… The new delights of the painter’s art, then opening its windows onto the beautiful, measurable earth, did not seduce Giovanni Bellini from his Christian piety — and here is a specific feature of the greatest importance. For did I say that the champions of Florentine perspective were the most vital factor in artistic invention at the time of Bellini’s maturity? We should grant them more than that and understand that their adherence to the visible as such, without presupposition of an elsewhere of beauty or of meaning, implies — in spite of very obvious limitations — the very first release of the specific powers of painting. It is thus not so much the apex of inventiveness in art as the actual invention of art as something essentially different; it is the resolute identification of art as a spiritual value by modern thought. And so Bellini, even though he may have studied Mantegna’s works one after the other, must have deliberately chosen to stand outside art, and his work, as a result, would lose much of its substance when interpreted according to the artistic values of the Renaissance alone.
On the other hand, we may certainly associate him fruitfully with another painter who, equally aware of the technique and aims of the new experimental school, had already countered their metaphysical “silence” with that secret store of the ineffable to which a believer has access. Two generations earlier, in Florence, the problem of renewing religious art by means of perspective had arisen explicitly. The intention of Fra Angelico (of whom we are reminded by certain of Bellini’s works, even such a late work as the Death of St. Peter Martyr, which, it is true, was completed by assistants) had been to adopt the new way of looking at things, but to imbue this vision of the world with a content other than formal harmonies, essences, and the quest for the Intelligible and to seek the sign of God in what, after all — as the Dominicans, suddenly echoing St. Francis, recalled — is the Creation willed by Him. In practice, it was, for Fra Angelico, a question of using spatial form to display exemplars and symbols, which were assumed to establish meaning and explain the existence of things. Representation controlled by theology and dogma became the tactical process by which preaching through images could be revived — the true good remaining unseen within the purity of the heart, which alone could read the book of symbols. A comparison between these two painters at any rate reveals an enduring concern, a powerful need, and tells us that these tensions were conscious and understood …
… But we shall gain nothing by stressing the parallel between Bellini and Fra Angelico unless we also define what separates them. And returning to the aims of the Florentine friar [Fra Angelica], we must note a contradiction which eventually, in my opinion, led him into an impasse. To modify appearances in the interest of the invisible, by rediscovering symbols in nature or potential goodness in a human face, by means of spiritual preparation, and then revealing these through the painter’s art, entails doing violence to the tangibility of presence in its density, its ambiguity, its contradictions, and may suggest to the ill-instructed spectator a stage set rather than an ecstatic vision. Has this sense of the holiness of the real world been actually experienced and verified, or merely described? Is this painter beatus, “blessed,” as the Order subsequently decreed, or a clever propagandist in the Dominican tradition? Is he manifesting humility, or an ultrasubtle form of pride? Is he a craftsman, or is he just displaying a new aspect of the endless ambiguity of art? Even in the silent cloisters of San Marco, where from cell to cell his final work unfolds, this doubt is not allayed, and one comes to wonder whether it is possible for a truly Christian painter to express himself through “naturalistic” images without profound disquiet.
We don’t ask such questions in front of Bellini’s great altarpieces, even his moving Pietàs, and this is quite obviously because he makes no attempt to attain transcendence through emphatic symbolism or the suggestion of some supernatural presence in the signs of grief. He is a Christian by definition and indeed by conviction, but he only asks of nature (to which he allots a secondary place) that it reveal itself through the characteristics that properly belong to it. And he gives powerful expression to tenderness and suffering, especially as they appear in ordinary lives and come to represent the reality of human existence.
And this is a further aspect of Bellini’s simple and straightforward assertion and the element of moderation and true humility characteristic of his attempt — too discreet perhaps, or too tardy, but continually dialectical — to resolve his age’s problem with the relation between faith and the painted image. In a word, it means rejecting the expressionism and rigid symbolism of edifying art as illusion or hypocrisy, but meanwhile stressing the Christian basis of his experience through the refusal, as I have pointed out, to integrate the foreground figures, which represent Grace, with the landscape — which is only matter, although of divine origin — in that spatial unity which for the Florentine perspectivists implied an anthropomorphical view of the world. Aware of the snares, both moral and intellectual, threatening the sacred image, he chooses simply to point out the relative duality of the divine Creation, from the first states of his picture, and then allows his unspoilt, trustful sensibility free play on each level. And how immediately effective is this unpretentious decision!
[line break added to make this easier to read online] To separate the protagonists of the drama of the Passion from the earthly things that surround them means reducing the carnal element in the human figure without thereby simplifying it, and reserving for the commemoration of the life of Christ or the Saints that irresistible majesty which art had now learnt to convey in the human body, in faces and gestures. But to renounce symbolic interpretation, out of genuine modesty, also means restoring to the earth that density of being which is its truest mystery, and allowing oneself to love it truly without holding anything back. Freed, I repeat, by perspective from having to enumerate the thousand flowers in the Madonna’s meadow, but feeling himself thereby better enabled to respond to the created world with all its varied colors and shapes and the play of light and shadow, Bellini can reacquire, in this endless questioning which is as old as the modern landscape, the patience and purity of heart [that] humanists were in danger of losing; by practising these virtues he can create a new outlook on the world; and this surely fulfills far other needs than those of religious art.
… Apart from Piero della Francesca, who knew always how to solve everything, let us just consider the case of Mantegna, who is present in Bellini’s mind. We know that these two painters studied each other’s work; their experiences were sometimes similar. Thus between Bellini’s altarpiece at Pesaro, and Mantegna’s fine Death of the Virgin there is a deeply significant connection: in each, a landscape is inserted, as through an opening, in a setting of human figures, like an image within an image. But what is striking in Mantegna’s picture is that he has sought, as in so many of his works, to integrate completely the figures with the natural horizon. The heads and feet of the saints standing to the right and left are in line with the paving stones within the force field of the vanishing point, which is nearly visible in the center of the distant shore seen through the open window. But so much effort only leads to a tension that disturbs the whole scene. For this external nature, with its mass of water stretching out under the sky, seeming to carry with it the long causeway that runs across it, breaks the perspective pattern with its powerful horizontal line, displaces it, then starts afresh with the parallel line of the Virgin’s body, superimposing on the centered construction a double frontal scene — here the Virgin, yonder in the light the maternal water — which revives the hierarchical and timeless spirit of the mystery plays. Owing to some half-repressed unease at feeling summoned by a personal God, Mantegna has reverted to an underlying “Bellinian” solution to the problem of art and piety. But he does so exhausted by the struggle, seeking with utmost intensity everything within the world of intelligible Forms.
Andrea Mantegna, Death of the Virgin
Whereas in Bellini’s Pesaro altarpiece it is clear that integration was explicitly rejected from the start. The six figures — seven with the dove of the Holy Spirit — make up a foreground so autonomous and so massive that it completely conceals the natural background, which is barely suggested by the hint of a pale hillside behind (perhaps intentionally) St. Francis on the far right. But no sooner do we become aware of the priority given to the spiritual over the material world than earth is “restored” to us by means of the remarkable, indeed providential, inset provided by the painter within the construction of the throne: this landscape is robust, full and luminous, expressing all the potential order and richness of nature. Earth is shown here adorned, by the labor of her sons, with a diadem of towers and campaniles obviously corresponding to the jeweled and golden crown that Jesus, seated beneath it, is placing on his mother’s head. Thus crowned, the earth seems like an officiating priestess, laying both hands on the bowed heads of the two divine figures who have redeemed her children. Having consigned Nature to a subordinate position in the Creator’s plan, Bellini can freely call upon it to bear witness, in the place of honor, at such a moment of harmonious unity.
Giovanni Bellini, Pesaro Altarpiece (Coronation of the Virgin)
… The fact remains that this sort of affectionate, informed relativization was hard to understand, at any rate by those who were fascinated, well-nigh intoxicated, by the infinite possibilities of a new poetics [of perspective]. For all his greatness, Bellini was left to his overly dialectical pursuits by that generation which, from Giorgione to Titian, applied itself to uprooting, by dint of sensual representation, the “remorse” we noted even in Mantegna. More than ever before, these turn-of-the-century Venetians were urgently concerned with the question long since formulated in Florence: the integration of human existence with nature by means of space; and they were to carry this quest to a degree of intensity which was in itself an alternative to extreme religious fervor, since now, in the crucible of their stormy skies, their glowing flesh, and their velvet robes, it is not simply harmony or symmetry of form, not simply intelligence, but eros that will seek to transform human reality.