Giovanni Bellini through the lens of Struth

I made the discovery of Giovanni Bellini’s famous San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505) through another artwork – Thomas Struth’s photograph of the altarpiece – San Zaccaria, Venice (1995) – on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a sign of the times that Struth’s artistic cross-referencing of Bellini has resulted in a renewed interest in the old master and in photography itself which is now a postmodern art form par excellence, having taken the place of painting.

Struth’s photograph presents a random scene from the Venetian church of San Zaccaria with worshippers sitting in the pews and tourists admiring the church interior. In its centre is Giovanni Bellini’s translucent San Zaccaria Altarpiece, also known as Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints, which clearly dominates the space.

The work is set in a large niche, depicting a sacra conversazione (holy conversation) within a well established scheme: the Virgin and Child enthroned, a musician angel on a step and four saints placed symmetrically at the sides. They are: St. Peter the Apostle, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Lucy and St. Jerome.

With variations in the attendant saints, this is a fairly common genre of Venetian and indeed Italian art of the Quattrocento and the Cinquecento. In this case, the Virgin and Child radiate palpable tranquility way beyond the apse in which they are ensconced.

Bellini’s mastery of perspective and the Venetian technique of colorito, the two-dimensional canvass is transformed into a three-dimensional optical illusion. Struth’s photograph, in turn, amplifies this effect by incorporating into the picture all of the modern-day worshippers and tourists who become part of the same meditative moment.

The two artworks thus coexist side by side. Whereas Bellini’s perspective is testimony to his genius as a Renaissance painter, Struth’s added perspective is an innate feature of modern photography. The luminous Venetian light is captured by simultaneously by Bellini’s application of colorito and Struth’s supreme photographic skill.

In the final analysis, Struth’s photographic reference to the great altarpiece underscores Bellini’s timeless relevance: 590 years after its creation, people are still coming to pray beside the altarpiece and admire it and Struth finds this important enough to immortalise the scene in another art form. After all, seeing Bellini’s masterpiece through another artwork for the very first time got me drawn to it – and who knows how many thousands more.