By Dennis Raverty
Giovanni Bellini’s “Saint Francis in Ecstasy,” in the collection of the Frick Museum in New York, embodies both the Franciscan sense of poverty and its attitude towards nature, not only in the style and subject matter but also in its pristine, jewel-like oil glazing techniques.
It was painted at some time in the last few decades of the 15th century and so stands at a pivotal historical point, near the end of the early Renaissance, and just on the threshold of the High Renaissance in Italy. It represents the 13th century saint alone at the mouth of his cave retreat. Having just stepped outside, he witnesses the early dawn as if it were an unexpected miracle.
In the background, we see the charming hilltop town of Assisi in central Italy from which he came. Much has been written about both the style and the iconography of this magnificent painting, but I want to discuss it here principally in terms of its technique and how the oil glazing method Bellini used embodies Franciscan ideology and values.
Although oil paint is now a revered traditional technique (having been practiced for centuries), at the time Bellini worked, oil paint methods were the new, cutting-edge technology originating far away in the Netherlands. Only a few Italians at that time had even experimented with the new medium, which mixed pulverized colored pigments in a base of linseed oil and varnish that binds the powdered color together and adheres it to the work’s surface.
The standard media for early Renaissance panel painting in Italy was tempera. In tempera, the binder is egg yolk instead of oil, and it dries very quickly, so it demands a rapid, dry-brush technique of application. But oil paint dries much more slowly, and certain additives can speed up or slow down drying so the artist has more control over the timing of the painting’s execution and can lavish more attention on details and nuances of color.
During the Renaissance, however, oil paint was not applied freely to the canvas or panel as it is today, but was glazed in thin transparent layers of paint laid down one over the other, allowing some of the underpainting to be visible through all the other layers, giving it that luminous, jewel-like effect.
Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting, “Saint Jerome,” in the collection of the Vatican Museums, offers a rare glimpse into the oil painting techniques used by Italian artists in the first stages of a work. Initially, Leonardo covered the entire panel with a warm yellow ochre ground, after which he established the broad darks and lights of the composition with earth browns.
Next Leonardo would presumably have glazed in the local colors for the skin, the sky, the lion’s fur, the rocks, and so forth, but allowing some of the ochre underpainting to remain visible, shining through the various transparent glazes, giving greater overall coloristic unity to the finished painting.
In Bellini’s “Francis in Ecstasy,” there is a coloristic dialogue between the warm amber foundation (more intensely orange-yellow than in the Leonardo) and the cool grey-blue and brown glazes he layers over this underpainting in articulating the main masses and elements of the landscape.
But because blue typically seems to recede while yellow appears to push forward, the amber underpainting almost gives the effect of the light coming from behind the picture, softly illumining the entire landscape in all its minute, lucid, naturalistic detail, so lovingly labored over, and echoing the gentle light of the emergent dawn.
The attentiveness Bellini shows to every detail is typical of Netherlandish art, but is somewhat rare in Italian art, where the landscape setting is often minimal — just enough of a background to situate the figures in a believable space.
The landscape here, however is rendered in all its marvelous, minute, rich, naturalistic detail. This truth to nature, with each leaf and blade of grass so lovingly and realistically rendered with all its imperfections, embodies the Franciscan reverence for nature and a respect for creation that Bellini shares with the saint.
In yet another respect Bellini parts with tradition in this painting. It was customary during the Italian Renaissance to idealize forms as a way of indicating the presence of divine grace. Images of Christ, his mother and the saints would all resemble the idealized gods of the ancient Greco-Roman world, like Apollo and Aphrodite (Botticelli’s contemporaneous painting comes to mind).
But Saint Francis in Bellini’s picture is a homely man of small stature, with a crooked nose and a balding pate, hardly the Adonis we might reasonably expect from an Italian master. But this lack of idealization is also in keeping with Franciscan humility, the modest saint as he is represented here is remarkably un-beautiful — not dominating the landscape, but living harmoniously within nature’s bounty as brother and fellow creature.
In Bellini’s hands, not only the diminutive, homely saint, but also the animals, birds, plants and even the sun itself seem almost to be incarnations of the divine, and the “poor,” commonplace materials used in the making of the picture — wood, oil, pigments, varnish — are themselves transformed and transfigured by the artist sacramentally, so that the painting itself is a sort of “incarnational” witness revealing the Christ potential in all living things. As the saint himself puts it in his famous Canticle of Brother Sun:
By mother earth my Lord be praised,
governed by Thee, she hath upraised
what for Man’s life is needful.
Sustained by thee through every hour,
She bringeth forth herb, fruit and flower.
Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.