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. :)