Venice: Art and Religion
There is one corner of the Accademia with two walls of painting by Giovanni Bellini, 1430 to 1516, master of the Venetian school. Entirely religious in content, adagio variations on Madonna, Bambino and Saints. Technically admirable, milestones in artistic history, abundant in color but lacking in other measures of the imagination. Where is subject matter other than the religious? Especially the quotidian life around Bellini in 15th century Venice. An interesting enough place surely. It is on another wall that we have our imaginations stretched. It features Giorgione’s two paintings: The Tempest and An Old Woman, paintings that embody the mystery of this life, not an imagined one in a different dimension.
On the other hand, stand in St Marks (when the space is illuminated – that is, between 11.30am and 12.30) – and look up at the unifying gold of the cupolas, decorated with insistent religious messages in mosaic. And your thought is likely to be that centuries of sincerely-held faith were required to produce such a wonder. What a celebration of Byzantine spirituality. Gold, as the color of God. A treasure house of art. Art in profusion. It is an interpretation reinforced by days of visiting churches and scuole in this city, a city which away from the concentrated glory of the famous square is still a working, functioning town, not just a bubble of a tourist economy.
The small San Sebastiano is fleshed out in Veronese, in the nave and the sacristy. A Renaissance church dedicated to the dual worship of the saint and the Virgin. Elegant painting, an intellectual exercise in linking messages of Hebrew scriptures and Mary’s message of salvation, and there is no doubting the piety of the artist. Or of the dynamic and modern vision of Tintoretto in the Scuola Grande Di San Rocco or on the walls of the churches he decorated. In the Accademia there are walls of his huge canvasses and two show St Mark descending from Heaven to sort things out on earth. I am reminded of the Gods of the Iliad with their differing capabilities and passions and think again that surely one reason that Catholic Christianity survived so well was that it could offer such a fully-fledged pantheon: not just a God but a supporting caste, each of whom can work miracles and to whom churches can be dedicated. The Carpaccios make this point. In the Scuola Di San Giorgio they tell of the miraculous deeds of St George, St Tryphon and St Jerome, associated with the Dalmatian community that resided here in the 15th century.
Approached through narrow alleyways we located Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a perfectly formed box-like gem of Renaissance architecture that we’d never seen before or heard of. This petite church was built to house a Byzantine Madonna and child that in the late 14th century was believed to produce miracles. Superstition, but it engendered this masterpiece. Religion produced this astonishing art. Only – my point with the Giorgiones – it can become so narrowly repetitive we end up veering towards something secular for relief. I found it in some Lorenzo Lotto’s in the museum, two on loan from The Hermitage,portraits that yield uncanny insight into personalities dead for centuries.
Practical advice. Now is the time to see Venice without the press of tourist numbers. I mean, to wander the Ducal Palace with only a few others around makes the point, and I’m told that happens no other time of year. A church to yourself and only one or two others is pretty special. But don’t contemplate a holiday here without embarking on this exploration of art and religion.