Colnaghi Foundation Journal 03 - Page 115

For Jennifer Fletcher
Reflections on the date and impact of Giovanni
Bellini’s Saint Vincent Ferrer Polyptych
The Saint Vincent Ferrer Polyptych, which still hangs in
its original location in the church of San Zanipolo
(the contraction of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in
Venetian dialect), is rightly considered one of the
greatest masterpieces of the Venetian Renaissance
(figs. 1 & 2). However, its attribution to Giovanni
Bellini is still questioned in some quarters, and a
precise dating has yet to be established.1 Taking into
consideration a previously unnoticed early reference
to Bellini’s authorship of the altarpiece, this essay will
offer a reassessment of the work’s chronology through
an analysis of the documentary evidence and the
visual impact of the work on contemporary artists in
Venice. The earlier dating of the Saint Vincent Ferrer
Polyptych accepted here necessitates a reconsideration
of the Bellini’s early career and a relative shift in the
current prevailing view of his artistic evolution.
Fig. 1 / Giovanni Bellini,
Saint Vincent Ferrer
Polyptych, ca. 1464,
panel, Venice, Santi
Giovanni e Paolo.
The great altarpiece stands in its original location
in the second altar on the right, enclosed in a
monumental stone frame which was executed in
1523. An additional wooden frame, dominated by a
Rococo shield, was added when the uppermost panel,
depicting God the Father, was removed in 1777.2
The remaining top register is composed of three
nearly squared panels: on the left is the spectacularly
beautiful Angel of the Annunciation (fig. 3), in the middle
the Dead Christ Supported by Angels, and on the right
the Virgin Annunciate, with the figures in Annunciation
slightly larger in scale than the others. In the central
register are three full length figures of saints in
vertical panels: Saint Christopher, Saint Vincent Ferrer,
and Saint Sebastian, whose naked body is illuminated
from the right by a strong wintry light. The predella
(which appears to consist of three distinct panels, but
is actually painted on a single long wooden support)
includes the miracles of Saint Vincent Ferrer.3 These
scenes neatly harmonize with the figures of saints in
the panels above: on the left, below Saint Christopher
– whose feet are immersed in water – there is an
aquatic scene; at the centre, directly below Saint
Vincent Ferrer, the saint is shown preaching; on
the right below Saint Sebastian, the miracle of the
Dominican saint freeing a youth who had been tied
to a tree alludes to the fate of the saint depicted above
(figs. 4-6). The superb quality of these predella scenes
as well as their close dialogue with the principal
panels leads the present author to accept them as fully
As is well known, the earliest description of the
altarpiece in print appears in Francesco Sansovino’s
1581 Venetia citta nobilissima, where the author writes
that Giovanni Bellini painted two altarpieces in
San Zanipolo: the palla di San Tomaso (the Saint
Thomas Altarpiece), famously lost in 1867 when fire
broke out in the Cappella del Rosario where it was
temporarily stored; and “the other one, showing
Saint Vincent, Saint Roch and Saint Sebastian,”
with Sansovino evidently mistaking Saint
Christopher for Saint Roch. 5 Subsequent writers,
including Ridolfi, Boschini, Zanetti, Cavalcaselle,
and Berenson, attributed the Saint Vincent Ferrer
Polyptych to other artists. After Sansovino only
Roberto Longhi, in 1914, attributed it to Bellini in a
ground-breaking essay.6


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