Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert

A treasure of the Frick Collection is Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis. It measures roughly four feet square and depicts the saint alone in a rocky landscape. The work was long thought to represent Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, but recent cleaning and technical examinations have refocused scholarly attention on the painting, with the result that it has been given the more neutral title, Saint Francis in the Desert. Bellini (1430–1516), a master of the early Venetian Renaissance, was a learned and accomplished painter with close ties to the Franciscans in Venice and its surroundings.

Bellini was also technically proficient. In this painting he uses a mix of hard-edged, linear tempera for clarity and an overlay of oil glazing, recently invented by the Flemish painters, which infuses the painting with a golden atmospheric glow. Along with the oil technique, Bellini also adopted the Flemish painters’ meticulous rendering of natural objects—plants, animals, household goods—with an underlying resonance of implied symbolism. The picture is teeming with details, none of them accidental. How are we to make coherent sense of them all and read the painting as the artist intended?

Gazing into the Light

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.


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