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The Bellini altarpiece in San Zaccaria


San Zaccariadetail

The photos above show Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints, in the church of San Zaccaria where there are almost always a group of people gathered in front of the painting in rapt silence. So many recognizable Venetian details in this painting: the gold mosaics above the Virgin, the red and white marble floor, the mascaron on the top of the throne, a Murano glass lamp hanging down, the Lombardi carvings surrounding the scene, all the glimpses of veined marble. The architecture in the painting is connected to the actual frame itself with tiny glimpses of trees and skies on each side. Everyone is so quiet and beautiful, and only the young angel looks out at us.

The very top part of the painting is missing – this happened in the 19th century when the French stole the painting and took it to Paris. J.G. Links (Venice for Pleasure) tells us that this theft had a happy result -

"This was one of the treasures stolen by Napoleon and it was kept in Paris for twenty years during which time it was transferred from panel to canvas. Nowhere but in Paris could this have been done at the time and it probably saved the picture for posterity."

So thanks to the French for saving it, but thank goodness it was returned to Venice AND to San Zaccaria. I'm glad it's not hanging in the Louvre - it's a painting that definitely belongs in a church.

A sacra conversazione is a type of painting which shows a group of saints in “sacred conversation” surrounding the Mother and Child. Rather than illustrating a Bible story or legend about a saint, these paintings show the sacred figures in some kind of divine trance or state of intense devotion, and are meant to inspire the same timeless state in the viewer. Not every painting manages to do this, but this one does. Sit in front of this one for a while and you'll get blissed out, I promise. It's a little window to another world.

The saints in the painting are Peter and Catherine on the left, Lucia and Jerome (or James) on the right. And the sweet musician angel in the front.


Here's a photo of the altarpiece inside the church (photo is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website). As you can see, San Zaccaria is dripping with art on virtually every surface (don't even try to look at it all). I always go straight to the Bellini and hang out for a while, and then explore the rest of the church. Bring some coins for the light box.


Last winter in Venice, I spent an evening in the lounge of the locanda with a group of fellow Venice lovers from around the world. We were drinking wine and quizzing each other...what's your favorite church, favorite sestiere, etc. and someone asked, which Bellini altarpiece is your favorite, the one in the Frari or the one in San Zaccaria? Several people did have a favorite but not me, I love them both and it's too hard to choose. I look forward to visiting both of them each time I return to Venice. :)

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Comments (12)

Wow! I am in amazement at the beauty of this painting and then to see it in the church surrounded by even more art. What an amazing church. This church is definitely on my list now.

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Annie, thank you for your inspiring description of this beautiful alterpiece. It is so interesting to learn about the sacred conversation. I had not heard of that before. Interesting how you point out that the little angel playing the violin is the only one looking up. She has a great expression on her face.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and writing about this amazing church and all the interesting history, architecture and beautiful altarpiece. It is definitely on my must list see now.

Have a great day today!


Wonderful post, Annie. This church really does seem to be "dripping" with art -- I love that description!

San Zaccaria is definitely at the top of my must-see list for my next trip to Venice!

Such an inspirational post. Love the idea of being 'blissed' out by art - especially in such an amazing backdrop! Ah, the wonders of Venice never cease.


Beautiful!! :)

Thanks for your comments everyone. Glad that San Zaccaria is on your lists!

Menehune, the setting is a big part of it. This painting would still be an amazing masterpiece if it were in a museum, but it wouldn't be the same. Plus, in this church you can sit down and really "commune" with it.


Gorgeous photos, Annie. I agree that paintings are so much more wonderful in their church settings than in museums. Also know just what you mean about getting a glimpse through a window to another world, what an incredible feeling that is. The artists who paint such works are so gifted, and we in turn are gifted by their talent. Thanks for a wonderful post! Have a great weekend :)

Wow! Great art you are showing here! What an amazing church! Thanks for sharing the history with us.

The altarpiece is just magnificent! There’s so much detail on this painting and such luminous colors.

A year ago today I took my flight to Venice and I wished that I had known about this altarpiece back then. I would have loved to be blissed out by its beauty.

I was in Venice in 2000, and the church was closed for renovation. This altarpiece was hanging in the Academia museum where I saw it in a room with several other very large altarpieces. It was quite beautiful, and I am actually glad it's back in the church now. I can't wait to go back and see the church now. In Venice, being closed for renovation can also mean closed for the foreseeable future.

Hi Tess, thanks for your comment. I too am so glad it's back in the church now. And you are right, some of these renovation projects in Venice last for years if not decades. I hope you're able to visit soon!

Hi again Tess, I looked at your website and your art is fantastic! I love the Venice inspired pieces and the shrines! And the shrine kits. Love them!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 11, 2009 2:32 PM.

The previous post in this blog was San Zaccaria.

The next post in this blog is Torcello (part one).

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