. But are these the swaddling children whose parents abandoned them to the care of the community? These toddlers have haloes, white gowns, and THEY ARE BLEEDING!

The one on the right has blood dripping from a cut on his left arm.
The one on the left has his face, neck, and arm pock-marked with bloody gouges, as though he were a child-flagellant.
Both lift hands in prayer as though begging for salvation from the child who, as a man later, says, "Suffer the little children to come unto me."

One of the messages Ghirlandaio conveys with the presence of these wounded children in the foreground is that Florence takes care of its innocents, orphans, unlike Rome, in the background,
where children are being slaughtered. But he is also painting an essay on innocence itself, wounded in every century, needing protection from saints and community leaders. These Innocenti in white  gowns with sparkling gold haloes, are souls of children, who seek to retain their innocence even as they are praying to be relieved of their suffering.
The pathos of their plight as orphans might not be as deeply felt by the viewer if Ghirlandaio had not
painted them bleeding. They would have been ordinary toddlers present at the birth of the Christ Child. Recent studies of the Hospital of the Innocents indicate that it was not only unwanted pregnancies that were solved by the institution, but that the women who were the wet-nurses in Florence for the patrician women left their children under the care of the institution while they took care of the children of the wealthier women. The altarpiece tries to make up for that injustice by
suggesting that these babies, no matter whose, are important to promote and tenderly mind.
The blood droplets remind the viewer of the blood shed by Jesus for all souls at the Crucifixion, but they also remind the viewer that the altarpiece was also made for children abandoned at birth, wounded from the beginning, who need special care and comfort. And what could be more comforting than to be surrounded by caring adults and enveloped by beautiful swaths of silk cloth!
The implication is that the wealth of the Guild will provide for them. We, as twenty-first century viewers, are left to wonder how innocence will be protected in our own time.