by Nick Trend, The Telegraph, October 15, 2018
Venice is all about light effects: the dazzle of the midday sun on the canals, the play of watery refractions on a crumbling brick facade, the pinks of the Doge’s palace marbles deepening in the sunset stretching across the lagoon, the glinting foam in the wake of the water bus at night. Even the fog of a November morning somehow conjures an atmosphere of mystery rather than murk. But nothing I had experienced during many visits to Venice prepared me for what I was about to witness when I pushed open the door to San Zaccaria, just a few hundred yards from the maddening throngs in St Mark’s square.
I had already spent a few moments relishing the tranquility of the small sunny square in front of the of church, and as my eyes adjusted to the dim light I could make out only a handful of visitors inside. Venice churches tend to be a little gloomy. Many are hemmed in by other buildings and often the only windows in the nave are set high up in the clerestory. In San Zaccaria these windows are circular and on a bright day, they produce an extraordinary series of beams which pierce the gloom like searchlights.
I’d come to see a particular painting by the Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini which has hung on the wall of the nave for more than 500 years. Bellini was a master of serenity. His Madonnas somehow seem to hover between the real and the celestial. And, paradoxically, his quiet, contemplative altarpieces were among the most valued paintings when Venice was most dominant - an aggressive trading city at the height of its economic and social power.
The San Zaccaria altarpiece is one of Bellini’s most serene. It depicts the Virgin and child under a golden canopy and flanked by four saints while an angel plays the viol at Mary’s feet. The mood is pensive, melancholic and, still set in its original marble frame which is repeated on the canvas by the artist’s own painted pilasters, the picture feels like a window into another world. As I approached, I realised that one of the sunbeams from the clerestory was falling directly onto the painting. By an extraordinary chance it was focused with absolute precision on the face of the angel. I sat on the end of a nearby pew and stared. And as the earth slowly turned, the beam followed, scanning away from the angel’s face, across the strings of her viol and finally onto the crimson robe of St Jerome.
It was an extraordinary, transcendental moment; and also a vivid reminder what we miss when a work of art is taken out of its original context. The light in churches is not the controlled and neutral constant of a museum or art gallery. It varies constantly with the time of day, with the weather, the seasons, with the flickering dance of candlelight; and the way we experience the art varies with it. Colours intensify and shimmer, gold leaf glows, shadows lift and deepen.
That’s all very well, you might be thinking: those shadows deepen so much, that it can be hard to see such paintings at all. Churches make a good return on coin-operated slot machines which flood their prize pictures with light and then switch off with a jolt two minutes later. True, that does little to heighten our sense of the transcendental. And you could argue that if you really want to see the fine detail of what’s in a picture, you need the cool clear light of a museum. But to experience it? In the raw, in the place it was originally made for? For me, nothing has ever come close to that miraculous moment in San Zaccaria.
The 10 best Venetian churches
A major exhibition of Bellini’s work has just opened at the National Gallery in London. It’s a rare chance to get to know his paintings in a different context, to see how his work changed over time, and how he responded to other artists, especially his brother-in-law, Mantegna. But his work also marked a turning point in Venetian art and introduced a golden age of Titian and Giorgione, Tintoretto and Veronese. Many key works by these artists are still in the churches for which they were painted. They don’t travel to exhibitions, but if you go to Venice you can see them in situ, often at little or no cost and nearly always in an atmosphere far removed from the busy galleries of the Accademia.
This is a personal selection of ten Venice churches where you can find great paintings still hanging in their original locations. Opening times can be unpredictable. Those which charge tend to have more regular hours, and are generally open outside service times. Those which don’t often close for an hour or more at lunchtime. Late morning or late afternoon is probably the most reliable time to try, and also the time when the light effects are at their most subtle. Admission is (normally) free unless stated otherwise. A Chorus Pass (chorusvenezia.org) costs €12 and gives free admission to 18 churches which otherwise charge, including the Frari, San Sebastiano and Santa Maria dei Miracoli, listed below.
1. San Zaccaria
As well as the Bellini already mentioned, there is also an early Tintoretto - The Birth of John the Baptist - a Madonna and Saints attributed to Palma Vecchio, and Tiepolo’s much later Flight into Egypt.
2. The Frari
One of the biggest churches in Venice churches - the main altar of the Frari is dominated by Titian’s great Assumption, and there is a second seminal painting by him over the Pesaro altar in the nave. But hidden away in the quiet of the Sacristry is one of Bellini’s greatest and most serene triptychs - a Madonna and Child of almost sculptural quality flanked, as in San Zaccaria, by four saints. The elaborate gilded frame may have been designed by the artist himself. Admission €3.
3. Madonna dell’Orto
The lovely redbrick marble-trimmed gothic facade gives onto a small square on the outer edges of the district of Cannaregio. It was Tintoretto’s parish church: he is buried in one of the chapels, and several of his most important works hang here, including a Last Judgment and a Golden Calf which hang in the choir. In the first chapel on the left, there should also be a Bellini Madonna installed above the altar. But it was stolen in 1993 and has never been recovered - a sad reminder of the perils faced by art outside the high security of museums.
4. San Sebastiano
On the other side of the city, San Sebastiano is known universally as Veronese’s church - he was responsible for most of the frescos, ceiling paintings and altarpieces - a virtuoso display of visual story-telling and trompe l’oeil effects which fill the building with life and colour. Admission: €3.
5. San Giorgio Maggiore
One of Palladio’s great Venetian churches, San Giorgio stands on its own island across the lagoon from St Mark’s square. It has a fine collection of mannerist paintings including two powerful late canvases by Tintoretto - The Last Supper and The Fall of Manna - which were made for the presbytery and have hung there for well over 400 years.
6. San Francesco della Vigna
On the northern edge of Castello, this Franciscan church is also home to a Bellini altarpiece - The Madonna and Child with Four Saints and a Donor. This is not the church one that Bellini would have known - was rebuilt a few decades after his death by Jacopo Sansovino and then by Palladio (who designed the facade) - but the new church did not affect the setting of his altarpiece, which is hidden away in a chapel next to a stunning garden cloister. The church is also home to Veronese’s first Venetian commission, and to a great series of sculpted reliefs by Pietro Lombardo.
7. San Giovanni Crisostomo
San Giovanni Crisostomo is just around the corner from the Rialto bridge, right next to one of the busiest tourist routes in Venice, yet hardly any of them venture through the door. They are missing two of the city’s greatest altarpieces - one of San Giovanni Crisostomo by Sebastiano del Piombo, and a late Bellini - depicting Saints Christopher, Jerome and Louis of Toulouse - a chapel on the south side of the church. The lighting here is remarkable, almost mystical in effect as it filters across the painting and into the chapel from the side windows.
8. Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo
Also known as Zanipolo and the great rival to the Frari, this spectacular Gothic church lost several masterpieces in a fire in the 19th century, but it still has works by Veronese, Vivarini, Lorenzo Lotto and polyptych by Bellini depicting S Vincenzo Ferrer which is still in its original frame. Admission €2.50.
9. Basilica San Marco
Unless you attend a service, this is one church in Venice were there is no escape from the madding crowds. But even though you will probably have to shuffle through a guided route in a line of other tourists, even though the natural light is drowned out by spotlights it’s impossible not to be dazzled by the fields of gold above your head - a panorama of 8,000 square metres of glittering mosaics. Depicting Biblical stories and figures, they date from many periods, but the most ancient are approaching 1,000 years old.
10. Santa Maria dei Miracoli
This church is unique in Venice because it was specifically built to house a particular painting - Nicolò di Pietro’s Madonna of 1409 - which, it is said, miraculously started to weep in about 1480. The Lombardi brothers were commissioned to build this exquisite jewel box of a church, faced inside and out with decorative marble panelling, to house it. Today it completely outshines the painting it was made for. Admission: €3.
Bellini in London
Mantegna and Bellini continues at the National Gallery (nationalgallery.org.uk) until January 27, 2019. Admission from £12 (if booked online).