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Illusional Space in Giovanni Bellini's Sacred Conversation

Giovanni Bellini and His Subject

The Venetian School of Art refers to a distinctive artistic tradition that emerged in Venice, Italy, during the Renaissance and developed in the late 15th century. The School is known for its unique approach to painting that primarily focuses on colour, light, atmosphere, and a more emotional depiction of subjects. Gombrich, an Austrian-born art historian (1901-2001), introduced Venetian painters as artists who aimed to spread out the purest colours they could obtain with shining gold and ultramarine blue as a favorite combination (Hartt, 1994). For Venetian painters, colour was not a mere additional adornment for the picture, rather it was one of the principal means of uniting the figures into the painting. Among the number of fundamental masters, Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), was one of the most celebrated and influential Italian Renaissance painters who greatly contributed to the development of Venetian painting. He was born in Venice, Italy in 1430 as a member of a prominent artistic family. His father, Jacopo Bellini (1360-1470), was already an accomplished painter in Venice, and played a significant role in influencing his sons, Giovanni Bellini as well as Gentile Bellini (1429-1507). Bellini, despite extreme old age, continued executing paintings of the greatest depth and beauty up until he died in 1516. As a leading Venetian painter, he was best known for not only his technique of colour but also light and atmosphere, which create richly detailed and emotionally resonant works as is evident in his famous work, Madonna with Saints (1505) [Figure 1].

Figure 1: "Madonna with Saints" (Bellini, 1505).

Bellini’s paintings often had religious and mythological subjects, and he was especially skilled at representing sacred scenes with the luminosity of natural light. Sacred conversation, the genre developed in the Italian Renaissance with the representation of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in a group of Saints, was, for instance, one of the fundamental subject matters that Bellini portrayed in his paintings (Harrt, 1994). In Christian tradition, sacred conversation is traditionally represented on an altarpiece in which attendant Saints are assembled in a unified space around the Virgin with infant Jesus in a single chapel. British art historian Thomas Sherrer Ross Boase mentions in his publication that the first sacred conversation represented in an Italian painting may be Maestà by Duccio di Boninsegna for Siena Cathedral (1308-1311) [Figure 2]. Madonna with Saints, which Bellini painted over the altar in 1505, is one of Bellini's masterpieces representing the holy conversation with a sense of harmony. Bellini’s expressive power of colours has influenced the Venetian school of paintings for another three centuries. The harmonious colour scheme enhances the painting’s sublime beauty and creates the mood of silent serenity of sacred conversation (Brown, 2019).

Figure 2: "Maestà" (Duccio, 1308-1311).

Bellini’s Technical Development

Bellini, as the official painter of the Republic of Venice, executed Madonna with Saints in the church of Saint Zaccaria in Venice at the age of 75 (Gombrich, 1995). Bellini’s altarpiece proved his masterly skills regardless of his age and reassured his position as the dominant force in Venetian painting (Brown, 2019). Until the late 15th century, the technique of fresco and tempera (a mixture of pigments and egg yolk) on the panel was commonly applied in other parts of Italy. The traditional method of fresco required dry conditions to properly adhere to the walls, but Venice's humid environment made this impractical. As is evident in Giorgione and Titian's central fresco that once adorned the exterior of Fondaco dei Tedeschi [Figure 3], the plaster of frescoes has deteriorated quickly in the great humidity and salty winds in Venice (Hickson, n.d.). George Vasari (1511-1574), the most influential author for his biographies of Italian Renaissance artists, warned against the use of fresco in humidity in 1550:

[...] painted in fresco, and it is a great pity that time has consumed it so cruelly. For my part, I know nothing that injures works in fresco more than the sirocco, and particularly near the sea, where it always brings a salt moisture with it (Vasari, 1550, p. 61).

As a result, immediately after the new technique of oil became available in the late 15th century in Venice, Bellini gradually abandoned the traditional techniques of fresco and instead applied oil paint, which could dry slowly and be mixed on the canvas (Hickson, n.d.). In Madonna with Saints, as in Bellini’s other later panel paintings of religious subjects, oil was, therefore, used as the principal binding medium (Brown, 2019). Not only was the new medium more durable, but it allowed Bellini to fully explore the stylistic possibilities of oil, particularly rich colours and the naturalistic effects of light (Brown, 2019).

Figure 3: Fragments of central fresco for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (Giorgione & Titian, 1507).

Bellini’s Harmonious Space

The planes of brightly saturated colour are not the only elements that create a harmonious space. To express a peaceful serenity and a soft atmosphere, Bellini depicted natural light. Rodolfo Pallucchini (1908-1989), a scholar of Venetian Renaissance, claims in his publication, that in Madonna with Saints, Bellini made the apse slightly narrower to offer a glimpse of the landscape on either side to give the picture a deeper sense of warm light and natural light (Pallucchini, 1962). To suggest how the glimpse of the landscape adds a great harmony to the illusionistic place in this painting, Rodolfo compares Bellini’s Madonna with Saints with the San Giobbe Altarpiece [Figure 4] painted by Bellini in 1487. In the San Giobbe Altarpiece, which was executed 18 years before Madonna with Saints, Bellini already represented the scene of sacred conversation in the same architectural setting. In this work, however, Bellini applied the gentle nuances of chiaroscuro over the chapel to create a defined space. Instead of lights, the shadows were more emphasized, making the sculptural elements and bodies of the figures effectively stand out. On the other hand, In Madonna with Saints, Bellini painted natural light to generate total coherence. To create harmony, he left the chapel unclosed, allowing it to illuminate the internal space with painted natural light. The spectators, therefore, glimpse the blue sky and elegant trees springing up from a green lawn on both sides of the chapel.

Figure 4: "San Giobbe Altarpiece" (Bellini, 1487).

Moreover, Pallucchini compares Bellini’s Madonna with Saints with the Castelfranco Madonna (1504) (Figure 5) executed by Giorgione (1477-1510) to showcase how the position of Bellini’s Mary plays an important role in enhancing its harmonious coherence in the space. In Giorgione’s painting, the Virgin with infant Jesus is seated on a very high throne, while being exposed against a full-scale landscape background. According to Frederick Hartt (1914-1991), an Italian art historian, Giorgione’s Mary is seemingly as remote as Cimabue’s Virgin and Child Enthroned, and Prophets (1290-1300) [Figure 6]. Hartt commented on the position of Mary and its effect on the harmony:

It is seated on an up-high throne of alternating coloured and white marble blocks of great size, rising beyond the limits of the frame and so completely without visible steps that we can only assume she came there through the air or, miraculously, just is there (Hartt, 1994, p. 530).

On the other hand, Bellini’s Madonna is more engaged in the crowd and surroundings. In Bellini’s Madonna with Saints, Mary is placed on a throne, but in which the viewers can climb up. Unlike Giorgione’s Mary, Bellini’s Mary is placed close to the other figures and her throne only has a few steps to reach her. While keeping its majesty, in Madonna with Saints, Mary is not presented as distant or separate from the others, rather becoming a part of the crowd, effectively creating a unified atmosphere in the space.

Figure 5: "The Castelfranco Madonna" (Giorgione, 1504).

Figure 6: "Virgin and Child Enthroned, and Prophets"(Cimabue, 1290-1300).

Bellini’s Illusional Space

Instead of depicting the sacred conversation as an event happening independently of the spectator, Bellini portrayed it as a timeless vision that invites worshippers into its embrace (Humfrey, 2021). The quality of timelessness is prominent in this painting, because all the figures, the Virgin, the Saints, and even the spectators are from different times. In the centre of the composition, the Virgin is seated on the throne with an infant Jesus on her lap, slightly supported by her right hand. On the left and right sides of the Virgin, there are paired figures, and each consists of a female and a male Saint. Beside the pillars, St. Peter and Jerome (347-420) are posed frontally toward the spectators while the female saints, St. Catherin of Alexandria (287-305) and St. Lucy (283-304) are shown in profile against the apse. At the feet of Mary, a musician angel is peacefully playing the violin. Among the other seven, the angel is the only figure who gives a glance to the viewers [Figure 7]. Hartt highlights in his publication the harmonious air among the figures:

As a result, the intimacy, immediacy, and sweetness of the altarpieces of Bellini’s maturity are replaced by a certain remoteness, increased by the meditative calm of the saints, each wrapped in a voluminous mantle, each separated from the next by an enveloping tower of light and dark and of spiritual isolation. The outlines are now vaguer than ever, sometimes almost completely dissolved in light or in shadow, but the great master’s control of form remains absolute. Every mass is felt in its essence, every relation harmonious and clear (Hartt, 1994, p. 374).

Figure 7: Angel (detail) from "Madonna with Saints" (Bellini, 1505).

To assure the timelessness of sacred conversation, Bellini not only presented the physical unity among the figures in the work but also created a sense of belonging among the viewers. To understand which architectural element invites the viewers into the painting, it is important to analyze the position of the Virgin’s throne in the painted chapel. Bellini depicted the entire imagined architectural structure as if it were an apse of the church. The Virgin with infant Christ is placed in the centre position where, in the actual architectural space, the altar is placed. The seated Virgin is positioned on the raised throne, inviting the viewers’ attention directly at first. Bellini placed the Virgin and Child in the same way as a church altar would be placed in the actual architecture of a building (Hickson, n.d.). The presence of the throne in the centre, illuminated by the shadow and light, encourages spectators to feel as if they face toward the actual altar of the building and worship the sacred figures in practice. Therefore, viewers are invited not only to witness the sacred event but also emotionally get involved in the internal world. This sense of belonging and involvement are fundamental qualities that further enrich the message of the sacred conversation in Madonna with Saints.

Bellini’s Painted Architecture

Bellini’s skills in eliminating the boundary between the church and the world inside the painting must be noted. Despite a fictive architectural space, the viewers appreciate the painting as if they simply look at it through a window. In the church of Saint Zaccaria, Bellini’s work is framed by a semicircular arch with a flower-designed keystone in the centre point with two pilasters decorated with running floral scrollwork (Figure 8). The illusionistic interplay between the real architecture and that of the painted is effectively expressed through the two elements; the projecting arch, and real natural light. Inside the painting, on the left and right sides, the arches that support the vaulting appear to project forward the picture plane. Picture plane, in art, is the transparent division between the fictive internal space and the real space outside, which is an important consideration when the artist creates an impression of space within the painting (Humfrey, 2021). This picture plane is effectively broken down because of the projecting arches, making the spectators emotionally engaged in the sacred event. With the precise light and shadow covered on the lower arch and keystone, the fictive arches on both sides, become a mere continuation of the actual architecture. The painted arch no longer seems to be painted but seems to be built.

Figure 8: "Madonna with Saints" (Bellini, 1505).

Furthermore, in addition to the arch, actual light is the other significant element that eliminates the boundary. Hung between the large-scale Baroque paintings on the left wall of the church San Zaccaria, Bellini’s Madonna with Saints magnificently stands out because of its architectural frame, but also because it responds precisely to the actual natural light that comes from the window in the facade (Hickson, n.d). While examining the precise location of the altar, Bellini mathematically calculated the composition of the painting in accordance with the light. This seamlessness of light and shadow allows the figures to become three-dimensional beings, transforming the illusory space into reality (Hickson, n.d.). As a result, when viewed with the actual architecture that frames the painting, the imagined architecture seems to be an extension of the physical space of the church. This technique of spacious unification is a clear invention that Bellini has accomplished in this painting.


Bellini's influence extended beyond his lifetime, and he had a profound impact on later generations of Venetian painters, including Giorgione (1477-1510) and Titian (1485-1576) (Hartt, 1994). As discussed above, Madonna with Saints especially showcases his great creation of illusional space with the effects of colour, light, atmosphere, and emotional depth. In the painting, the narrowed apse with the glimpse of the landscape allows the perfect portion of light, adding a harmonious atmosphere over the divine space. This soft air then creates a physical unity among the represented figures, yet the Virgin’s raised throne functions as an altar further creating total coherence. Bellini was able to create the emotional connections between worshippers and the sacred figures within, not only through harmony in the painting but also by eliminating the boundary between the real architectural structure and the imagined architectural space. Giovanni Bellini is widely renowned as a pioneering Venetian artist, celebrated for his innovative pigmentation. However, his representation of harmonious and unified atmosphere with other significant effects such as light is one of the most celebrated achievements that Venetian schools made in the 15th century in Italy. The altarpiece of Madonna with Saints is the one that demonstrates his incredible talents of illusional space and its beauty.

Bibliographical References

Bober, P. P., Rubinstein, R., & Woodford, S. (1986). Renaissance Artists Antique Sculpture: a Handbook of Sources. Harvey Miller.

Brown, D. A. (2019). Giovanni Bellini: the Last Works. Skira.

Gombrich, E. H. (1995). The Story of Art (Vol.12). Phaidon.

Hartt, F. (1994). History of Italian Renaissance Art. Pearson Education.

Humfrey, P. (2021). Giovanni Bellini: An Introduction / Peter Humfrey. Marsilio Editori.

Hickson, S. (n.d.). Giovanni Bellini San Zaccaria Altarpiece. Khan Academy. Last accessed January 5th. Retrieved from: renaissance1/venice-early-ren/a/giovanni-bellini-san-zaccaria-altarpiece

Pallucchini, R. (1962). Giovanni Bellini / by Rodolfo Pallucchini. Aldo Martello.

Riedmatten, H., Gaffo, F., & Jaccard, M. (Eds.). (2023). Restoration As Fabrication of

Origins: A Material and Political History of Italian Renaissance Art. Walter de Gruyter

GmbH & Co KG.

Vasari, G. (1998). The Lives of the Artists. OUP Oxford.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Kotono Sakai

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