Andrew Carwood, music director of St Paul's Cathedral, chooses a magnificent altarpiece.
Andrew Carwood on Madonna with Child and Saints by Giovanni Bellini
‘This Bellini masterpiece has always captivated me. It’s a mixture of things: the perfect positioning of the Madonna and Child in the elegant apse; the vibrancy of the blue of the Virgin’s clothes; the fact that, if you gaze for long enough, the image seems three-dimensional. But two other things fascinate me. ‘
‘The position of the Virgin’s hands, supporting her young son so that he can be brave enough to stand up. A loving and deeply human gesture. And the fact that both Virgin and Child are gazing at something stage right. They look intently and with concentration and that gives me permission to stare at them.’
Andrew Carwood is the director of music at St Paul’s Cathedral and will lead music at the Clergy Support Trust Festival on May 24
Charlotte Mullins comments on Madonna with Child and Saints
The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari stands in the San Polo district of Venice. Its long nave leads to Titian’s soaring altarpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin (1516–18). To find Giovanni Bellini’s painting, you must enter the far smaller Sacristy, tucked away to the right of the high altar. It is here that Bellini’s Frari Triptych glows, backlit by three slender windows. It was commissioned by the Pesaro family and completed in 1488. The Virgin and Child and two musical cherubs are flanked by (from left) St Nicholas, St Peter, St Mark, patron saint of the lagoon city, and St Benedict.
In the 1480s, Giovanni worked with his brother Gentile, running their late father Jacopo’s thriving workshop. Giovanni was well known for his tranquil Madonnas. In the Frari Triptych, a young Mary sits on a raised dais as if in a sculptural niche. She holds Christ upright, her legs wide apart for stability, as he raises his right hand in blessing. Mary has a young face and looks down wistfully, but her lavish mantle of ultramarine and gold indicates her divine role. Bellini painted Corinthian pilasters behind the saints and Mary; the pilasters support the gold dome that doubles as her halo.
The altarpiece’s ornate gold frame, carved by Jacopo da Faenza, but designed by Bellini himself, replicates these pilasters so that it becomes very difficult to see where the painting begins and ends: this triptych is a masterpiece of trompe l’oeil. As we look at Mary, we can’t help but feel as if we are in her presence, in her world.
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