Fit for a Saint

Nicholas Penny

  • The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice by Peter Humfrey
    Yale, 382 pp, £19.95, May 1995, ISBN 0 300 05358 4
  • Italian Altarpieces 1250-1550: Function and Design edited by Eve Borsook and Fiorella Superbi Gioffredi
    Oxford, 296 pp, £45.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 19 817223 0

The most significant event to have taken place in Italy in recent years, as far as the art and architecture of that country is concerned, is the institution of an annual opening of numerous normally inaccessible historic buildings in Naples, organised by the private charity Napoli Novantanove. The two open days in May last year attracted a million visitors. Few of them, I suspect, came from the UK, where the episode was little noticed, and where Naples, sadly, is now little loved, but the success of this initiative has been well publicised in Italy. It coincides with a determination to reverse the trend towards the closure of more and more old buildings, and a recognition that surveillance provides better security against theft than locks and alarms. Visitors to Venice are beginning to benefit from this new policy. San Sebastiano, which contains the world’s greatest collection of paintings by Veronese, and the Madonna dell’Orto, which contains the most moving and sublime of Tintoretto’s canvases, have been reopened, as have many other churches in the quieter (often eerily silent) quarters of the city, well off the main tourist routes.

Venice retains within its churches more of the late medieval and Renaissance paintings that were made for them than any other city in Europe. In the Frari we can see in their original settings altarpieces by Bartolomeo Vivarini and Giovanni Bellini, and two of the greatest altarpieces by Titian, including the high altarpiece of the church, the Assunta. But this is one of the largest and most splendid churches in Italy; what is more remarkable is that many smaller Venetian churches, such as S. Giovanni Crisostomo, retain, among the dusty debris of the last century’s piety and the electric aids of today’s, masterpieces which were made for them in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In S. Giovanni Crisostomo we find one of Bellini’s greatest paintings, his late altarpiece of Saint Jerome between Saints Christopher and Louis of Toulouse, which is reproduced on the jacket of The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice. The book opens with a consideration of which elements in this painting were conditioned by its setting. The church interior is illustrated in black and white to show how the arched vault in the altarpiece echoes that of the chapel in which it is placed and how the pilasters of the painting’s stone frame echo those which mark the entrance to the chapel itself. The lighting on the saints in the painting accords with the natural light which comes into the church from the entrance wall.

Humfrey’s concern with the settings of altarpieces and with their cost and manner of construction means that he has much to say about frames. In the Appendix entry for Titian’s Assunta he emphasises something that most visitors to the Frari will hardly think about, even if they notice it: the sculptural adornment of the stone frame, the huge statues of Saint Francis and Saint Anthony of Padua beside the Resurrected Christ on top, and the relief of the dead Christ projecting into the painting from the lower edge. Yet these elements of the altarpiece were certainly not of peripheral interest to the friars. It might not have upset Titian to discover that little attention is now paid to them, but it is worth reflecting on how diminished the dramatic impact of his narrative rendering of the Assumption would be, had he incorporated into the painting Saint Francis and Saint Anthony in clearly recognisable form, as he surely would have been obliged to do had this sculptural frame not been devised.

Bartolomeo Vivarini’s earlier St Mark polyptych, also in the Frari, has an elaborate wooden frame appropriate to this Gothic setting. It is untouched by the painter’s taste for antique Roman ornament, yet as Humfrey notes, the ‘busy curling’ throne, ‘the restlessly linear treatment’ of the draperies and ‘the suppression of deep space’ in the painting are designed to match the character of the wood-carving which seems to grow out of it. The frame also depicts prophets rising from the finials of the side gables, a pair of kneeling angels (originally holding pennants), and the Virgin with her hands crossed on her breast – presumably the Virgin Annunciate – crowning the central gable. These elements may easily be missed by eyes used to looking at polyptychs in museums, separated (as they generally are) from their frames.

The original relationship between frame and painting was not always satisfactory: one might wish that Sebastiano da Milano had not stuck carved cherubim on his frame in an attempt to match those painted in the sky above the baptised Christ in Cima da Conegliano’s altarpiece for the Venetian church of S. Giovanni in Bragora. This sort of relationship, between imagery inside and outside the painting, is, however, very revealing. In Bellini’s altarpiece in S. Zaccaria the real architecture of the frame is continued in the fictive architecture within the painting, not only a stunning spatial device, but one which entailed the replication in paint of the antique green marble used for the frame’s frieze. The reflection within the altarpiece itself of luxurious materials used in the church was an important part of the appeal of Bellini’s work and that of his followers.

Numerous Venetian altarpieces include the same orange-pink and cream Verona marble paving that is found on the floors of the churches where they hang, but we no longer find the tangible equivalents to the oriental carpets, damask hangings, jewel-encrusted robes, and silver and gold and glass accessories which are so skilfully represented in these pictures: the altars now tend to be bare, the curtains are gone (although Humfrey spotted some rails) and it is very unlikely that a priest standing in S. Giovanni Crisostomo, a few feet away from Bellini’s Saint Louis of Toulouse, will be wearing vestments of comparable splendour. Yet Giorgio Diletti, the merchant who endowed the chapel where Bellini’s altarpiece was erected, commissioned other altar furniture together with the painting. And Humfrey reminds us that in liturgical terms the altarpiece was ‘one of the least essential items of the altar’s furniture’. The rejection of the altarpiece as a mirror of the chapel and its furniture was a consequence of the great changes made by Titian. He wanted to represent a reality far more sublime than any that could be found within the church itself and, having first toyed with the idea of repeating the architecture of the frame of his Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari within the painting, he replaced it with a scheme of greater magnificence. Similarly, the decorum and order of divine service which Bellini mirrored in his altarpieces, together with the luxurious furnishings of the chapel, were ignored by Titian in his great narrative altarpieces of the Assumption, the Annunciation, the Resurrection and the Death of Peter Martyr.

In front of the bare altar below Bellini’s painting in S. Giovanni Crisostomo today, there is a box into which money can be put in order to illuminate the painting by spotlights. Humfrey provides a fuller discussion of the original lighting of Renaissance altarpieces than any previously attempted. It is of course important to note how the light in Bellini’s painting corresponds with the lighting in the church, but Humfrey also observes that this correspondence can only be partial at best and his account suggests that the use of light in the altarpieces was in any case governed by convention. Certainly it is not simply a ‘rational’ solution, as is often claimed, least of all in this painting by Bellini, where the sun is setting behind figures which are lit from above and from the front.

Humfrey also wonders how visible the paintings would have been: many Venetian church interiors were even darker than they are today (S. Giovanni Crisostomo is an example of a Renaissance church to which extra clerestory windows were added in a later century). One answer to this puzzle might be that in circumstances where we switch on the lights, or give up if there aren’t any, our ancestors simply waited for their eyes to adjust. In the Frari they can adjust perfectly well, but in other cases the only explanation must be the one supplied by Humfrey: that there was ‘abundant artificial illumination from the many candles and lamps that usually surrounded altars, especially during the celebration of Mass’. He notes that glass oil-lamps are often depicted hanging above the Virgin’s throne in altarpieces by Bellini and his followers. These, too, would have reflected the actual chapel furnishing – lamps of similar character would have hung in front of the altarpiece. He also quotes from the regulations of a confraternity, stating that six large candles should be lit on a special feast day, and adds that on certain occasions worshipping confraternity members would all have held tapers. ‘We may well imagine that during these ceremonies Bellini’s altarpiece was made radiant with a light at least as strong and warm as the electric lighting now installed in Venetian churches.’

It would not be difficult to conduct an experiment that would test this claim. The one thing which is quite certain is that the quality of the light would be very different from electric lighting. Moreover, it would take a very big ceremony to produce anything equivalent to the spotlights we now buy for the price of an espresso (and which last about the time it takes to drink one). If this supposition is correct, it suggests that many of these altarpieces only really came to life when they were ‘in use’.

The attention Humfrey gives to the purposes which Renaissance altarpieces were designed to serve is one of the most impressive aspects of his book. His characteristically cogent summary is worth quoting: the altarpiece ‘was intended first and foremost as a devotional aid for the laity in their quest for the soul’s salvation. To this end, it served to draw proper attention to the Christian altar as the locus of the redemptive sacrament; it helped identify the altar’s titular saint or mystery; it presented the worshipper with an array of well-disposed saintly intercessors; and it could also be useful in instructing him in, and reminding him of, the basic tenets of his faith.’

Art historians dedicated to reconstructing altarpieces which have been dismembered and putting them back in their original frames and chapels (at least on paper) are understandably keen to emphasise the rich and complex unity of the works they study. In truth, though, many altarpieces do not have a unified meaning precisely because of the varied purposes which they were made to serve. The different parts of the high altarpiece of the Frari, for example, may look well together, but they are hardly united in meaning: the interceding saints are separate from the painting of the mystery of the Assumption, so is the relief of the dead Christ, which actually forms part of a eucharistic tabernacle. Throughout the period considered by Humfrey, the dead Christ was commonly represented in a separate compartment, at first as a central, crowning feature of a polyptych but later on top of the main rectangular panel of the altarpiece, often as a lunette. The saints eventually emerged from their separate compartments in the polyptych and were gathered around the throne of the Virgin or around a titular saint, occupying the same physical space and often interacting with each other and with the elevated figure; but the image of the dead Christ could not be integrated in this manner.

Humfrey cautiously proposes that the presence of the infant Christ could have been regarded as an adequate means of drawing attention to the altar ‘as the locus of the redemptive sacrament’. But were this the case I cannot see why the need for these separate and more explicitly sacramental images of the dead Christ was so strongly felt. The whole subject deserves more investigation. It would be particularly interesting to know why these separate images of the dead Christ were not favoured in Tuscan altarpieces during this period (at least not as large crowning features; they are found in predellas). It may be that their place was taken by a crucifix on the altar table or hanging above the altarpiece. In any case the imagery of the altarpiece must be understood in relation to that of other items of liturgical furniture.

Compared with the changes in Venetian altarpieces between 1450 and 1530, those which occurred in the European altarpiece over the following two hundred and fifty years seem trifling. In tracing the changes during these crucial years, Humfrey enables us to do justice to the originality of the greatest Venetian artists, precisely because he gives so full an account of both the conventions they transformed or transgressed and of the purposes of the altarpiece which could never be ignored. Returning to S. Giovanni Crisostomo and Bellini’s altarpiece after reading Humfrey’s book, one has a stronger sense of the probable priorities of his original patrons. Bellini had to represent the three saints as clearly and distinctly as they would have been portrayed had they occupied the separate compartments of a polyptych. That he placed Saint Jerome in the centre and higher than the others is unsurprising: he is the principal saint commemorated, the titular of the chapel. But because Bellini wished to emphasise the solitude of this hermit scholar, and to depict him within the landscape with his aged head against the evening sky, he is set back in space and is smaller than the others. This may not seem like a very daring step, but it is hard to find another altarpiece in which the principal saint is also the smallest. This book, which ingeniously combines the thoroughness of a reference book with the liveliness of an introductory survey, supplies tables and indexes which enable us to compare this altarpiece with others featuring three saints and to find other representations of Saint Jerome. It is a major contribution to our understanding of Renaissance art, not only because of the admirable analysis and narrative which it contains but also because of the whole way of thinking in which it trains us and the mass of information which is compressed within it.

Humfrey is one of the eight contributors to Italian Altarpieces 1250-1550, the ‘result’ (meaning ‘by-product’ or ‘offspring’?) of an international symposium held at Villa I Tatti in Florence. Some contributors have taken quite small subjects from the archives, notably Max Seidel, who explains how the altarpiece commissioned from Matteo di Giovanni in November 1478 for San Domenico, Siena, by the confraternity of German artisans, reflects the demand of these patrons of relatively humble social standing for something as rich as, and bigger than, the painting in the neighbouring chapel of a patrician family, but something at the same time distinctly foreign in imagery. Other contributors review the field from a higher altitude: Patricia Rubin, for example, notes how priorities might change in the production of altarpieces in Central Italy between 1450 and 1550, although the language and practice of commissioning changed little.

These are two of the best papers. The book as a whole is little more than the sum of its parts; although it is so full of valuable information and ideas that historians of Renaissance art will be grateful for it.